Tag Archives: Bobby Donaldson

RUBY, LOUIS, BUCK, ME (1954, 1983, 1989, 1996)

Ruby Braff, December 7, 1980. Photograph by Michael Steinman

Ruby Braff, December 7, 1980. Photograph by Michael Steinman

Ruby Braff remains one of my heroes: brave, curious, exploratory, full of lyrical warmth in his music — and one of those people I had many opportunities to observe between 1971 and 1983, at close range, in New York City.

Here is something new to me and I think absolutely remarkable — an interview with Ruby, done August 18, 1989, at the Newport Casino.  Ruby is remarkably patient with a somewhat inept questioner, but the subject is Louis Armstrong, so Ruby was very happy to speak about his and our hero:

Ruby despised his earlier recordings — and said so often, loudly and profanely.  I have no idea if he would have winced and swore at this one, but I am safe from his anger, so I present the 1954 Vanguard session (thanks to John Hammond) that paired him with Buck Clayton, Bennie Morton, Buddy Tate, Jimmy Jones, Steve Jordan, Aaron Bell, and Bobby Donaldson.  The shift into 4 / 4 at the start is one of my favorite moments in recorded jazz.  And the song is, of course, also.


Much later, in 1996, Ruby created a gorgeous and irreplaceable Arbors CD, BEING WITH YOU, in honor of Louis and of Ruby’s recently-departed friend, the great reedman Sam Margolis. Along with Ruby, there were Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, Dan Barrett, Jerry Jerome, Johnny Varro, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bob Haggart, Jim Gwin.  Ruby gave everyone a spot, and the results are glorious. And if you didn’t know what a magnificent singer he could be, savor LITTLE ONE.

I apologize for the intrusive advertisement that begins the final two videos:


And my own Ruby story, very brief and elliptical.  I had followed Ruby around with cassette and reel-to-reel recorder, with notebook and (once) camera — so much so that my nickname was “Tapes,” as in “Hey, Tapes!” — from 1971 on. This was not embarrassing to me; rather, it was an honor.

He played a concert at the New School with Dick Hyman early in 1983, and I, recently married, asked my new wife to come along.  She did not particularly like jazz, but it was a novel invitation and off we went.  We sat down in the middle of the auditorium — early, as is my habit — and I looked around for Ruby.  Surely, I thought, I could make eye contact and he would come over, exchange pleasantries, and I could not-so-subtly suggest to my new bride that I was Someone in this jazz world.  Ruby emerged from somewhere, and I stood up.  Perhaps I waved to catch his eye, or said, “Hey, Ruby!”  He looked at me, grinned, and pointed a forefinger.  “You!” he said.  “I remember you when you were in diapers!”  That was not the effect I had hoped to create, so I sat down and the deflated encounter was over.  He played beautifully.  As he always did.

Ask me about lyrical improvisation, and I might play you this as a glowing exemplar.


I miss Ruby Braff, although, like Louis, he is always with us through his music.

May your happiness increase!




ROSES OF PICARDY was a famous ballad of the First World War, composed by Frederic Weatherly (lyrics) and Haydn Wood (music), gracefully describing the lasting love of an Englishman and a Frenchwoman . . .

Verse: She is watching by the poplars, / Colinette with the sea-blue eyes, / She is watching and longing, and waiting / Where the long white roadway lies, / And a song stirs in the silence, / As the wind in the boughs above, / She listens and starts and trembles, / ‘Tis the first little song of love.

Chorus: Roses are shining in Picardy, / In the hush of the silver dew, / Roses are flow’ring in Picardy, / But there’s never a rose like you! / And the roses will die with the summertime, / And our roads may be far apart, / But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy, / ‘Tis the rose that I keep in my heart.

Verse: And the years fly on forever, / Till the shadows veil their skies, / But he loves to hold her little hands, / And look into her sea-blue eyes, / And she sees the road by the poplars, / Where they met in the bygone years, / For the first little song of the roses, / Is the last little song she hears:

Chorus: Roses are shining in Picardy, / In the hush of the silver dew, / Roses are flow’ring in Picardy, / But there’s never a rose like you! / And the roses will die with the summertime, / And our roads may be far apart, / But there’s one rose that dies not in Picardy, / ‘Tis the rose that I keep in my heart.

