Tag Archives: Bojangles

FROM THE HEART, FOR THE HEART: RAY SKJELBRED’S “FIRST THURSDAY BAND” (Dec. 1, 2011)

Feeling low?  Got a parking ticket?  Can’t shake that nasty cold?  Worried about the bills?  Did you burn the toast?

It’s going to be all right.  In fact, it’s already all right. 

Make yourself to home and listen to this music.  Or — if you’re swiffing around, turn up the volume and feel the deep swinging joy this band creates.

They’re Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band, caught live at the New Orleans Restaurant in Seattle, Washington, on December 1, 2011.  They are Ray Skjelbred, piano / leader; Steve Wright, cornet, clarinet, alto and soprano saxes; Dave Brown, string bass; Mike Daugherty, drums.

And — in the spirit of the season — do you hear what I hear?  I hear a real jazz band.  “What’s that?” I hear someone in the back saying.  Well, that’s an improvising group where all the members love the music and work together towards the same purpose, supporting one another in a gritty joyousness appropriate to the song, picking up each others’ cues, playing witty follow-the-leader so that one hears simultaneously a quartet and four strong-minded individualists taking their own path to get to their own versions of Jazz Paradise.

I also hear echoes of Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Fud Livingston, Guy Kelly, Doc Poston, Earl Hines, Frank Melrose, Wellman Braud, Milton J. Hinton, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty (a relation, perhaps?), George Wettling — all embodied on December 1, 2011, by living creators who have absorbed the tradition and made it their own.  Who cares if people fight cyber-skirnishes in the blogosphere about whether “J**z” is alive or dead?  Call this by whatever polite name you like: it is most certainly alive.

The first song and performance that caught my attention was LOVE ME TONIGHT, which is associated in my mind with Earl Hines and Bing Crosby — one hell of a pair!  It is a lovely song: with lyrics, one of the most insinuating seduction lyrics I know (perhaps more wooing than A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY): a carpe diem pointed towards the bedroom.  But here it’s a bit more lowwdown, suggesting that Chicago jazz was a powerful aphrodisiac as well:

And here’s a lowdown Commodore JADA:

Something unusual from Mister Piano Man — a little solo tribute to someone quite forgotten, Cassino Simpson.  All most of us know of him is that he worked with Tiny Parham and did his own Chicago gigs, before succumbing to mental instability.  After he unsuccessfully tried to kill Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, he was institutionalized and I believe he spent the rest of his life there.  The noble John Steiner took recording equipment to Simpson and recorded him playing piano in 1942: the results, very hard to find even fifty years ago, appeared on a Paramont 10″ lp, which I’ve heard but never seen.  Mister Skjelbred gives us a window into the blues — the Cassino Simpson way:

And something pretty, soulful, as well as funky: Ellington’s BLACK BEAUTY:

Here’s a truly mournful TRAV’LIN ALL ALONE (Ethel Waters – Jimmie Noone – Kenny Davern tempo, not Billie’s ironic bounce):

And a rather obscure tune from 1936 — I associate it only with Henry “Red” Allen, but that’s sufficient pedigree for anyone — NOTHING’S BLUE BUY THE SKY:

Something else from Red (circa 1933), his affirmation that everything is really OK — THE RIVER’S TAKIN’ CARE OF ME:

And the song that could stand as the band’s secondary title, summing up their attitude towards their work and their art, LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY (think of Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, and Jeni LeGon in STORMY WEATHER).  Ray sings the delectable lyrics softly, but you might consider memorizing them — you could do far worse for a mantra to get you through every day:

What exquisite music — delicate and raunchy at the same time!

P.S.  I don’t want to be especially preachy, but I would like all the youthful musicians in the house to watch and listen closely to these clips — for the deep unspoken unity of the quartet, the shifting sound-textures, and numberless virtues.  Mister Skjelbred doesn’t cover the keyboard with runs and arpeggios (unless he wants to); his left hand is integral to his playing; he could be a whole orchestra but doesn’t trample on anyone.  Mister Wright knows everything there is to know about “tonation and phrasing”: not a note is out of place and each one has its own purpose, its own sound.  And, children, there were ways of playing the alto saxophone that Charles Parker did not render obsolete.  Mister Daugherty does so much with so few cymbals — bless him! — he knows what his snare drum and bass drum are for; he swings those wire brushes, and he is always listening.  And Mister Brown, whether plucking or bowing, gets a deep resonant yet flexible sound out of his bass.  Want to know what kind of amplifier he uses?  It’s called LOVE.  And although he can play the guitar beautifully, he doesn’t turn his string bass into one.  There!  I have spoken.  Learn it to the younguns!

“JAZZ LIVES” GOES TO A PARTY (August 9, 2011)

Marc Caparone and Dawn Lambeth are dear friends and superb musicians.  When they heard that the Beloved and I were coming to California for much of this summer, Marc proposed a jazz evening to be held at their house, and spoke of it in the most flattering way as the “Michael Steinman Jazz Party,” a name that both embarrassed and delighted me.

