Tag Archives: Bob Mielke

THE WARM SOUNDS OF BILL NAPIER (1926-2003)

Clarinetist Bill Napier might be one of the finest musicians that few people outside of California have ever heard, or heard of.  Marc Caparone says, “I only played music with him twice, but he was a god, a very quiet man who didn’t get much publicity but was always superb.”  Leon Oakley remembers him as a “warm, creative player.”  Hal Smith told me that Bill cared about the music more than “traditional” ways of playing a chorus.

Almost all of the recordings Bill made, and the live performances captured outside of the studio have him in the middle of six or seven-piece units.  What I now can share with you here is intimate, touching music, with Bill the solo horn in a congenial trio.

The personnel of these live recordings is Napier, clarinet; Larry Scala, banjo; Robbie Schlosser, string bass.  They were recorded on August 8, 1994, outdoors at Stanford University, by Dr. Arthur Schawlow, who won the Nobel Prize (with others) for his work on the laser beam.  Dr. Schawlow not only liked jazz, but was an early adopter of high-tech: Larry says that he recorded these performances on a digital recorder, the first one he had ever seen.

Here are five delicious chamber performances, beginning with ALL MY LIFE.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

I’M CONFESSIN’:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

IF I HAD YOU:

and a masterpiece:

Napier’s sound comes in the ear like honey.  He never plays a superfluous note; he honors the melody but in the most gentle supple way.  It is rather as if he were leaning forward, softly saying something heartfelt that was important to him and that he knew would uplift you.  Beauty and swing without affectation.

Before we move on to precious oral history, a few words about one of the other members of this trio.  After you have bathed in the liquid gold of Napier’s sound, listen once again to the very relaxed and gracious banjo playing of Larry Scala. Like Napier, he understands melodic lines (while keeping a flexible rhythm going and using harmonies that add but never distract).  Banjos in the wrong hands can scare some of us, but Larry is a real artist, and his sound is a pleasure to listen to.  (You can find examples of his superb guitar work elsewhere on this blog.) And this post exists because of his generosity, for he has provided the source material, and Larry’s gift to us is a great one.  Music to dance to; music to dream by.

I asked California jazz eminences for memories of Napier, and this is some of what people remembered.  Bill was obviously A Character, but everyone I asked was eager to praise him, and you’ve heard why.

From Hal Smith: I was going through tapes in the archive of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation. One tape had several of the bands which performed at the Clancy Hayes benefit at Earthquake McGoon’s in May of 1970. Napier led a band for the occasion. I heard him get onstage, walk to the mic and say “Here we are!” Then, a couple of seconds later, “Where ARE we?”

By the way, Bill’s real name was James William Asbury.  I’m not sure how it got changed to “Bill Napier.”  When he would tell stories about his youth, or time in the Army, he always referred to himself as “little Jimmy Asbury.”

Bill told me about the clarinetists he admired, including Jimmie Noone and Jimmy Dorsey. He also liked Albert Nicholas and went to hear him at Club Hangover in San Francisco. He asked to sit in, but was turned down. As he described it, “I asked Albert Nicholas if he needed any help and he said he didn’t think so.”

Bill was the original clarinetist with Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band. He left the group following Jack Sohmer’s mean-spirited review of Schulz’s CD which was published in The Mississippi Rag. After that, whenever Schulz would ask if Bill was available to play a gig, Bill would say, “No. Jack Sohmer may be in the audience.”  Before he left the Schulz band, we played a concert at Filoli Mansion outside San Francisco. M.C. Bud Spangler asked each musician to explain why they play music for a living. There was a wide range of responses, but Bill’s was the best: “Well, I have to pay my taxes!”

From Clint Baker:  Bill Napier was a bit of a prodigy, as a teenager he was playing at the Dawn Club as part of a young band that was one of the substitute bands for the wartime Yerba Buena Jazz Band.  By the late 40’s he was working with Wingy Manone in San Francisco. He went on to have a couple of stints with the Turk Murphy band and also with Bob Scobey, a band for which he was better suited for sure. He later worked with all the better bands around here; he was not all that interested in playing music on the road and kept close to home for the most part after the Fifties.

I encountered him many times when I was coming up.  He was always the consummate sideman, and always played with great imagination; he had the most amazing tone, liquid would best describe his.  But he NEVER ran out of ideas, he was a wellspring of original musical thought. If he did fall back on a device such as quote, it was always the most obtuse thing one could come up with.

Bill was one of the only players I ever played with who perfectly combined the elements of swing clarinet and New Orleans style clarinet; he all at once sounded like Goodman or Shaw or Simeon or Bigard.  He was hip to all of it and could combine all of the musical DNA of those styles in to his own rich sound. I remember speaking with him about to old masters and he told Simeon was one of his main favorites.  BUT he was truly his own man with the richest of musical imaginations.  I was always honored to work with him, and wish I had had more chances, but the times I did, I cherish. You knew when you were on the bandstand with him you were in the presence of greatness.  Bill was a master.

From Paul Mehling: I worked with him for nearly thirty years in a trio of bass, guitar, and clarinet, and he is on two of our CDs.  He was very shy, quiet, and private. He loved his two (or more?) cats. He and his wife would take the two cats camping and one year when it was time to leave they couldn’t find one of their cats. They called and called but feared he’d been abducted or eaten so they drove home very sad. Next year, they went camping again, same spot/campground. Guess who showed up!  They were overjoyed.  He never really believed how much I loved his playing and all I aspired to at that time was to be GOOD ENOUGH TO SHINE HIS SHOES (musically). I used to try to get into his head during each song and try to give him the kind of rhythm that he’d be most comfortable with.