For the full effect, here is a glorious reading of the song by Ben Heppner:

But my subject is a recording of PICARDY by Red Nichols — full of surprises.  I first encountered the Nichols records of this period when I was young; I was especially intrigued by them because of my childhood affection for the film THE FIVE PENNIES.  My local suburban librarian was hip: the library’s holdings included Vic Dickenson, Jimmy Rushing, THE SOUND OF JAZZ, Ellington, and a Brunswick reissue of Nichols circa 1927-30, where I first heard IDA, AVALON, CHINA BOY, THE SHEIK, and others.

I hadn’t heard ROSES OF PICARDY until my recent purchase of the very gratifying sets of the Nichols Brunswicks (1926-32) on the Jazz Oracle label.  It became one of those essential recordings for me — one that I could play ten times in a row on the way to work.

I haven’t found a good explanation for Nichols’ fondness for what might be called “chestnuts” or “good old good ones” — solidly established classic pop hits of ten or more years earlier: IDA, MY GAL SAL, JAPANESE SANDMAN, WHISPERING, LIMEHOUSE BLUES, MARGIE, ALICE BLUE GOWN, INDIANA, SMILES, DINAH, WHO.  In this, he wasn’t so different from other jazz players, then and now, who knew that familiar favorites would both attract an audience and be part of the common knowledge.  (if the leader suggests SWEET SUE — in 1929 or 2013 — few musicians look puzzled or uncomfortable.)

But ROSES OF PICARDY had a sentimental identification, and I wonder if Nichols’ “jazzing” it struck some older listeners as heretical: “That’s not the way to play that pretty song!”  It might serve as a reminder that improvisation, no matter how established and safe it seems to our ears now, always sounds radical to some listeners.

This version was recorded on February 16, 1929, as the fifth performance of a date where the musicians had already completed two takes apiece of ALICE BLUE GOWN and ALLAH’S HOLIDAY.  I wonder if they had some time left at the conclusion and decided to create a head arrangement — somewhat less complex than the Glenn Miller charts for the preceding songs.  The personnel for the first four songs was Nichols, Mannie Klein, Miller, Dudley Fosdick, Jimmy Dorsey, Fud Livingston, Adrian Rollini, Arthur Schutt, Carl Kress, and an unidentified drummer.  I hear a smaller group on PICARDY and we know for sure that Miller was not present, but whether there was a second trumpet is not certain.

The band charges into the song, Nichols presenting the melody in a clear, assertive way — more like a wonderfully adept cornetist at a band concert than a hot jazz player leaving the melody behind.  One hears the dry slap of the drummer’s wire brushes, the sound of the bass saxophone (could it be anyone except Rollini?).  Apparently there is a high-pitched trombone playing staccato phrases and a thin but graceful clarinet line.  I take it on faith that there is a pianist (I do not hear a guitar) but the former is simply laying down the plain harmonies in support.

I also notice that the band — in subtle opposition to Nichols’ chosen tempo or perhaps simply finding a better groove — gently slows down as it proceeds through the two minutes and thirty-one seconds.  (The piano-drum duet in the first half of the final chorus is especially leisurely.)  I would not have noticed this so much had I not played the recording over and over and heard that the opening chorus was taken at a much brighter tempo than the closing.  The first chorus is very satisfying: one could use it is a compact example of simple melodic embellishment (in terms of ornamented melody) and neat ensemble playing.

Just as a listener might be settling into complacency, Rollini leaps in with a break, a marvel in itself.  One could point to its simplicity — arpeggios and repeated notes — but the combination of grace and ferocity is delightful.  It also suggests the small devices that Nichols and his contemporaries set up for variety, so that a recording was more than four or five choruses of ensemble – solo – ensemble.

The first half of the second chorus is given over to another embellished improvisation on the theme — by a brass player over a slightly ornate piano, bass saxophone, and drums.  On first hearing, one automatically assumes “trombone in the Miff Mole style, staccato yet elegant,” but the range is somewhat higher, the tone lighter.  The player’s approach is close to Nichols’ opening exposition, yet the second solo is slightly more fluid, punctuated by the pianist’s upward arpeggios.

In the second half of this chorus, we hear Jimmy Dorsey on alto saxophone over an even lighter background.  For some reason, there is no bass saxophone, so the texture is much lighter — and, listening closely, one has the delightful sensation of expectations being reversed.  Instead of textures becoming more rich, volume and density increasing, we are hearing the instruments of the orchestra — Papa Haydn in Hot — taking a break, leaving the stand.  The Incredible Shrinking Orchestra!

And then someone takes another break — with key change — to lead us into a world of even more playful marvels.  We’ve just heard the sonorities of Dorsey’s alto (the rich yet light sound that other players delighted in) — what is this squeaky thing that follows?

