Tag Archives: Boyce Brown

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT
September 20, 1905 – January 18, 1981

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your happiness increase!

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“RARE WILD BILL”: WILD BILL DAVISON 1925-1960

rare-wild-bill

Initially, I was somewhat skeptical of this set, having heard the late cornetist — in person and on record — repeat himself note-for-note, the only questions being whether a) he was in good form and thus looser, and b) whether the surrounding musicians provided some extra energy and inspiration.  However, this 2-disc set, released in 2015, is fascinating and comprehensive . . . even if you were to find William a limited pleasure.  The Amazon link — which has a title listing — is here.

The set covers Bill’s work from 1925 to 1960, and I would bet a mint copy of THAT’S A PLENTY (Commodore 12″) that only the most fervent Davison collectors would have heard — much less owned — more than twenty percent of the 52 tracks here.  Thanks for the material are due Daniel Simms, who is undoubtedly the greatest WBD collector on this or any other planet.  (And some tracks that I’ve heard and known for years in dim cassette copies are sharp and clear here.)

A brief tour.  The set begins with three 1925 Gennett sides where Bill is a member of the Chubb-Steinberg Orchestra of Cincinnati.  He’s much more in the open on three 1928 Brunswick sides by the Benny Meroff Orchestra, SMILING SKIES being the most famous.  On the Meroff sides, although Bill was at one point billed as “The White Armstrong,” I hear him on his own path . . . at times sounding much more like Jack Purvis, exuberant and rough, rather than Louis.

We jump forward to 1941 — Bill sounding perfectly like himself — and the two rare “Collector’s Item Cats” sides featuring the deliciously elliptical Boyce Brown on alto, and eight acetates from Milwaukee — where Bill plays mellophone as well as cornet, offering a sweet melody statement on GOIN’ HOME before playing hot.  Two Western Swing sides for Decca, featuring “Denver Darling” on vocals and “Wild Bill Davison and his Range Riders,” from 1946, follow — here I see the fine sly hand of Milt Gabler at work, getting one of “the guys” another gig.

A live recording from Eddie Condon’s club — with Brad Gowans, Tony Parenti, Gene Schroeder, Bob Casey, and George Wettling — is a rare treat, and with the exception of the “American Music Festival” broadcast from 1948 on WNYC, much of the second disc finds Bill and Eddie together, with Pee Wee Russell, Lord Buckley, Walter Page, Peanuts Hucko, Cutty Cutshall, Buzzy Drootin and other heroes, both from the fabled Condon Floor Show and even Steve Allen’s Tonight Show, covering 1948-1953, with a lovely ballad medley on the last set. One track, KISS ME, a hit for singer Claire Hogan, has her delivering the rather obvious lyrics, but with some quite suggestive yet wholly instrumental commentary from Bill which suggests that more than a chaste peck on the cheek is the subject.  Incidentally, Condon’s guitar is well-recorded and rich-sounding throughout these selections.

A basement session (St. Louis, 1955) provides wonderfully fanciful music: Bill, John Field, Walt Gifford, improvising over piano rolls by Zez Confrey, Fats, and James P. Johnson.  These four t racks — beautifully balanced — offer some gently melodic improvisations from Bill as well as nicely recorded bass and drums. Also from St. Louis, six performances by a “Pick-Up Band” with standard instrumentation, including Herb Ward, Joe Barufaldi, and Danny Alvin (the last in splendid form).  Four unissued tracks where Bill, George Van Eps, Stan Wrightsman, Morty Corb, and Nick Fatool (the West Coast equivalent of Hank Jones, Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton, and Osie Johnson) join Bill in backing the otherwise unknown singer Connie Parsons; and the set ends with three tracks from a 1960 session where Bill shares the front line with the astonishing Abe Lincoln (who takes a rare vocal on MAIN STREET) and Matty Matlock.

The level of this set is much higher than what most have come to expect from a collection of rarities — in performance and in audio quality.  It isn’t a typical “best of” collection, repeating the classic performances well-known to us; rather, it shows Bill off at his best in a variety of contexts.  Thus, it’s the kind of set one could happily play all the way through without finding it constricting or tedious. I recommend it highly.

May your happiness increase!

“HOPES, UNREALIZED”: WORDS AND MUSIC BY BOYCE BROWN

Thanks again to Scott Black, finder (and rescuer) of lost treasures.  I’d known that the remarkable Chicago alto saxophonist and deep thinker Boyce Brown wrote poetry, but the only example I’d ever read was his paean to the joys of marijuana — Royal-T — that was reproduced in EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ.