I was 18 when I first played a full gig with him, but I first met him at the Alameda County Fair when I was 16, long-haired, and didn’t know anything about music but had enough gumption to drag my acoustic guitar into the fairgrounds and find those guys- Lueder Ohlwein, banjo; maybe Ev Farey, trumpet; for sure Bob Mielke, trombone, was there and probably Bill Carrol on bass.  They said Do you know any songs?” I said “Sure, whaddabout Avalon and I Got Rhythm,” and probably one other song.  I played, they liked it, and a few years later Napier remembered me!

He and I bonded early on over comedy. He liked how often I quoted Groucho. We had a shared love for bad puns:
Napier: “Let’s play the suspenders song.”
Me: “ What song is that?”
Napier: “It all depends on you.”
Me: “What?”
Napier : “It hold de pants on you.”

Napier: “You like to golf?”
Me: “Uh, no. You?”
Napier: “No, I never wanted to make my balls soar.”

We’d come up with all manner of re-titling songs to keep us from feeling bad about playing background music and getting almost zero love from “audiences.”

When the Bob Scobey band did a two-year stint in Chicago, Benny Goodman used to show up just to dig on Napier’s playing (which sounded like Goodman/Bigard/Noone!

One thing for sure: the guy never did NOT swing. Never. Even a song he didn’t know. In fact, and more curious was that I could throw all kinds of (gypsy) chord substitutions at him (I didn’t know any better, I thought that’s what jazz musicians did: reharmonize everything) and he never, EVER said “No” or so much as cast an evil eye in my direction. I think the years he played with Bill Erickson at Pier 23 were his favorite years.  He didn’t speak much of Erickson, but I could just tell.

Oh, here’s the BEST story. I just remembered: we were at a swanky Sunday brunch on the Stanford Campus, near that big Stanford Mall with Bloomingdales and other stores.  We would often try to engage diners by chatting and asking if they had a request. Most people wanted to hear something from CATS (ugh). Or they wanted to hear In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.  So we went up to this table, and there’s a guy there, of a certain age. With an attractive woman half his age.  One of us said, “What would you like to hear?”
Man: “ I want to you to play “It Had To Be You” but not fast, about here- ….”(snaps his fingers indicating a medium slow tempo)
Me, aside to Napier: “Why don’t you ask MR. CONDUCTOR what KEY he’d like to SING it in?”
Napier, whispering to me: “I think MR. CONDUCTOR is MR. Getz.”
Boy, did I feel stupid: Stan Getz, doing a residency at Stanford, one of Napier’s heroes.

Obviously, a man well-loved and well-remembered.

I have foregone the usual biography of Bill, preferring to concentrate on the music for its own sake.  But here is a lovely detailed sketch of his life — unfortunately, it’s his obituary, and here is another week’s worth of rare music — Napier with bands — provided thanks to Dave Radlauer.  There are more trio performances, also.

Now, go back and listen to Napier play.

May your happiness increase!

THE MANY LIVES OF THE BLUES: RAY SKJELBRED, SOLO PIANO, AT THE SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 25, 2016)

Yesterday I posted two duets between pianist Ray Skjelbred and cornetist Marc Caparone, and encouraged my viewers to take a chance by watching and listening — even if they’d never heard either player — and some people did.  One of them wrote to me and asked if I could post some more of Ray.  Nothing simpler and nothing more gratifying, so here are a bundle of blues and blues-related solos from a set Ray did at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 25, 2016.  He introduces them, so you won’t need explanations from me:

Dr. Bunky Coleman’s BLUE GUAIAC BLUES [medical explication, not for the squeamish*]:

Jimmie Rodgers’ TUCK AWAY MY LONESOME BLUES:

Ray’s own SOUTH HALSTEAD STREET, for Jane Addams and Art Hodes:

THE ALLIGATOR POND WENT DRY (for and by Victoria Spivey):

SUNSET BOOGIE (for and by Joe Sullivan):

Ray Skjelbred is a poet — also when he gets up from the piano bench — of these shadings and tone-colors, of the rhythms of the train heading through the darkness.  We are fortunate to live on his planet.

May your happiness increase!

And the promised medical bulletin: [*guaiac is a resin found i our happiness increase!n certain trees, and it is used in medical testing to check for blood, otherwise invisible, in one’s stool.  If the guaiac turns blue, one has that problem described above.  Now you know.]

DAVE RADLAUER’S MUSICAL GENEROSITIES

The somber-looking fellow here might not be known to you, but he is the most generous of excavators, finding rare jazz treasures and making them available for free to anyone with a computer and many free hours.  His name is Dave Radlauer, and his site is called JAZZ RHYTHM.

RADLAUER portrait

As is often the case in this century, Dave and I have never met in person, but know each other well through our shared fascinations.  But first a word about JAZZ RHYTHM.  When you go to the site’s home page, you’ll see a left-hand column with famous names from Louis Armstrong to Lester Young, as well as many lesser-known musicians.  Click on one to hear a Radlauer radio presentation, with facts and music and anecdotage nicely stirred together.  The long list of names testify to Dave’s wide-ranging interest in swinging jazz.

But here comes the beautiful part.  Click on “Bagatelle jazz club,” for instance, and you will be taken back in time to a rare and beautiful place where delicious music was played.  Possibly you might not know Dick Oxtot, Ted Butterman, Frank Goudie, Bill Bardin, Pete Allen well, but their music is captivating — and a window into a time and place most of us would not have encountered: clubs in and around San Francisco and Berkeley, California, in the Fifties and Sixties.

Dave has been an indefatigable researcher and archivist, and has had the opportunity to delve into the tape collections of musicians Bob Mielke, Wayne Jones, Earl Scheelar, Oxtot, and others.  And the results are delightful sociology as well as musically: how else would I have learned about clubs called The Honeybucket or Burp Hollow? And there are mountains of rare photographs, newspaper clippings, even business cards.