It might be a clarinet — Nichols often employed Pee Wee Russell and Fud Livingston, both of whom departed from orthodox clarinet sound in favor of explorations — but it sounds stranger than strange, even a bit elementary.  Did someone’s kid brother or sister bring a student model clarinet into the session to sit in for a chorus?

The ear is first mystified, then delighted.

And for a moment it seems as if all the other musicians have fled, leaving only the unusual reed player and the pianist, chiming behind perfectly, the drummer, hitting a cymbal (this has been worked out, one senses in retrospect) in front of the microphones.  Bass saxophone, alto, possibly other reeds, cornet and other brass — everyone’s in the alley next to the Brunswick studios taking a break, trading gossip or lighting up.

But no.  The third chorus is given over to a duet for two instruments that sound almost familiar — trombone and clarinet, we assume — for sixteen bars. For forty seconds — a short interlude in anyone’s lifespan but a substantial part of this 78 RPM recording — these two instruments cavort deliciously.  The “trombone” continues an ornamented exploration of PICARDY — in case listeners might have been led so far astray by the uncontrollable impulses of Reckless Jazz to forget where land is — as the “clarinet” dances overhead.  That “clarinet” has an oddly choked sound and a small range, so the player contents himself with deeply swinging emphases, rather like a speaker who has a small vocabulary but is vigorously concerned that the audience miss the point: here it is, and here it is again — getting somewhat more adventurous as the chorus continues, even venturing a series of upward plaintive phrases, the “trombone” sounded muffled but still agile beneath.

On my first hearing, driving to work as I was, I couldn’t check the personnel listings, but I played this exuberantly odd interlude over and over, thinking, “Is that Fud on clarinet and Miff on trombone?”  But I felt as if something otherworldly was taking place: had I been transported to an alternative realm, or was this soundtrack music for a pre-FANTASIA fantasia, where an animated lemur hopped around with a giraffe?

What has happened — bewitching and mystifying the ear for forty seconds — is so weirdly distant from what we might expect to hear (rather like the first appearance of Herschel Evans on clarinet on a Basie recording) that the piano half-chorus that follows seems theatrical, even stagy by comparison — with the drummer’s flourishes matching the pianist.  Again, we might wonder, “Where did everyone go?  Did these musicians have some urgent need to leave the studio at intervals?  Was there food poisoning from the previous night’s chili at Plunkett’s?”)

Before we have sufficient time to consider all these mysteries, the opening ensemble reasserts itself for a closing sixteen bars.  No tags, no flourishes, everything is as it was.  We awake from young Robin Molyneux’s dream — did those forty seconds happen?  Are we back in a Red Nichols session at the Brunswick studios?

Happily, the mystery I have encouraged here has tangible answers, and they take the shape of the ever-inventive Adrian Rollini and his “hot fountain pen,” the forgotten Dudley Fosdick and his mellophone.  Thanks to Albert Haim for the Melody Maker pages below — now it can be told!


and here is more gossip about the hot fountain pen:


And even more here about the hot fountain pen from Sandy Brown’s website.

A fine explanation of the mellophone can be found here.  But the most engrossing reading on the subject can be found in the Nichols Jazz Oracle notes — a three-page essay by Phil Melick, witty and informed, on Dudley Fosdick (whose first recorded solo on the instrument is on the 1924 Ted Weems record of BIG BOY) and the mellophone itself.

Incidentally, the Incredible Shrinking Orchestra and the piano-drum duet make sense in retrospect as brief interludes enabling Rollini to leave his bass saxophone and approach the microphone alongside Fosdick.  And unlike the 1928 recording of BASIN STREET BLUES featuring Louis, Earl, and Zutty, no one stumbles audibly on the way.

This record of ROSES OF PICARDY is a joy.  Perhaps the musicians thought of it as an end-of-session romp: “We have a little time.  Let’s jam PICARDY, and do a whole chorus on your pen and your ‘phone.  OK?”  But that forty-second conversation between two unexpected jazz horns, played by two masters, resonates long after the performance is over.  Woe and alas that there wasn’t a Rollini-Fosdick Quintet under contract to Brunswick.  But I could live comfortably in the universe of those forty seconds.  ‘Tis the chorus that I keep in my heart.

(A digression: Fosdick recorded actively with Weems, Nichols, “the All Star Orchestra,” and Roger Wolfe Kahn for a ten-year period ending in December 1933, according to Tom Lord’s discography.  Then, he worked in Henry King’s orchestra and Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, eventually migrating into studio work and teaching before his death in 1957.  It would be lovely if someone had interviewed him.)

