Tag Archives: Bob Merrill

“TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES: SONGS BY JOE BUSHKIN,” BOB MERRILL and FRIENDS

It’s always a generous idea, karmically, to honor the Ancestors.  If you’re trumpeter, singer, and composer Bob Merrill it’s not only easy but gratifying, because the Ancestor in question is his late father-in-law Joe Bushkin, pianist, trumpeter, singer, and composer.

The formulaic way to pay tribute to Joe would have been to assemble a band and have them play transcriptions of his famous recordings — from Berigan, Condon, Spanier, to his own performances.  But that approach might have run into obstacles early.  Joe was a singular pianist, whether he was musing his way through RELAXIN’ AT THE TOURO or dazzling us on HALLELUJAH!  And fifteen minutes with YouTube shows Joe at his best as player and singer.

But Joe’s talents as a writer of songs have been overshadowed by his brilliance at the keyboard.  He was fortunate in that Sinatra and Lee Wiley recorded OH, LOOK AT ME NOW; Bing sang HOT TIME IN THE TOWN OF BERLIN; Louis gave Joe and his new bride the wedding present of recording LOVELY WEATHER WE’RE HAVING.

Bob Merrill’s new CD, “TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES,” devoted to Joe’s songs — and it’s the first volume of several planned — is rather like Joe himself: melodic, light-hearted even when the lyrical thread is slightly somber.  It’s a wonderfully varied offering, and rather than describe it first, I offer samples here (scroll down to the lower half of the page).

Not a simple presentation of songs with the same approach and instrumentation, the CD could have been called THE MANY FACES OF JOE BUSHKIN’S MUSIC, with each track a little dramatic presentation in itself.  Some of the tracks so wittily and cleverly develop the theme that they sound like display numbers for a yet-to-be produced Broadway show. Consider HOT TIME IN THE TOWN OF BERLIN, which begins as if it were an unissued 78, with Bing’s wife Kathryn singing over a hot band, then morphs into the twenty-first century embodiment of the Andrews Sisters — Kathryn, Bob, Shannon Day, and Lisa Gary, over a modern arrangement for hip vocals over a shouting band.  Nicki Parrott convincingly masquerades as a diner waitress for several minutes on BOOGIE WOOGIE BLUE PLATE.

MAN HERE PLAYS FINE PIANO has not one, but three pianists soloing and trading phrases: Rossano Sportiello, Laurence Hobgood, and John Colianni. Other pleasures here are the wildly virtuosic trombone of Wycliffe Gordon, who turns in a fine vocal — seriously evoking Hot Lips Page — on GOIN’ BACK TO STORYVILLE. Eric Comstock is responsible for a number of smooth, winning vocals: I especially admire his reading of WISE TO MYSELF, a song well worth performing in this century, and Bob himself sings splendidly (with a touch of New York wryness) as well.  In case you don’t know his trumpet playing, it’s expert and swinging: he’s never at a loss for notes, and his brass battle with Wycliffe, who could overwhelm lesser players, is truly a draw.  Bob has the best musical friends, as you will have noticed, in Nicki Parrott, Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli, Harry Allen, Steve Johns, and Adrian Cunningham.  Yes, the CD is a loving evocation of Joe’s many talents, but son-in-law Bob is operating at the same level of swinging joy.

If this sounds like an exuberant, vivid musical package — full to the rim and never monotonous — you have a good idea of what TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES offers.  And the music is framed by two wonderful anecdotes about Joe, told by his remarkable friends.  At the close of the CD, Red Buttons delivers a sweet, naughty elegy which ends with a story about Joe, Bing, and some sleeping potions delivered in an unusual way.  And the CD starts with Frank Sinatra, Joe’s long-time friend, telling a story about Joe and illicit stimulants.  That tale is worth the price of admission in itself.  And, for once, the CD itself comes in a splendid package with notes, stories, and photographs — much better than any download.  You can buy this generous offering here.

May your happiness increase!

“JOE BUSHKIN QUARTET LIVE AT THE EMBERS 1952: BUCK CLAYTON, MILT HINTON, PAPA JO JONES”

Jazz fans get very wistful when dreaming of scenes that were only captured in words: the twenty chorus solos young Lester would take; Louis on the riverboats; Lips Page singing and playing the blues at the Riviera.  But the recording machine has been the time-traveler’s best friend.  Because of a variety of electrical devices, we have been able to go uptown to hear Frank Newton and Art Tatum; we’ve heard Charlie Christian, Oscar Pettiford, and Jerry Jerome in Minneapolis; we can visit YouTube and hear Lester sing A LITTLE BIT SOUTH OF NORTH CAROLINA.