When I visit Dave’s site, I always feel a mild pleasurable vertigo, as if I could tumble into his treasures and never emerge into daylight or the daily obligations that have to be honored (think: ablutions, laundry, bill paying, seeing other humans who know nothing of P.T. Stanton) but today I want to point JAZZ LIVES’ readers in several directions, where curiosity will be repaid with hours of life-enhancing music.

One is Dave’s rapidly-expanding tribute to cornet / piano genius Jim Goodwin — legendary as musician and singular individualist.

jim-goodwin

And this treasure box, brimful, is devoted to the musical life of Frank Chace — seen here as momentarily imprisoned by the band uniform.

CHACE Radlauer

On Dave’s site, you can learn more about Barbara Dane and Janis Joplin, James Dapogny and Don Ewell . . . all presented with the open-handed generosity of a man who wants everyone to hear the good sounds.

Dave has begun to issue some of these treasures on beautifully-annotated CDs, which are well worth your consideration.

RADLAUER CD one

I’m told that the music is also available digitally via iTunes, but here is the link to Amazon.com for those of us who treasure the physical CD, the photographs, and liner notes.

A postscript.  Until the middle Eighties, my jazz education was seriously slanted towards the East Coast.  But when the jazz scholar and sometime clarinetist John L. Fell befriended me, I began to hear wonderful musicians I’d known nothing of: Berkeley Rhythm, Goodwin, Skjelbred, Byron Berry, Vince Cattolica, and others. So if the names in this piece and on Dave’s site are new to you, be not afeared.  They made wonderful music, and Dave is busily sharing it.

May your happiness increase! 

RAINBOWS OF SOUND: MARC CAPARONE / RAY SKJELBRED at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 28, 2014)

Double rainbow, Evergreen, Colorado, 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman

Double rainbow, Evergreen, Colorado, 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman

To some, “expressing your gratitudes” is a cliche associated with a certain worldview, a reflex of a privileged class.  But there’s usually plenty to be grateful for.

I think of the words of a character, Chicken Number Two, a dying petty thief in John Cheever’s moving novel of life in prison, FALCONER: ” . . . it’s like a party, even in stir [prison] — even franks and rice taste good when you’re hungry, even an iron bar feels good to touch, it feels good to sleep” (199).

This passage is reverberating in my head because recently I encouraged a friend to read the novel and because Marc Caparone and Ray Skjelbred played THANKS A MILLION at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2014.

THANKS A MILLION

I knew the song first through Louis Armstrong’s Decca recording, even though it was first made popular by Dick Powell in — as they used to say — “the movie of the same name”:

THANKS A MILLION 2

and Jon-Erik Kellso has kept the song alive in this century as well. But hearing Marc and Ray reminds me, as I hope it reminds you, of all the people who make beauty possible: not only Caparone and Skjelbred, but also Armstrong and Jack Kapp (who insisted that his artists record as wide a variety of music as possible) but also Bob Mielke, Dawn Lambeth, Hal Smith, and Paul Daspit.

Such people make rainbows, and double rainbows, of joy and feeling.  I thank them all.  And I have people in my life who don’t play instruments, who evoke such feelings, too.  I am sure my readers do also.

May your happiness increase!

HE RODE WITH JAMES P. JOHNSON: TALKING WITH IRV KRATKA (July 31, 2015)

irv

Irv Kratka (drums) doesn’t have a huge discographical entry in Tom Lord’s books, but he played with some fine musicians: Bunk Johnson, Dick Wellstood, James P. Johnson, Ephie Resnick, Joe Muranyi, Bob Mielke, Knocky Parker, Jerry Blumberg, Cyrus St. Clair, among others, in the years 1947-50.  I knew of Irv from those recordings (many of which are quite rare) but also as the creator and guiding genius of Music Minus One and a number of other jazz labels including Classic Jazz and Inner City.

But I had never met Irv Kratka (human being, jazz fan, record producer, concert promoter) in the flesh until this year when we encountered each other at the Terry Blaine / Mark Shane concert in Croton-on-Hudson, and I immediately asked if he’d be willing to sit for a video interview, which he agreed to on the spot.  Irv is now 89 . . . please let that sink in . . . and sharp as a tack, as Louis would say.  His stories encompass all sorts of people and scenes, from Bunk’s band at the Stuyvesant Casino, Louis and Bunk at a club, a car ride with James P. Johnson, lessons from Billy Gladstone, a disagreement between Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke, all the way up to the present and his current hero, multi-instrumentalist Glenn Zottola.

I didn’t want to interrogate Irv, so I didn’t pin him to the wall with minutiae about what James P. might have said in the car ride or what Jerry Blumberg ordered at the delicatessen, but from these four casual interview segments, you can get a warm sense of what it was like to be a young jazz fan in the late Thirties, an aspiring musician and concert producer in the Forties, onwards to today.  It was a privilege to speak with Irv and he generously shared his memories — anecdotes of Bunk Johnson, Baby Dodds, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, George Lewis, Bill Russell, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dick Wellstood, Peg Leg Bates, Lena Horne, Joe Muranyi, Billy Gladstone, Jacques Butler, Jerry Blumberg, Art Hodes, Albert Nicholas, Sarah Vaughan, George Brunis — also fond recollections of Bob Wilber, Bob Mielke, Ephie Resnick and others.

Here are four informal segments from our conversation — the first and last fairly lengthy discussions, the middle two vignettes.