And for my friend and mentor Reb Malcolm, a small offering — Frankie Laine with Buck Clayton, Ray Copeland, Lawrence Brown, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Hilton Jefferson, Budd Johnson, “Big Nick” Nicholas, Dave McRae, Al Lerner, Skeeter Best, Milt Hinton, Bobby Donaldson.  I see the inspired hand of George Avakian in this, although Laine had been working with jazz players for years, as Jess Stacy remembered:

Thanks also to Messrs. Riccardi and Sammut, whose posts provide the inspiration for this one.

May your happiness increase!


Not every successful jazz group has to have an orthodox shape or instrumentation: in fact, the absence of a crucial or expected instrument often galvanizes the other players into something rich and rare, as was the case on September 17, 2011, at Jazz at Chautauqua.

I don’t know if anyone started out playing with Bix or Lester in mind, but the results summon up those two quiet geniuses most beautifully.  And when we remember that Lester learned so much about lyricism — in addition to his own singular impulses — from listening to Bix and Tram records with Eddie Barefield — the connection isn’t far-fetched.

Here we have Rossano Sportiello on piano and quiet aesthetic leadership; Randy Sandke on soaring trumpet; Andy Schumm on hot introspective cornet; Dan Levinson on sweet clarinet and tenor sax; John Von Ohlen on subtly propulsive drums.

I associate MARGIE with Bix Beiderbecke in 1928, with Duke in 1935, and with a wonderful rarity — a collector’s tape of Jack Teagarden soloing over that very same Bix recording.  It’s an old-fashioned song that doesn’t get old, and this performance has some of the rattling good humor of the Ruby Braff – Mel Powell – Paul Quinichette – Bobby Donaldson trio recordings for Vanguard:

THESE FOOLISH THINGS, to me, always summons up Lester Young — and Rossano’s piano playing evokes Ellis Larkins and Nat Cole without copying them.  Dan’s tenor solo shows that he might be thinking about the President as well:

SUNDAY hadn’t come yet, but this cheerful Jule Styne 1927 hit always evokes memories of the happy past — and the Jean Goldkette Victor.  (“Wanna see you next Sunday!  Ah-ha!  Ah-ha!” or words to that effect).  Some stride and a swinging wire brush solo do no one any harm:

Most jazz sets close with something quick, dramatic, loud.  If the audience isn’t standing and cheering, what went wrong?  But not this evocative group of brave explorers.  Rossano started off at a lovely slow tempo — seeming to creep sideways into a slow, slow blues — so reminiscent of the Lester / Nat Cole BACK TO THE LAND.  But we’ll just call it a BLUES:

Remarkable and unhackneyed.



My title is particularly true when you have Dan Block, Harry Allen, and Scott Robinson as the three reed wizards, floating over and around the playing of Rossano Sportiello, piano; Gene Bertoncini, guitar; Jon Burr, bass; Pete Siers, drums.  All of this took place in front of “my own two looking eyes” at Jazz at Chautauqua this past September. 

I’ve seen same-instrument extravaganzas slide into machismo, but it didn’t happen with these improvisers, who know how to play softly, with feeling, with intensity.  Dan Block certainly knows how to program a set — some Fifties Basie (composed by Freddie Green, I believe), a less-played Irving Berlin composition from CALL ME MADAM, and a sweet Ellington classic.   

CORNER POCKET (or UNTIL I MET YOU) started things off in a properly rocking groove: Rossano easily gets that Basie glide without copying the most tired trademarks of the Count’s style.  Pete Siers and Jon Burr rock without raising the volume, and even when you don’t quite hear what Gene Bertoncini is doing, the musicians do — he’s in there, as they used to say:

And the sweetly swaying conclusion (I was so delighted by what Gene had played and by the smiles on the musicians’ faces that I missed the start of Rossano’s solo):

THE BEST THING FOR ME (WOULD BE YOU) is often mis-announced as THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE, but we know that the first title is sometimes truer than the second.  I first heard the song on a wonderful Vanguard session led by Mel Powell, with Ruby Braff, Skeeter Best, Oscar Pettiford, and Bobby Donaldson, all masters.  Here the first chorus is For Saxes Only, then with the rhythm section joining in, Scott, Harry, Dan, Rossano, and Gene — each one his own brilliant shooting star:

And the best thing for us is more (beginning with an energetic conversation among the horns and ending at such a high level of collective improvisation, those lines weaving and swirling masterfully):

I associate IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD with Vic Dickenson and the sound of the early-Thirties Ellington band (Otto Hardwick singing out the lead): here, the eloquent melody statement and embellishment is handled nobly by Jon Burr, before the horns have a quietly rueful conversation backed by the whispering rhythm section:

More than enough inspiration for anyone!