And it happened on Tuesday, August 9, 2011.  You’ll see some of the results here: great music from good-humored, generous people.

The guests — of a musical sort — were a small group of warmly rewarding musicians.  Besides Marc (cornet and string bass) and Dawn (vocals), there were Dan Barrett (trombone, cornet), John “Butch” Smith (soprano and alto saxophones), Vinnie Armstrong (piano), and Mike Swan (guitar and vocals).  The listeners included the Beloved, Bill and Sandy Gallagher (fine friends and jazz enthusiasts), Cathie Swan (Mike’s wife), Mary Caparone (Marc’s mother), James Arden Caparone (four months but with a great musical future in front of him), and a few others whose names I didn’t get to record (so sorry!).

Jazz musicians take great pleasure in these informal, relaxed happenings: no pressure to play faster, louder, to show off to an already sated crowd.  In such settings, even the most familiar old favorites take on new life, and unusual material blossoms.  We all witnessed easy, graceful, witty, heartfelt improvising on the spot.  And you will, too.

Jazz itself was the guest of honor.  Everyone knew that their efforts were also reaching the larger audience of JAZZ LIVES, so this happy cyber-audience was in attendance as well, although silent.

The first informal group (Dan on cornet, Butch on soprano, Vinnie, Marc on bass, and Mike) led off with Walter Donaldson’s MY BUDDY, performed at what I think of as Lionel Hampton 1939 tempo:

Then, evoking memories of Jim Goodwin and the Sunset Music Company (more about that later), the band created a buoyant homage to Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, to Duke Ellington, and to Bill Robinson, in DOIN’ THE NEW LOWDOWN:

A request from the Beloved for ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET (in 1945 Goodman Sextet tempo) was both honored and honorable:

Dawn — sweetly full of feeling and casual swing — joined the band for S’WONDERFUL:

After Dan told one of his Ruby Braff stories, Dawn followed up with BLUE MOON, one of her favorites, and you can hear The Boy (that’s James Arden) singing along in his own fashion:

Then the band shifted — Marc put down the string bass and picked up his cornet to lead the way alongside Dan, now on trombone, for ROSETTA:

And a really fascinating exploration of a song that isn’t played much at all (although Billie, Lester, Roy, and the Kansas City Five are back of it), LAUGHING AT LIFE, explored in the best way by Marc, Butch, and Vinnie:

Mike Swan joined this trio for a truly soulful IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN:

Without prelude, Mike launched into the verse of WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS (Dan couldn’t help himself and joined in): what a singer Mike is (and he’s listened hard to Crosby, always a good thing)!

Mike also began MELANCHOLY with Dan — wait for Marc and Vinnie adding their voices to this improvisation:

And the session ended with GEORGIA ON MY MIND, scored for a trio of Dan, Mike, and Vinnie:

The informal session came to a gentle stop there, but the music didn’t go away.  Butch had brought with him a video (taken from Dutch television in 1978) of the Sunset Music Company — a band featuring banjoist Lueder Ohlwein, cornetist Jim Goodwin, trombonist Barrett, reedman Smith, pianist Armstrong.  Since Vinnie and Dan and I had never seen the video, we all retreated to the den and watched it.

It was both moving and hilarious to see the men of 2011 watching their much younger 1978 selves, as well as a moving tribute to those who were no longer with us.  I wish there had been time and space to make a documentary about those men watching themselves play. . . . perhaps it’s possible.

I feel immensely fortunate to be surrounded by such beauty, and to have my name attached to it in even the most tangential way is a deep honor.  I can’t believe that it happened, and I send the most admiring thanks to all concerned.  Even if you weren’t there, unable to witness this creation at close range, I think the generous creativity of these musicians will gratify you as well.  This post is a gift also to those who will see it and couldn’t be there: Arianna, Mary, Melissa, Aunt Ida, Hal, June, Candace, Dave, Jeff, Barbara, Sonny, Clint, David, Maxine, Ricky, Margaret, Ella, Melody . . . the list goes on.  These gigabytes and words are sent with love.

A postscript.  JAZZ LIVES is so engrossed with music that I rarely write about anything else, but if you are ever in the Paso Robles, California, area, I urge you to consider spending a night (as the Beloved and I did) at the accurately-named INN PARADISO, 975 Mojave Lane (805-239-2800: innparadiso@att.net).  We have never stayed at a more satisfying place.  Everything was beautiful and comfortable — from the room to the view to the quiet to the dee-licious breakfast, to the gentle friendly kindnesses of Dawna and Steve — making it a genuinely memorable experience.  I want to go back!  See for yourself at www.innparadiso.com.