One:

Two:

Three:

Four:

Now, here’s another part of the story.  Irv plans to sell several of his labels: Inner City, Classic Jazz, Proscenium (the last with three Dick Hyman discs) Audio Journal (The Beatles at Shea Stadium – Audience Reaction), and Rockland Records which consists of the first and only CD by the Chapin Bros. (Harry, Tom, and Steve) comedy albums by Theodore, and a disc featuring Mae West songs / W.C. Fields. The catalogue includes 141 titles, and there are more than 42,000 discs to turn over to the new owner, all at “a very nominal price.”  Serious inquiries only to ikratka@mmogroup.com.

May your happiness increase!

WHY CAN’T WE DO THIS MORE OFTEN?

MelissaCDCoverWeb

When you encounter beauty, when you experience art, you know it. When my San Francisco jazz friend Barb Hauser visited New York for Christmas of 2004-5, she brought me the disc you see above.  She had been at some of the recording sessions and thought I would like the music.  Barb was only slightly incorrect in this: I loved the music.  I was then writing reviews for The Mississippi Rag and I believe I asked Leslie Johnson if I could review this.

Hearing Melissa Collard sing was a seriously life-enhancing experience. Melissa has an easy rock to her rhythm, where nothing is forced.  She doesn’t copy the records; her singing isn’t a series of learned gestures strung together, plastic beads on a string.  She doesn’t imitate anyone; her warm voice embraces the song and the listener.  She makes it sound easy, and we know that can’t be true.

Here’s a sample:

Hear what I mean?  Clear diction, an easy glide, and her second chorus is not a clone of her first: she respects the song but she improvises . . . offering light and shade while swinging.  The instrumentalists on this disc don’t do anyone any harm, either: Dan Barrett, Ray Skjelbred, Steven Strauss, Eddie Erickson, Richard Hadlock, Fiddle Ray Landsberg, Bobby Black, Bob Wilson, Bob Mielke, Bill Bardin (a collective personnel).

Let’s have another right away (with Eddie on banjo and the trombone choir of Barrett, Bardin, and Mielke, with a cornet-banjo duet in the middle for Dan and Eddie):

And one more (why not?) — with banter for Eddie and Melissa:

Now, the good news.  These three tracks are taken from Melissa’s debut CD, which contains eleven more delights.  The bad news is that the CD is seriously out of print — you’ll have to hunt for it — but it is one of the great delights of my listening experience.

A few years ago I came to Sacramento, where Melissa lives, and found her to be a truly endearing person — always reassuring when the art and the creator line up in the same pleasing ways.  She did not ask me to write this post, but I thought that everyone should hear one of my favorite singers.

And in 2010, Melissa created another CD — this one’s available — for the Audiophile label, called IN A MELLOW TONE.  Her accompanists there were Chris Dawson, Hal Smith, Richard Simon, and Bryan Shaw.

Here’s her gorgeously poignant reading of LOVE LOCKED OUT with Chris Dawson:

Here is Melissa’s Facebook page for those so inclined.  (I am.)

Now, I think — in my ideal world — I could walk over to my shelf of Melissa Collard CDs (issued and distributed by a major record label), I could turn on her weekly radio program, come to her concerts . . . and then I take a long drink of ice water and remind myself of the actual time and place I live in.  That we have two CDs by Melissa is marvelous, and that she is alive and well (and teaching guitar) equally so.  But I don’t think it’s unbalanced of me to think, WHY CAN’T WE DO THIS MORE OFTEN?

May your happiness increase!

“HIS TALE NEEDED TELLING”: THE ODD BRILLIANCE OF P.T. STANTON

PT STANTON

I am fascinated by those great artists whose stories don’t get told: Frank Chace, Spike Mackintosh, and George Finola among many.  I revere the heroes who have been celebrated in biographies, but where are the pages devoted to Quentin Jackson, George Stafford, Danny Alvin, Dave Schildkraut, Gene Ramey, Joe Smith, John Nesbit, Denzil Best, Vernon Brown, Shad Collins, Ivie Anderson, Walter Johnson, John Collins, Allan Reuss, and fifty others?

But there are people who understand.  One is Andrew Sammut, who’s written beautifully about Larry Binyon and others.  Another scholar who has a great love for the worthy obscure is Dave Radlauer.  Dave’s diligence and willingness to share audio evidence are remarkable.  He has done noble work on the multi-instrumentalist Frank “Big Boy” Goudie on his website JAZZ RHYTHM, an apparently bottomless offering, splendidly intimidating in its munificence — with webpages and audio programs devoted to many luminaries, well-known (Louis, Goodman, Shaw, Carter) as well as the obscure (Jerry Blumberg, Benny Strickler, Bill Dart, and three dozen others).  It’s not just music, but it’s cultural context and social history — close observation of vanished landscapes as well as loving portraits of characters in unwritten jazz novels.

Here’s a quick example.  For me, just to know that there was a San Francisco bar called BURP HOLLOW is satisfying enough.  To know that they had live hot jazz there is even better.  To hear tapes of it delights me immensely.

And listen to this, another mysterious delight: a quartet from the MONKEY INN, led by pianist Bill Erickson in 1961, with trombonist Bob Mielke and a glistening trumpeter or cornetist who had learned his Hackett well.  Was it Jerry Blumberg or Johnny Windhurst on a trip west?  I can’t say, but Unidentified is a joy to listen to.

But back to P.T. Stanton. I will wager that his name is known only to the most devoted students of West Coast jazz of a certain vintage. I first encountered him — and the Stone Age Jazz Band — through the gift of a Stomp Off record from my friend Melissa Collard.

STONE AGE JAZZ BAND

Radlauer has presented a rewarding study of the intriguingly nonconformist trumpeter, guitarist, occasional vocalist Stanton here.  But “here” in blue hyperlink doesn’t do his “The Odd Brilliance of P.T. Stanton” justice.  I can only warn the reader in a gentle way that (s)he should be willing to spend substantial time for a leisurely exploration of the treasure: nine pages of text, with rare photographs, and more than fifty otherwise unknown and unheard recordings.