Retta Christie continues to delight. 

Some contemporary singers approach their material through an ironic, cool pose.  Retta faces her songs directly.  Without being sentimental, she conveys their emotional force, letting lyrics and melody pass through her, opening herself to emotions.  She doesn’t overact; she doesn’t linger on syllables for “dramatic effect,” but you hear her heart. 

But don’t take my word for it — here’s a review by Maxwell Chandler (February 15, 2010) that echoes my sentiments: http://www.jazzpolice.com/content/view/8850/79/.

Retta’s first CD continues to give me much pleasure.  Simple rather than fussy, it is a trio — Retta on vocals and discreet brushes-on-snare drum backing; David Evans on tenor and clarinet; the splendid Dave Frishberg on piano.  The trio’s approach is easy, relaxed without being sleepy.  And they animate a wide variety of material, from Thirties pops and ballads to a few country classics.  I was amazed and amused to find myself playing RIDIN’ DOWN THE CANYON as my getting-to-work theme song.  Evans is a potent, light-toned player (I thought of Al Cohn) and Frishberg remains my favorite piano accompanist — tender, apt, and humorous.  The music I heard reminded me, in equal measure, of the Mel Powell – Bobby Donaldson – Paul Quinichette Vanguard session; the Cohn – Jimmy Rowles duet, with Retta adding to the ambiance rather than intruding. 

The second volume of this group’s brave yet casual exploration is just as satisfying, and that’s saying a good deal.  Retta’s swinging candor is worth the price of the disc — so that when she sings I GET THE BLUES WHEN IT RAINS, I think that she actually does — no fooling, no pretense.  She is no amateur, someone who just decided on whim,  “Gee, it would be fun to sing!” but she conveys the freshness of someone enthusiastic rather than someone who has studied hard at seeming enthusiastic.  I have no particular love for the conventions of “country” music, but I find Retta’s approach to her material charming.  I could listen to Evans and Frishberg all day — or until the cows come home, whichever is later.  

Retta has a touch of quiet audacity — the courage to approach FOOLIN’ MYSELF and A SAILBOAT IN THE MOONLIGHT on their own terms, so that the listener never thinks, “Oh, no, not another Little Billie.”  I found myself truly listening to the lyrics anew, hearing the song as if I hadn’t had Holiday’s records burned into my consciousness.  

This second session is openly a tribute to Retta’s great friend and musical mentor Jim Goodwin, a memorable cornetist, pianist, and life-force.  I would urge you to listen closely to her version of OLD FOLKS — a song she recorded specifically as a loving tribute to Goodwin, who died in 2009.  If you can listen to it without being moved by its peaceful sadness, by the love in eery turn of phrase, you are made of stern stuff.  

Retta also brings back I ONLY WANT A BUDDY, NOT A SWEETHEART (a song I know from the Dick Robertson Decca with Bobby Hackett) and she introduced me to ‘NEATH THE PURPLE ON THE HILLS, which has its own irresistible swaying motion, complete with “Yoo hoo”s at the right place.  I am very fond of the two instrumental tracks — ONLY A ROSE and SWEET AND SLOW — which showcase the two Davids, eloquently.  Doug Ramsey’s gently erudite liner notes are just right.  Like him, I am waiting for Volumes Three and Four and more.  Till that day, you should investigate One and Two.  Retta’s musical honesty is something I cherish.  Visit www.rettachristie.com. for more information.



Vanguard Ruby disc

Between 1953 and 1957, John Hammond supervised a series of record dates for the Vanguard label.  I first heard one of those records — the second volume of the THE VIC DICKENSON SHOWCASE — at my local library in the late Sixties, and fell in love. 

The Vanguard sessions featured Ruby Braff, Shad Collins, Buck Clayton, Joe Newman, Emmett Berry, Pat Jenkins, Doug Mettome, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Benny Green, Urbie Green, Lawrence Brown, Henderson Chambers, Ed Hall, Peanuts Hucko, Jimmy Buffington, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tate, Rudy Powell, Earle Warren, Lucky Thompson, Frank Wess, Pete Brown, Paul Quinichette, Mel Powell, Sir Charles Thompson, Jimmy Jones, Hank Jones, Sammy Price, Ellis Larkins, Nat Pierce, Steve Jordan, Skeeter Best, Kenny Burrell, Oscar Pettiford, Walter Page, Aaron Bell, Jo Jones, Bobby Donaldson, Jimmy Crawford, Jimmy Rushing, and others.