This new issue, explained boldly by its cover picture, is one of those time-travel marvels.  I was alive in 1952, but no one was taking me to the Embers to hear Joe Bushkin’s quartet with Buck Clayton, trumpet; Milt Hinton, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.  But now — somewhat older, thanks to this beautifully-produced disc on the Dot Time Records label — I can visit that club and hear exalted music any time I want.

This was a celebrated quartet, and for good reason.  Buck and Jo were a fulfilling pair from around 1936 for perhaps forty years; Milt and Jo were also one of the most gratifying teams in the music.  The three of them were at their peak in this period (although one could make a case that they were among the most consistently inventive musicians in Mainstream jazz).

I’ve left the leader for last, because he’s rarely got the attention he deserved — although he certainly appeared with the greatest musicians: Bing, Billie, Louis, Lester, Bunny, Tommy Dorsey, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Eddie Condon . . . a Bushkin discography is astonishing.  Musicians knew, admired, and valued him. But his glistening style has led some casual listeners to hear him shallowly, the vivid, mobile approach to the piano as a display of technique.  But when one hears Bushkin closely, there is a real lyricism underneath the facility, and an equally deep love for the blues: in the ancient argot, he is a real barrelhouse player, even in a pricey Upper East Side supper club.

And although Joe was not allowed to chat or to sing on this gig (a matter of arcane tax laws in cabarets) his bubbling sense of humor, his ebullience, comes through in every note.  With a different pianist, Buck, Jo, and Milt would have still made great jazz, but the result wouldn’t have been as much fun.  And “fun” wasn’t a matter of goofy quotes or scene-stealing: Joe was a perfectly sensitive accompanist.  (I saw three-quarters of this group: Jo, Milt, Joe, and Ruby Braff — create a ten-minute MOTEN SWING in 1975 — and Fifty-Fourth Street has never been the same.)

Unlike other reissues, this disc sparkles for another reason — explained beautifully in the liner notes by Bushkin’s devoted son-in-law, trumpeter Robert Merrill, here.  That reason is the most gorgeous recorded sound you’ve ever heard at a live gig: there are people in the room, but their presence is not intrusive, and each instrument is heard as beautifully as if this session was in a studio.  To learn more about the label’s Legends series, visit here.  (Dot Time has also issued recordings by Mulligan and Ella — and a magnificent Louis series is coming out.)

As I wrote above, Joe ran with the best.  I’ve posted this once before, but everyone sentient in the known world needs to hear and re-hear it:

And here’s Joe being interviewed by the genial Stuart Klein in 1985:

2017 is Joe’s centennial, so there are a variety of celebrations going on, appropriately.  Recordings of the Joe Bushkin Songbook are on the way, and there’s something to leave the house and the computer for, a Highlights in Jazz (a series in its 45th year) concert: the Joe Bushkin Centennial Concert
featuring Wycliffe Gordon, Harry Allen, Eric Comstock, Ted Rosenthal, Spike Wilner, Nicki Parrott, Steve Johns and John Colliani, under the musical direction of Bob Merrill — and a surprise Guest as well.  It will take place at 8 PM, on Thursday, May 4, at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at Borough of Manhattan Community College, 199 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007.

One can purchase tickets by calling the box office [212-220-1460] or visiting www.tribecapac.org.  Those who find the Post Office more consoling can mail a check made payable to highlights in Jazz for $50 per ticket (still a bargain, for those who have been to a club recently) to Highlights In Jazz, 7 Peter Cooper Road, Apt. 11E New York NY 10010.  (Please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope).

A concert celebrating Joe Bushkin will be fun.  And the CD is a thorough pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

STILL SPARKLING: JOE BUSHKIN AT 100

joe-bushkin-on-piano

I suspect that everyone who reads JAZZ LIVES has heard the magical sounds of Joe Bushkin‘s piano, songs, voice, and trumpet.  My birthday celebration for him is a bit early — he was born on November 7, 1916, but I didn’t want to miss the occasion.  (There will also be birthday cake in this post — at least a photograph of one.)

He moved on in late 2004, but as the evidence proves, it was merely a transformation, not an exit.

I marvel not only at the spare, poignant introduction but Bushkin’s sensitive support and countermelodies throughout.