Heard for the first time, Stanton sounds unusual.  That is a charitable adjective coined after much admiring attention.  A casual listener might criticize him as a flawed brassman. Judged by narrow orthodoxy, he isn’t loud enough; his tone isn’t a clarion shout. But one soon realizes that what we hear is not a matter of ineptitude but of a different conception of his role.  One hears a choked, variable — vocal — approach to the horn, and a conscious rejection of the trumpet’s usual majesty, as Stanton seems, even when officially in front of a three-horn ensemble, to be eschewing the traditional role in favor of weaving in and out of the ensemble, making comments, muttering to himself through his horn. It takes a few songs to accept Stanton as a great individualist, but the effort is worth it.

He was eccentric in many ways and brilliant at the same time — an alcoholic who could say that Bix Beiderbecke had the right idea about how to live one’s life, someone who understood both Bunk Johnson and Count Basie . . . enigmatic and fascinating.  And his music!

In the same way that JAZZ LIVES operates, Dave has been offering his research and musical treasures open-handedly.  But he has joined with Grammercy Records to create a series of CDs and downloads of remarkable music and sterling documentation. The first release will be devoted to the Monkey Inn tapes; the second will be a generous sampling of Stanton and friends 1954-76, featuring Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and Bunky Coleman (clarinets), Bob Mielke and Bill Bardin (trombones) and Dick Oxtot (banjo and vocals). Radlauer has plans for ten more CD sets to come in a series to be called Frisco Jazz Archival Rarities: unissued historic recordings of merit drawn from live performances, jam sessions and private tapes 1945-75.

I will let you know more about these discs when they are ready to see the light of day.  Until then, enjoy some odd brilliance — not just Stanton’s — thanks to Dave Radlauer.

May your happiness increase!

“WHAT A KICK!”

Four gifts from from JAZZ LIVES’ friend Bob Sann, banjo / guitarist / artist, who explains it all below:

Barrelhouse-1947
I was privileged to participate in the Bunk Johnson revival movement in NYC in 1947.

Three traditional jazz enthusiasts were friends of mine: Irv Kratka (who later founded Music-Minus-One Records), Dante Bollettino (who later founded Jolly Roger Records) and Harry Newmark knew Bunk was in town because of the Stuyvesant Casino gigs. They booked a ballroom, “Caravan Hall” on east 59th Street, for two concerts. The first (Friday, October 17, 1947) was billed as a “Barrelhouse Brawl,” the second (Friday, October 24, 1947) as a “New Orleans Cutting Contest.” Both concerts paired an all-black band of New Orleans veterans against a young white band of local NYC dixielanders.

JJ_BJ_AN-1947
I was interested in art, at that time, and designed the publicity flyers. While the New Orleans band was on, I made some pencil sketches of Bunk, Baby Dodds, James P. Johnson, and Albert Nicholas. When the young band was on, I played guitar and banjo with them. At the end of the last set I got to sit-in with Bunk’s band (what a kick!)

CuttingContest-1947

For your information, the New Orleans musicians got paid $20 per concert.

Bob Sann (a/k/a Robert Schiff)
Clearwater, Florida

(I am happy to know that Bob is currently playing banjo/guitar with The Rhythm Kings, a 14-piece hot dance orchestra based in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and is led by the well-known arranger/conductor Dan Fox (formerly of New York City).

Eight tracks from the Caravan Ballroom sessions have been released on the American Music CD (AMCD-45), BUNK JOHNSON AND MUTT CAREY IN NEW YORK, 1947. An additional track was released on the CD accompanying the book by Mike Hazeldine and Barry Martyn, SONG OF THE WANDERER.

May your happiness increase!

HOMAGE TO WILD BILL: “THE WILD BILL DAVISON CENTENNIAL CONCERT” (LEON OAKLEY, DAN BARRETT, RICHARD HADLOCK, RAY SKJELBRED, KATIE CAVERA, CLINT BAKER, J. HANSEN, BOB MIELKE: January 8, 2006)

Paying tribute to such a strongly idiosyncratic musical personality as cornetist Wild Bill Davison could be a doomed endeavor, if the cornet player in charge attempts to honor Bill by reproducing his repertoire of short phrases, growls, vocalized blurts and sotto-voce murmurs. My reaction to such things has been to turn back to Bill’s recorded legacy.  The copies are the aural equivalent of Al Hirschfeld drawings: ingenious but verging on affectionate caricature.

WILD BILL CENTENNIAL CONCERT

A band of wise players assembled in Berkeley, California, at the Freight and Salvage in early 2006 to celebrate Bill’s centennial.  The results, issued on a Jazzology CD, are a model of what energetic creative tribute should be.

The participants are Leon Oakley, cornet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Bob Mielke, trombone guest star; Richard Hadlock, reeds and master of ceremonies (offering commentary between each selection); Ray Skjelbred, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; J. Hansen, drums.  The CD begins with an excerpt from a recording made in Britain — Bill singing a bit of IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT DIXIE? in a light, sincere, swinging voice — and it concludes with Bill, ending a set.  So the presence of the great man is immediately evident.  In between, the band plays the hot ones — THAT’S A PLENTY, COLLIER’S CLAMBAKE, I NEVER KNEW and I NEVER KNEW I COULD LOVE ANYBODY, a strong-minded BLUES FOR WILD BILL, BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GAVE TO ME.