The list of artists above would be one answer to the question, “What made these sessions special?” but we all know of recordings with glorious personnel that don’t quite come together as art — perhaps there’s too little or too much arranging, or the recorded sound is not quite right, or one musician (a thudding drummer, an over-amplified bassist) throws everything off. 

The Vanguard sessions benefited immensely from Hammond’s imagination.  Although I have been severe about Hammond — as someone who interfered with musicians for whom he was offering support — and required that his preferences be taken seriously or else (strong-willed artists like Louis, Duke, and Frank Newton fought with or ran away from John).  Hammond may have been “difficult” and more, but his taste in jazz was impeccable.  And broad — the list above goes back to Sammy Price, Walter Page, and forward to Kenny Burrell and Benny Green. 

Later on, what I see as Hammond’s desire for strong flavors and novelty led him to champion Dylan and Springsteen, but I suspect that those choices were also in part because he could not endure watching others make “discoveries.”  Had it been possible to continue making records like the Vanguards eternally, I believe Hammond might have done so.   

Although Mainstream jazz was still part of the American cultural landscape in the early Fifties, and the artists Hammond loved were recording for labels large and small — from Verve, Columbia, Decca, all the way down to Urania and Period — he felt strongly about players both strong and subtle, musicians who had fewer opportunities to record sessions on their own.  At one point, Hammond and George Wein seemed to be in a friendly struggle to champion Ruby Braff, and I think Hammond was the most fervent advocate Vic Dickenson, Sir Charles Thompson, and Mel Powell ever had.  Other record producers, such as the astute George Avakian at Columbia, would record Jimmy Rushing, but who else was eager to record Pete Brown, Shad Collins, or Henderson Chambers?  No one but Hammond. 

And he arranged musicians in novel — but not self-consciously so — combinations.  For THE VIC DICKENSON SHOWCASE, it did not take a leap of faith to put Braff, Vic, and Ed Hall together in the studio, for they had played together at Boston’s Savoy Cafe in 1949.  And to encourage them to stretch out for leisurely versions of “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “Jeepers Creepers,” and “Russian Lullaby” was something that other record producers — notably Norman Granz — had been doing to capitalize on the longer playing time of the new recording format.  But after that rather formal beginning, Hammond began to be more playful.  The second SHOWCASE featured Shad Collins, the masterful and idiosyncratic ex-Basie trumpeter, in the lead, with Braff joining in as a guest star on two tracks. 

Vanguard Vic

Now, some of the finest jazz recordings were made in adverse circumstances (I think of the cramped Brunswick and Decca studios of the Thirties).  And marvelous music can be captured in less-than-ideal sound: consider Jerry Newman’s irreplaceable uptown recordings.  But the sound of the studio has a good deal to do with the eventual result.  Victor had, at one point, a converted church in Camden, New Jersey; Columbia had Liederkrantz Hall and its 30th Street Studios.  Hammond had a Masonic Temple on Clermont Avenue in Brooklyn, New York — with a thirty-five foot ceiling, wood floors, and beautiful natural resonance. 

The Vanguard label, formed by brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon, had devoted itself to beautiful-sounding classical recordings; Hammond had written a piece about the terrible sound of current jazz recordings, and the Solomons asked him if he would like to produce sessions for them.  Always eager for an opportunity to showcase musicians he loved, without interference, Hammond began by featuring Vic Dickenson, whose sound may never have been as beautifully captured as it was on the Vanguards. 

Striving for an entirely natural sound, the Vanguards were recorded with one microphone hanging from the ceiling.  The players in the Masonic Temple did not know what the future would hold — musicians isolated behind baffles, listening to their colleagues through headphones — but having one microphone would have been reminiscent of the great sessions of the Thirties and Forties.  And musicians often become tense at recording sessions, no matter how professional or experienced they are — having a minimum of engineering-interference can only have added to the relaxed atmosphere in the room. 