“Oh, he was a Dixieland player?” Then there’s this:

and this, Joe’s great melody:

A list of the people who called Joe a friend and colleague would include Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon, Lee Wiley, Joe Marsala, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett,Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Bunny Berigan, Fats Waller, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Zoot Sims, Bill Harris, Buddy Rich, Hot Lips Page, Sidney Catlett, Judy Garland, Jimmy Rushing, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Spargo, Red McKenzie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Tough, Brad Gowans, Benny Goodman, Joe Rushton, Roy Eldridge, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Ruth Brown, June Christy, Barney Kessel, Pearl Bailey, Gene Krupa, Stuff Smith, Chuck Wayne, Jake Hanna . . .

Here’s a sweet swinging tribute to Irving Berlin in 1951 that segues into Joe’s own homage to Miss Bankhead, PORTRAIT OF TALLULAH:

He’s on Billie’s SUMMERTIME and Bunny’s first I CAN’T GET STARTED; he’s glistening in the big bands of Bunny, Tommy, and Benny.  He records with Frank Newton in 1936 and plays with Kenny Davern, Phil Flanigan, Howard Alden, and Jake Hanna here, sixty-one years later:

But I’m not speaking about Joe simply because of longevity and versatility.  He had an individual voice — full of energy and wit — and he made everyone else sound better.

A short, perhaps dark interlude.  Watching and listening to these performances, a reader might ask, “Why don’t we hear more about this wonderful pianist who is so alive?”  It’s a splendid question.  In the Thirties, when Joe achieved his first fame, it was as a sideman on Fifty-Second Street and as a big band pianist.

Parallel to Joe, for instance, is Jess Stacy — another irreplaceable talent who is not well celebrated today.  The erudite Swing fans knew Bushkin, and record producers — think of John Hammond and Milt Gabler — wanted him on as many record dates as he could make.  He was a professional who knew how the music should sound and offered it without melodrama.  But I suspect his professionalism made him less dramatic to the people who chronicle jazz.  He kept active; his life wasn’t tragic or brief; from all I can tell, he didn’t suffer in public.  So he never became mythic or a martyr.  Too, the jazz critics then and now tend to celebrate a few stars at a time — so Joe, brilliant and versatile, was standing behind Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, then and now.  He was also entertaining — someone who could act, who could do a television skit with Bing and Fred, someone who could fill a club by making music, even for people who wouldn’t have bought a Commodore 78.  Popularity is suspect to some people who write about art.

But if you do as I did, some months back, and play a Bushkin record for a jazz musician who hasn’t heard him before, you might get the following reactions or their cousins: “WHO is that?  He can cover the keyboard.  And he swings.  His time is beautiful, and you wouldn’t mistake him for anyone else.”

One of the memorable moments of my twentieth century is the ten-minute YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY /  MOTEN SWING that Joe, Ruby Braff, Milt Hinton, Wayne Wright, and Jo Jones improvised — about four feet in front of me — at the last Eddie Condon’s in 1976.  “Memorable” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Consider this: Joe and his marvelous quartet (Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton or Sid Weiss, and Jo Jones) that held down a long-running gig at the Embers in 1951-2:

Something pretty and ruminative — Joe’s version of BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL:

And for me, and I suspect everyone else, the piece de resistance:

For the future: Joe’s son-in-law, the trumpeter / singer / composer Bob Merrill — whom we have to thank for the wire recording (!) of SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY —  has organized what will be a stellar concert to celebrate his father-in-law’s centennial.  Mark your calendars: May 4, 2017.  Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Ted Rosenthal, John Colianni, Eric Comstock, Spike Wilner, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Steve Johns, drums; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Adrian Cunningham, clarinet; Bob Merrill, trumpet; Warren Vache, cornet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; and of course a surprise guest.

Here’s the promised photograph of a birthday cake.  Perculate on THIS:

louis-birthday-cake

Thank you, Joseephus.  We haven’t forgotten you.

May your happiness increase!

MERRILL CHEERS MASSACHUSETTS (February 18, 2016)

The engaging trumpeter, singer, and composer Bob Merrill has a Boston gig I think you would like.

Bob Merrill CUTU

It’s at the Regattabar on February 18, 2016 — beginning at 7:30 PM: details here (order tickets, etc.) as well as a nice writeup of Bob and the band if they are not familiar to you.  It’s a CD release show for CHEERIN’ UP THE UNIVERSE, and the band is a fine one: Bob, trumpet / vocals; Russ Gershon, reeds / flute; Freddy Bryant, guitar; Laurence Hobgood, piano; John Lockwood, string bass; George Schuller, drums; Vicente Lebron, percussion.

Here’s a charming audio-visual sample:

and Bob’s YouTube channel is here.

When Bob’s CD came out, I enjoyed it and wrote this.  So if you are in the Boston area or plan to be, consider joining Bob for an evening of his particular light-heartedness.

May your happiness increase! 