But the sweet melodic side of Wild Bill gets equal time, with MEMORIES OF YOU, WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE (very successfully evoking a 1944 Condon date for Decca where Bill wasn’t present but Billy Butterfield and Bobby Hackett were), MANDY, I’M CONFESSIN’, SAVE IT PRETTY MAMA, and a particularly moving version of BLACK BUTTERFLY on which we hear Barrett and Mielke in tandem.

The band is superb, because each one of them knows the style deeply but is committed to improvising within it.  Leon Oakley has said he was deeply influenced by Wild Bill, and occasionally he dips into the Davison grab-bag of singular effects, but for the most part he simply, eloquently plays hot cornet — in a way that would fit in at The Ear Inn in 2013 or Condon’s in 1956.  Barrett, Hadlock, and Mielke all sound like themselves (Hadlock in a particularly forceful mood) but they are all obviously overjoyed to be playing with the ideal rhythm sections, with the ghosts of Stacy, Sullivan, Condon, Walter Page, Wettling and Drootin making ectoplasmic appearances.

It may be heretical to say so, but I gave up collecting Wild Bill records because each one sounded precisely like the last (he had created his own master solos and delivered them — perfectly or slightly imperfectly) but I have not tired of this disc.  I’ve already played it several times and found new reasons to cheer each time.  (Excellent recorded sound, too.)

May your happiness increase. 

A PILGRIMAGE TO DECCA (August 2011)

There are some spiritual places on this planet.  Yours may be deep in the redwood forest, or on your yoga mat.  Mine is a wondrous record store in El Cerrito, California.  DOWN HOME MUSIC is at — or perhaps floats above —

10431 San Pablo Avenue.  The phone number is (510) 525-2129; the website is http://www.downhomemusic.com.  My good friend, trumpet player Tally Baker, took me there last week.  I spent seventy-five dollars and four cents, had the time of my record-collecting life, have no regrets, and want to go back again.  Here’s what I bought: some of it sentimental gap-filling (records to replace those lost in natural disasters), some of it “Oh my goodness, I’ve never seen a copy of that!,” some of it “Can you believe they have a copy of this record?”  And — to quote King Oliver — I MUST HAVE IT.  I found out that Down Home Music has live sessions, and is the beloved brainchild of Chris Strachwitz, who founded Arhoolie Records.  Long may he and the store and the music flourish.

The results of the pilgrimage, in no particular order.

MEL POWELL SEPTET (Vanguard): Powell, Buck Clayton, Henderson Chambers, Ed Hall, Steve Jordan, Walter Page, Jimmy Crawford.  Some of the music on this 10″ lp has been reissued on that hodgepodge series of Vanguard CDs — I fear they are now out of print — but they left out an extended I MUST HAVE THAT MAN that is as lovely and sad and groovy as anything I can think of.

WOLVERINE JAZZ (Decca): Bud Freeman, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Max Kaminsky, Dave Bowman, Eddie Condon, Pete Peterson, Morey Feld.  This session doesn’t have Dave Tough, but it does have SUSIE (OF THE ISLANDS).  And I started laughing when I remembered that Eddie advanced the idea that the album should be called SONS OF BIXES.

DON EWELL (Windin’ Ball): Ewell, solo.  Through this blog, I have met Birch Smith, who is responsible for this session.  Blessings on Ewell’s head and on Birch’s, too.  And on his DIPPER MOUTH BLUES, Don mutters (at the appropriate juncture), “Oh, crawl that thing!”  Indeed.

PETE KELLY AT HOME (RCA Victor): Dick Cathcart, Abe Lincoln, Matty Matlock, Jack Chaney, Ray Sherman, Jud DeNaut, George Van Eps, Nick Fatool.  Who knew?  This has (among other surprises) LA CUCARACHA, and it features Mister Lincoln, one of my heroes.

THE FABULOUS FINNS: SYLVESTER AHOLA (Qaulity): Ahola with the Rhythm Maniacs, Night Club Kings, Ambrose, The Rhythmic Eight, Plihip Lewis, Arcadians, Ray Starita, Georgians, Piccadilly Players.  Plus an interview done with Ahola at his home — in Finnish.  Could you resist?  I couldn’t.

BOB MIELKE’S BEARCATS (Arhoolie): Mielke, P.T. Stanton, Bill Napier, Dick Oxtot, Pete Allen, Don Merchant, Bill Erickson, Burt Bales.  Tally had played me some of this music.  It rocked then; it rocks now.

DICK OXTOT’S GOLDEN AGE JAZZ BAND (Arhoolie): Jim Goodwin, Meilke, Bob Helm, Ray Skjelbred, Bill Bardin, Napier.  Goodwin and Skjelbred.  Who could pass this up?

CHICAGO HIGH LIFE (Euphonic): Ray Skjelbred, Clarence Jackson.  Ditto.

ON THE WATERFRONT WITH BURT BALES (Cavalier): Bales, solo.  Yeah, man.

PUTNEY DANDRIDGE (Rarities): Volumes 1 and 2, with Roy, Chu, Teddy, Red, Buster, Ben, Bobby Stark, Cozy Cole, John Kirby, Slick Jones.  Mr. Dandridge is an acquired taste, but the bands swing gently and ferociously.

Blessings all around!

P.S.  Jazz 78s and 45s too, and a turntable to play them on — so that I could assure myself that the never-seen Peg LaCentra with Jerry Sears on Bluebird was, in fact, dull.  Invaluable experience — like the old days — to be able to check out a disc before plunging two or three dollars on it.

I’VE BEEN TOO BUSY!

This post is to celebrate something I find sweetly amusing.  I came home late last night (or early this morning) from my very serious video-recording of four jazz gigs in a row, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.  You’ll see the results soon, but that isn’t the point of the anecdote.  I was greeted by a phone message and several emails — their substance was, “Michael, are you all right?  You haven’t blogged in days!”