The one drawback of the Masonic Temple was that loud drumming was a problem: I assume the sound ricocheted around the room.  So for most of these sessions, either Jo Jones or Bobby Donaldson played wire brushes or the hi-hat cymbal, with wonderful results.  (On the second Vic SHOWCASE, Jo’s rimshots explode like artillery fire on RUNNIN’ WILD, most happily, and Jo also was able to record his lengthy CARAVAN solo, so perhaps the difficulty was taken care of early.)  On THE NAT PIERCE BANDSTAND — a session recently reissued on Fresh Sound — you can hear the lovely, translucent sound Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones made, their notes forming three-dimensional sculpture on BLUES YET? and STOMP IT OFF. 

Vanguard Vic 2(Something for the eyes.  I am not sure what contemporary art directors would make of this cover, including Vic’s socks, and the stuffed animals, but I treasure it, even though there is a lion playing a concertina.)

What accounted for the beauty of these recordings might be beyond definition.  Were the musicians so happy to be left alone that they played better than ever?  Was it the magisterial beat and presence of Walter Page on many sessions?  Was it Hammond’s insistence on unamplified rhythm guitar?  Whatever it was, I hear these musicians reach into those mystical spaces inside themselves with irreplaceable results.  On these recordings, there is none of the reaching-for-a-climax audible on many records.  Nowhere is this more apparent than on the sessions featuring Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins.  Braff had heard Larkins play duets with Ella Fitzgerald for Decca (reissued on CD as PURE ELLA) and told Hammond that he, too, wanted to play with Larkins.  Larkins’ steady, calm carpet of sounds balances Braff’s tendency towards self-dramatization, especially on several Bing Crosby songs — PLEASE and I’VE GOT A POCKETFUL OF DREAMS.  Vanguard Ruby

Ruby and Ellis were reunited several times in the next decades, for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label and twice for Arbors, as well as onstage at a Braff-organized tribute to Billie Holiday, but they never sounded so poignantly wonderful as on the Vanguards. 

Hammond may have gotten his greatest pleasure from the Basie band of the late Thirties, especially the small-group sessions, so he attempted to give the Vanguards the same floating swing, using pianists Thompson and Pierce, who understood what Basie had done without copying it note for note.  For THE JO JONES SPECIAL, Hammond even managed to reunite the original “All-American Rhythm Section” for two versions of “Shoe Shine Boy.”  Thompson — still with us at 91 — recorded with Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones for an imperishable quartet session.  If you asked me to define what swing is, I might offer their “Swingtime in the Rockies” as compact, enthralling evidence. 

Hammond was also justifiably enthusiastic about pianist Mel Powell — someone immediately identifiable in a few bars, his style merging Waller, Tatum, astonishing technique, sophisticated harmonies, and an irrepressible swing — and encouraged him to record in trios with Braff, with Paul Quinichette, with Clayton and Ed Hall, among others.  One priceless yet too brief performance is Powell’s WHEN DID YOU LEAVE HEAVEN? with French hornist Jimmy Buffington in the lead — a spectral imagining of the Benny Goodman Trio. 

Vanguard Mel 2

The last Vanguards were recorded in 1957, beautiful sessions featuring Buck Clayton and Jimmy Rushing.  I don’t know what made the series conclude.  Did the recordings not sell well?  Vanguard turned to the burgeoning folk movement shortly after.  Or was it that Hammond had embarked on this project for a minimal salary and no royalties and, even given his early patrician background, had to make a living?  But these are my idea of what jazz recordings should sound like, for their musicality and the naturalness of their sound.

I would like to be able to end this paean to the Vanguards by announcing a new Mosaic box set containing all of them.  But I can’t.  And it seems as if forces have always made these recordings difficult to obtain in their original state.  Originally, they were issued on ten-inch long-playing records (the format that record companies thought 78 rpm record buyers, or their furniture, would adapt to most easily).  But they made the transition to the standard twelve-inch format easily.  The original Vanguard records didn’t stay in print for long in their original format.  I paid twenty-five dollars, then a great deal of money, for a vinyl copy of BUCK MEETS RUBY from the now-departed Dayton’s Records on Twelfth Street in Manhattan.  In the Seventies, several of the artists with bigger names, Clayton, Jo Jones, and Vic, had their sessions reissued in America on two-lp colletions called THE ESSENTIAL.  And the original vinyl sessions were reissued on UK issues for a few minutes in that decade. 