BOB MERRILL’S CHEERFUL MISSION

Bob Merrill CUTU

If anyone can improve the cosmic disposition, trumpeter / singer / composer Bob Merrill has a good shot at it.  He has the right attitude for sure.  On his new CD, he’s got the happy assistance of pianists John Medeski, Matthew Fries, and John Van Eps; guitarist Drew Zingg, string bassist / vocalist Nicki Parrott, drummer George Schuller, percussionist Vicente Lebron, reedman / flautist Russ Gershon, and special guests: tenorist Harry Allen, the legendary trombonist Roswell Rudd, and singer Gabrielle Agachiko.

I’ll let Bob sing, play, and comment here —

The CD itself is a fascinating hybrid — part post-bop Blue Note jazz with its rough edges smoothed off, part cheerful high-level vintage pop that would have sold millions in its own time and will no doubt attract new listeners in 2015.  The range is deliciously broad, the results convincing — from Paul Simon’s FEELIN’ GROOVY (a sweet witty duet for Bob and Nicki) to James Taylor and Randy Newman . . . and the only jazz version of Pharell Williams’ HAPPY that I expect to have on my shelves.

Bob explains this repertoire convincingly: “Most of the songs on this album entered my consciousness during adolescence. Some made me laugh and others made me cry.  All filled me with joy, and perhaps not coincidentally, they all achieved a great measure of popularity as bona fide hits on their respective charts.  Interpreting them in a personal way from a jazz perspective had been a labor of love.”

There are some delicious surprises here — triumphs of imagination.  I won’t spoil all the surprises, but my current favorite is a sharp-edged version of Randy Newman’s POLITICAL SCIENCE (LET’S DROP THE BIG ONE) that features Roswell Rudd, mock antique honky-tonk piano flourishes from Medeski, as Bob croons the dire lyrics over a twenty-first century “Dixieland” frolic.  It made me think, “What if Tom Lehrer had had the chance to record with George Wein’s Storyville band, say, Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, and Pee Wee Russell?” Now, there’s an auditory miracle we can only imagine — thank you, Bob!

Bob is no popularizer, no jokester offering a buffet table of vintage pops played jazzily: even at its most light-hearted, this is a project based on heartfelt conviction: “We hope our music will offer cheer to you and any other beings in the universe capable of entering these sounds into their auditory senses.”

Even if the reach of this CD is narrower, and it cheers up only terrestrial listeners, it’s still a worthy enterprise.  Reach for this CD in the morning instead of your smartphone, perhaps.

Here (that’s Bob’s website) you can hear sound samples, check out Bob’s other CDs, and — cosmically — purchase this one.

You can follow Bob and learn more about his music here and here.

FRANKIE-BOY, WHEN YOUNG (JOEY AND BUDDY, TOO)

“Frankie-Boy” is what Lester Young called Frank Sinatra — when, in the last years of his life, Lester would sit in his room, playing Sinatra records endlessly. But this post is not about Lester (even though yesterday was his birthday).  No, it is about Frankie-Boy.

What follows is a generous offering from Bob Merrill, trumpeter and singer — who also happens to have had Joe Bushkin as a father-in-law . . . thus stories as part of the family lineage.

And this photograph, never before seen.

Frank Sinatra

And here’s the story.  Stories, actually, from Bob:

I found a bunch of snapshots in Joe Bushkin’s closet, this among them.  Joe casually informed me that they were photographed by Buddy Rich, and somehow Joe wound up with them.  He never got around to returning them, no surprise there.

It seems a bunch of guys from the Dorsey band were taking the boat to a gig at the Catalina Island Casino Ballroom for a gig.  Some had new-fangled cameras, as Frank is seen with one here.  Akin to a “selfie,” except it was a “Buddy.”

It reminds me of a great story Joey used to tell regarding Frank’s annoyance that Buddy was playing too loud behind his vocals.  This was at a time when the bobby-soxers were going wild to the point that Dorsey started skipping the first-chorus trombone statement of the melody before Frank’s vocal, electing to begin with Sinatra, to the delight of the fans.

One night, Frank was so incensed by Buddy’s loudness, he confronted him backstage after the show.  Suddenly, switchblades were drawn, and Joe and other band members intervened to break up the scuffle.  Tommy Dorsey ran in and yelled to his drummer and vocalist, “If anything happens to those uniforms, I’m going to dock your pay!”  Priceless, if you ask me.

Thank you, Bob!  (Bob has a new CD coming out . . . and you’ll hear more about that here, soon.)

For the moment, a little Frankie-Boy from the Dorsey period:

May your happiness increase!