Nice to be missed!  I’m fine.  A little sleepy, but fine, and happy, too.  But I’ve been too busy capturing music for the blog (and for the musicians, too) to be able to blog.  And the circular logic could provoke headaches, so I suggest you simply accept the statement.

To celebrate the state of being TOO BUSY, here’s some hot jazz on that theme:

Recorded by the Wizard of the Wide-Angle Lens, Rae Ann Berry (“Have Tripod, Will Travel“) on June 20, 2010, at the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California — here are Leon Oakley and the Friends of Jazz.  The musicians are: Leon Oakley, cornet; Roy Rubenstein, trombone; Robert Young, soprano sax; Clint Baker, banjo; Marty Eggers, bass; and Jeff Hamilton, drums.  And the elder statesman seated at the far right — with trombone and cap — seems to me to be none other than Bob Mielke!

This one’s for Louis, Jimmie Noone, Earl Hines, Lillie Delk Christian, and Johnny St. Cyr — we’re never too busy for them.

SMILES (June 11, 2010)

There are smiles / that make us happy . . . !

And there’s music that makes us smile. 

A case in point, thanks to Rae Ann Berry, Clint Baker’s Cafe Borrone All-Stars, and this wonderful ancient song (I hear Chick Bullock singing it circa 1940 — a touching performance).  Here it’s played by Leon Oakley, trumpet; veteran Bob Mielke, trombone; Robert Young, reeds; Ray Skjelbred, keyboard; Bill Rinehart, bass; Clint Baker, guitar plus!; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

You’ll notice a few delightful sidelights: what other band has its leader put down his guitar, play a hot clarinet chorus, and then go back to rhythm?  I love the Skjelbred – Hamilton interplay late in the performance, and I am especially amused by the young man (is he officially a “toddler”?) with his picture book, who seems transfixed by the music.  He’ll grow up to have his own jazz blog at the very least.

I find myself smiling: I hope you are doing the same.

THE MAGIC HORN OF “PAPA RAY” RONNEI (by Hal Smith)

Video by the multi-talented Katie Cavera:

The Magic Horn of ‘Papa Ray’ Ronnei 

by Hal Smith (originally published in JUST JAZZ)

It has been nearly 40 years since I first heard the cornet magic of ‘Papa Ray’ Ronnei… 

In the mid-‘60s I was a dedicated fan of the San Francisco style as played by Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey, the Firehouse Five and…Vince Saunders’ South Frisco Jazz Band.  In 1966 my parents had taken me to Huntington Beach, California where the South Frisco band played weekends at the ‘Pizza Palace’.  We became instant fans of the SFJB after that first evening and made regular trips up from La Jolla to catch the band on weekends.  The band members were especially kind to a young fan.  Washboardist Bob Raggio, then an employee of Ray Avery’s ‘Rare Records’ was particularly helpful in locating several out-of-print Murphy and Watters LPs for me.   

Late in 1967, Bob sent a note along with an LP he had found for me.  The note mentioned that on the coming weekend, a ‘very special edition of the South Frisco band would perform at the Pizza Palace, with ‘Papa Ray’ Ronnei on cornet.’  I had heard of Ray Ronnei, but had not actually heard him play. 1  Even so, my parents accompanied me to Huntington Beach to hear the band. 

At the Pizza Palace we settled in at a table, not knowing quite what to expect, when the band took off on ‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’.  Ray Ronnei’s brassy, staccato attack and almost surrealistic phrasing was like nothing I had ever heard! 2  It was a glorious and unique sound; one I still have not recovered from!  The tune selection was a radical departure from the San Francisco repertoire I was so used to: ‘Bogalusa Strut’, ‘Salutation March’, ‘Big Chief Battle Axe’, ‘One Sweet Letter From You’, ‘Ugly Chile’, ‘Blue Bells, Goodbye’, ‘Sweet Lotus Blossom’, ‘Bugle Boy March’ etc.  This night at the Pizza Palace the first time I had heard any of these numbers! 3 

When the performance ended—much too soon to suit me!—we headed home to La Jolla.  My head was spinning from the spellbinding sound of Ray Ronnei’s cornet.  Despite my continuing interest in the San Francisco style, I wanted to hear this hornman again—as soon as possible!  I did not have to wait too long, as South Frisco’s cornetist Al Crowne took a leave of absence from the band in 1968.  His replacement: Ray Ronnei!  My family made dozens of journeys north to Huntington Beach during Papa Ray’s tenure with the South Frisco in 1968-69. 

The SFJB lineup varied during this period. 4  Trombonist Frank Demond moved to New Orleans and was replaced on by Eric Rosenau, then Roy Brewer.   Mike Baird was usually on clarinet, though Jim Bogen and soprano saxophonist John Smith sometimes filled in for him.  Ron Ortmann was the regular pianist, spelled at times by Dick Shooshan, Bill Mitchell and Robbie Rhodes.  Tubist Bob Rann was usually present, with Mike Fay on string bass in Rann’s absence.  Banjoist-leader Vince Saunders was a constant, as was washboardist Bob Raggio—until the latter moved to Pittsburgh to play at baseball star Maury Wills’ nightclub.  But despite the shifting personnel, that distinctive cornet sound continued to ring joyously over the ensembles.   

When the South Frisco repertoire expanded,  three of the ‘new’ tunes—at least new to me—caught my fancy: ‘Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man’, ‘Messin’ Around’ (by Cook and St. Cyr) and ‘Flat Foot’.  These three have been my favourite ‘trad’ numbers since hearing Papa Ray play them in 1968.  Though Vince Saunders was the bandleader, he frequently let Papa Ray kick off tunes.  The latter tended towards brisk tempos and kicked them off old-style, i.e. ‘one-two-three-four ONE!  TWO!  With only a little imagination I can still hear the powerful band roaring through all-ensemble versions of ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and ‘Cakewalking Babies’ (with Papa Ray playing the same burst of capsicum on the outchorus that Mutt Carey played on the ‘New Yorkers’ record of the same tune).  The South Frisco Jazz Band in 1968-69 was truly one of a kind.   