When compact discs replaced vinyl, no one had any emotional allegiance to the Vanguards, although they were available in their original formats (at high prices) in Japan.  The Vanguard catalogue was bought by the Welk Music Group (the corporate embodiment of Champagne Music).  in 1999, thirteen compact discs emerged: three by Braff, two by “the Basie Bunch,” two by Mel Powell, two by Jimmy Rushing, one by Sir Charles, one by Vic.  On the back cover of the CDs, the credits read: “Compilation produced by Steve Buckingham” and “Musical consultant and notes by Samuel Charters.”  I don’t know either of them personally, and I assume that their choices were controlled by the time a compact disc allows, but the results are sometimes inexplicable.  The sound of the original sessions comes through clearly but sessions are scrambled and incomplete, except for the Braff-Larkins material, which they properly saw as untouchable.  And rightly so.  The Vanguard recordings are glorious.  And they deserve better presentation than they’ve received.

P.S.  Researching this post, I went to the usual sources — Amazon and eBay — and there’s no balm for the weary or the deprived.  On eBay, a vinyl BUCK MEETS RUBY is selling for five times as much.  That may be my twenty-five dollars, adjusted for inflation, but it still seems exorbitant. 

On eBay I also saw the most recent evidence of the corruption, if not The Decline, of the West.  Feast your eyes on this CD cover:

Vanguard Visionaries corrupt

Can you imagine Jimmy Rushing’s reaction — beyond the grave — on learning that his reputation rested on his being an influence on Jamie Cullum, Norah Jones, and Harry Connick, Jr.?  I can’t.  The Marketing Department has been at work!  But I’d put up with such foolishness if I could have the Vanguards back again.




The wonderful reed player Frank Roberscheuten, pianist Rossano Sportiello, and drummer Martin Breinschmid mad a CD — they call their trio THREE WISE MEN.  And they are!  Here’s what I had to say in Cadence (January-March 2008) about the disc:

Often, the most traditional Jazz trio format – a reed player, pianist, and drummer – leads well-intentioned players into tributes to Goodman. That is hardly a bad thing, and I’ve heard many stirring evocations, but there is more to say from the instrumentation and the format. This CD goes its own way in featuring a balanced international small group whose scope reaches from James P. Johnson and Bud Freeman to Horace Silver, Monk, and Miles, never compromising the material or forcing it into stylistic boxes. Roberschuten can purl through a lovely rubato verse and then shift into tempo to deliver swinging improvisations, concise yet musically expansive. He has learned a great deal from his instrumental ancestors but his approach is a creative synthesis. On tenor, he has a Getz-Cohn fluidity, which doesn’t stop him from doing a splendid version of Bud Freeman’s bubbles and flourishes on “The Eel.” His clarinet playing is nuanced, caressing, and free from cliché, whether he is playing a Thirties pop song or a Jim Hall waltz. And his charming alto sound blends Phil Woods and Hilton Jefferson to great effect. He loves to linger over the melody, as on “You’re Mine, You,” a rewarding song that hasn’t been overdone. And his original, “From the East,” suggests late-period Ellington and Strayhorn. Throughout, I was reminded of the marvelous cohesiveness of sound, rhythm, and conception that distinguished the early Fifties Vanguard sessions – in particular the trios of Ruby Braff or Paul Quinichette with Mel Powell and Bobby Donaldson. Pianist Sportiello remains a champion: hear his beautiful touch on “Detour Ahead,” and “You’re A Sweetheart,” his astonishing whirlwind on “Dearest,” and marvel at his pushing accompaniment throughout. He suggests Jimmy Rowles or Tommy Flanagan when he is being serene; Ralph Sutton, Donald Lambert, and Dave McKenna when he chooses to stomp. A loud, uneven, or passive-aggressive drummer can sink a trio, but there’s no danger here. Breinschmid has listened closely to Krupa, but isn’t hemmed in by that style: his work on “Dark Eyes” is both homage to the originals and his own improvement on them; his brushwork on “You’re A Sweetheart” is reminiscent of Jo Jones in his prime. I never yearned for the absent bass player or guitarist, and there’s no monotony on this disc. I would begin with “How Deep Is the Ocean?” which combines deep feeling and forward motion at the same time. (The session is beautifully recorded, too.) If Roberscheuten is an unfamiliar name, he has also been an integral part of the debut CD by “Three’s A Crowd,” which matches him with the fine singer Shaunette Hildabrand and pianist Bernd Lhozsky. And the witty, ambling liner notes by trombonist Dan Barrett are assurance of Jazz quality.

The good news is twofold.  First, you can order the CD from frank.roberscheuten@planet.nl for $18, including shipping.  And I recommend that you do so!

Even better: the trio recorded another excellent session last month, which they are calling GETTING TOGETHER.  It should be available for purchase in a few weeks.  I will point out, immodestly, that I wrote the notes for the CD — music that’s easy to praise.