FOR LOUIS: BIRDLAND, April 14, 2010

It’s very simple.  For just about ten years, David Ostwald (tubaist-raconteur) has organized regular Wednesday jazz sessions at Birdland in midtown Manhattan, getting congenial friends together to honor Louis Armstrong.  Depending on the phase of the moon, the band is called either the GULLY LOW JAZZ BAND or the LOUIS ARMSTRONG CENTENNIAL BAND.  Names don’t matter much — GULLY LOW BLUES was one of Louis’s most stirring recordings of 1927, and the CENTENNIAL BAND plays music associated with The Master.

David could not be there this night — April 14, 2010 — and it took two players to replace him.  One was Vince Giordano, singing, announcing tunes, and playing banjo, keeping the rhythm riding.  Bass chores were handled nimbly by Brian Nalepka, who slapped away in fine style and also sang on SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.  That hero of the snare drum, Marion Felder, kept a swinging pulse without raising his volume.  In the front line, a newcomer to Birdland (but not to us), clarinetist Dennis Lichtman wove beautiful curlicues around the melody, making every note count.  Dion Tucker, sometimes gruff, sometimes tender, shone in solo and in ensemble.  And Gordon Au constructed lovely solos whether the band was lamenting or shouting. 

(I only found out something about Gordon’s heroic ancestry — and that’s because the Beloved asked the right question: did you know that his “Uncle Howie” is the extraordinary trumpet / tuba / trombone / vocalist Howard Miyata, with the High Sierra Jazz Band and the New El Dorado Jazz Band?  Gordon didn’t take lessons from his uncle, but Howard did give his young nephew a cornet . . . from which marvels have come.)

The band began, as it usually does, with WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH that segues into INDIANA, the way Louis used to begin his concerts with the All-Stars:

Then Vince called the joyous Fats Waller tune, I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY (something Louis sang and played so beautifully in the Fifties).  And Vince sang, exuberantly:

ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, a classic at a number of tempos, was Brian Nalepka’s choice for a vocal feature:

(For his feature, Dion Tucker did a sorrowing I SURRENDER, DEAR, but I had technical problems with the video — the sweet-natured waitperson came over in the middle of it to ask us culinary questions.  Sorry, Dion!)

Returning to the Land of Waller, Vince called for a brisk AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ — at a tempo that reminded him of the 1929 version that Bill Robinson recorded with a small Ellington contingent:

Dennis Lichtman showed his fluid swing on BLUE SKIES (fitting because Louis loved Irving Berlin’s melodies and, I think, recorded this one circa 1943 with his big band):

An audience member (was it Steve?) called out HELLO, DOLLY! when Vince asked for requests:

The second set began with a rocking CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN:

Vince reminded us that Louis’s recordings of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING are slow and spacious, frankly operatic:

And — for a closing rouser — the band launched into AFTER YOU’VE GONE:

All for you, Louis!

“MONSTROUS!” SHE SAYS

Lisa Ryan, who creates lovely impressionistic YouTube video-collages related to Bix Beiderbecke, sent along this quotation she found in a biography of Josephine Baker.  The speaker is dancer Isadora Duncan:

It seems to me monstrous that anyone should believe that the jazz rhythm expresses America. Jazz rhythm expresses the primitive savage.

I wonder what “jazz rhythm” she had heard in her days and nights in the United States, Paris, and Moscow.  Had she been terrortized by the primitive passions of Bechet, Miley, or Oliver, I would understand.  But I wonder if the music that so upset her was no more than a tea-dance band (violin, saxophone, piano, drums) one-stepping through STUMBLING.  Or did she get upset when someone read Vachel Lindsay’s THE CONGO aloud? 

Poor Miss Duncan: she didn’t go to the right places or hear the right recordings.  Would James P. Johnson’s SNOWY MORNING BLUES have struck her as “monstrous,” or the dancing of Bill Robinson?  Was her terror the fear of all things African-American?  I hope not. 

I must be off, to see David Ostwald and the Louis Armstrong Centennial Band devote themselves to the music of that “savage” Mr. Armstrong.  It will amuse me to envision Miss Duncan, clapping her hands over her ears and fleeing as the band begins its Wednesday night ritual of WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH.  Oh, what Isadora missed . . . !

MR. ARMSTRONG AND MR. ROBINSON

“To me he was the greatest comedian + dancer in my race.  He didn’t need black face—to be funny.  Better than Bert Williams.  I personally Admired Bill Robinson because he was immaculately dressed — you could see the Quality in his Clothes from the stage.  Stopped every show. . . . I don’t think that there will ever be a Bojangles Bill Robinson again.  They might try to Duplicate him, but I doubt it.  May the Lord bless his soul.  I am very proud to say that I shared the stage with the great Bill Bojangles Robinson’ many times for many years.  Yessir.

from Louis Armstrong + The Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., The Year of 1907, reprinted in LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN HIS OWN WORDS, ed. Thomas Brothers.