In 1969, Papa Ray left the South Frisco group and Al Crowne returned.  Earlier, the band recorded an LP for the Vault label entitled ‘Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man.’  Unfortunately, that LP has not yet been reissued on CD.  However, Ted Shafer’s Merry Makers Record Company has released a CD of the South Frisco Band live at the Pizza Palace, recorded in 1968 by clarinetist Ron Going.  This disc ‘tells the story’ of just how exciting a time 1968-1969 was for fans of Papa Ray’s cornet work. 

While still a resident of Los Angeles, Papa Ray played with the Salutation Tuxedo Jazz Band, Crescent Bay Jazz Band and other groups.  Before signing on with South Frisco, he worked with Ted Shafer’s Jelly Roll Jazz Band in the Bay Area.  He returned to the Jelly Roll Jazz Band temporarily in 1969.  I was able to enjoy his music via tapes made previously at the Pizza Palace, LPs by the El Dorado Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Jazz Band and the then-new South Frisco LP.  On one occasion, our family was watching a San Francisco Seals hockey game on tv.  After a Seals goal, a jazz band in the stands struck up ‘Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight’.  Clarinetist Bob Helm and trombonist Bob Mielke were instantly identifiable, as was the peppery cornet—Papa Ray, of course! 

I continued to see and hear Ray Ronnei on his visits to the L.A. area.  Sometimes he would play at a Sunday-afternoon jam session at one of the local jazz societies.  On one memorable occasion, I was asked to play a set with Papa Ray, Dan Barrett, Ron Going, Dick Shooshan, Doug Parker and veteran New Orleans bassist Ed Garland.  I don’t have a recording of this session, but at least I got a photo! 

Living away from California, I would hear occasional news concerning Ray’s appearances on various jobs.  Later, there was a disheartening rumor that he had quit playing.  I had the recordings to listen to, but still hoped to hear the ‘real thing’ again some day.  In the early ‘90s I returned to California and wound up playing once a week at the ‘Hofbrau’ in Fullerton (Orange County), California.  The bands in rotation at the time included Gremoli, Evan Christopher’s Quintet and my own Frisco Syncopators.  One night, Mike Fay came to hear the band—with Papa Ray in tow!  Ray looked the same as he had the last time I saw him, in the ‘70s.  What a blast it was to see him, and in good health at that. 

Later, when key personnel became unavailable to play the Hofbrau, the Frisco Syncopators gradually became the New Orleans Wanderers.  Papa Ray was still making an occasional appearance at the club, though I had not been able to induce him to play.  But Mike Fay stepped in, describing the band’s sound and repertoire and we managed to get Ray on cornet!  With Alan Adams (trombone), Mike Baird (reeds), Vic Loring (banjo), Mike Fay (bass) and myself on drums, we hit ‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’.  It unleashed a flood of happy memories, of good times at the Pizza Palace.  And best of all, Ray had his lip and his drive.   No one had to shoulder an extra load that night!  I still don’t know why I didn’t take a tape recorder.  Unfortunately, no one recorded us that night!  The lack of recording is all the more unfortunate because Ray was unable to make the job on a regular basis.  The Golden Eagles’ Ken Smith stepped in and became our regular hornman. 

My last encounter with Papa Ray was in 1995, when the Wanderers recorded a session for release on cassette.  We assembled in Mike Fay’s living room in Claremont, California and saw that a guest was settling in to listen to the session.   Papa Ray was happy to see his musical friends and obviously enjoyed our performances.  He would not join in on cornet, but we managed to coax him into singing ‘How Long Blues’, which was released on the cassette. 

Since then, I continue to hear that Papa Ray has taken part in occasional sessions and the report invariably includes the line ‘He sounded as great as ever’.  I am sure the reports are true.  Hearing Papa Ray Ronnei on cornet has always been a magical experience; one of the biggest thrills I have experienced in jazz.   To me, he will always be one of the greats!

  

Notes

  1. I never heard the El Dorado Jazz Band in person.  They played mostly in bars where a teenager could not enter, according to California state law.  I bought the El Dorado Epitaph and Item-1 LPs after hearing Ray with the South Frisco band.  The band finally broke up in mid-1966, but this ‘special edition’ of the South Frisco Jazz Band would be composed almost entirely of El Dorado veterans. 
  2. At the time I was unfamiliar with the recordings of Freddie Keppard, Abbie Brunies and especially Mutt Carey, who were the premier inspirations for Ray Ronnei.   (Ray studied with Mutt Carey in the late ‘40s).
  3. I discovered Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Kid Ory and ‘British Trad’ after hearing this ‘New Orleans’ version of the South Frisco band.  Bassist Mike Fay played that night, as did pianist Dick Shooshan.  Besides hearing Ray Ronnei for the first time and hearing a wealth of ‘new’ tunes, this was my first exposure to New Orleans style string bass and Jelly Roll Morton type piano.
  4. There were surely more substitutes and guests with the South Frisco Jazz Band during this period.  My listing is based on those I actually heard, or who were recorded at the Pizza Palace.

P.S.  Ray Ronnei, born in 1916, is happily still with us!  Although he no longer plays the cornet, his composition SALTY BUBBLE can be heard in the 2009 Woody Allen film WHATEVER WORKS, and Ray plans to continue composing!  The original recording can be purchased here: http://www.worldsrecords.com/pages/artists/r/ronnei_ray/ray_ronnei_64328.html