But here is a true poem — to be considered slowly and perhaps sadly:

boyce-brown-improvisations

Here are several samples of Boyce’s work — easy to underestimate, to take for granted.  But even at fast tempos, there is some of the same haunting melancholy in it.  This session is from January 1935 (organized by Helen Oakley, later Helen Oakley Dance) and features Paul Mares, Santo Pecora, Omer Simeon, Jess Stacy, Marvin Saxbe, Pat Pattison, George Wettling.

THE LAND OF DREAMS (an improvisation on BASIN STREET BLUES, in its own way):

and, from the same session, NAGASAKI:

MAPLE LEAF RAG:

and a slow blues, titled by Boyce, REINCARNATION:

And here is Boyce with Jimmy McPartland, Bud Jacobson, Floyd Bean, Dick McPartland, Jim Lannigan, Hank Isaacs, for CHINA BOY, recorded a few months after the poem:

Euterpe, first the Muse of music and then of lyric poetry, might have been particularly significant to Boyce since in all the representations I have seen she is blowing into a flute or other wind instrument.  Did she destroy this devotee?  I do not think so, but Boyce — eternally dissatisfied with his own work, at least as realized on records, might have disagreed.

Jim Denham, Hal Smith, and I have been fascinated by Boyce for years, and I’ve written several long essay-posts about him.  The links may be defunct, but the facts remain relevant.  You can find out more about Boyce here and here and in Hal Willard’s 1999 portrait here. I find his story engrossing and terribly sad — from his precarious entry into the world to his search for people who would understand him — both in the musical and religious worlds — and what I think of as his gentle despair at his not being welcomed for himself. The “harsh, commercial” world might not have ruined him, but the poetic spirit that was Boyce Brown was ill-fit for its haste and clamor.

May your happiness increase!

TRUTH IN (HOT) ADVERTISING: THE FAT BABIES, “SOLID GASSUH,” DELMARK RECORDS 257

We hope this truth can be made evident.  The new CD by The Fat Babies, SOLID GASSUH, on Delmark Records, embodies Truth in Advertising in its title and its contents.

solid-gassuh

“Solid gassuh,” as Ricky Riccardi — the Master of all things Louis — informs us in his excellent liner notes, was Louis’ highest expression of praise.  (I’d like to see it replace “sick” and “killin'” in the contemporary lexicon.  Do I dream?)

The Fat Babies are a superb band — well-rehearsed but sublimely loose, authentic but not stiff.  If you don’t know them, you are on the very precipice of Having Missed Out On Something Wonderful — which I can rectify herehere, and here.  (Those posts come from July 29, 2016 at the Evergreen Jazz Festival, and feature the “new” Fat Babies with the addition of the heroic Jonathan Doyle on reeds.)

SOLID GASSUH was recorded at the Babies’ hangout, the Honky Tonk BBQ, but there’s no crowd noise — which is fine — and the recorded sound is especially spacious and genuine, thanks to Mark Haynes and Alex Hall.  I know it’s unusual to credit the sound engineers first, but when so many recordings sound like recordings rather than music, they deserve applause.

The Babies, for this recording, their third, are Andy Schumm, cornet and arrangements; Dave Bock, trombone; John Otto, reeds; Paul Asaro, piano and vocals (also the chart for EGYPTIAN ELLA), Jake Sanders, banjo and guitar, Beau Sample, leader, string bass; Alex Hall, drums.

Their repertoire, for those deep in this music, says so much about this band — DOCTOR BLUES / AFTER A WHILE / FEELIN’ GOOD / DID YOU EVER SEE A DREAM WALKING? / ORIGINAL CHARLESTON STRUT / PENCIL PAPA / I MISS A LITTLE MISS / PARKWAY STOMP / YOU WERE ONLY PASSING TIME WITH ME / ALABAMY BOUND / SLOW RIVER / DELIRIUM / EGYPTIAN ELLA / SING SONG GIRL / MAPLE LEAF RAG.  There are many associations here, but without looking anything up I think of Ben Pollack, Paul Mares, Boyce Brown, Ted Lewis, Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke, Fud Livingston, Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Luis Russell, Bud Freeman, Bing Crosby, Nat Finston, Thomas Morris, Lil Hardin, Sidney Catlett, Al Wynn, Punch Miller, Alex Hill . . . and you can fill in the other blanks for yourself.  And even though some of the songs may be “obscure,” each track is highly melodic and dramatic without ever being melodramatic.  (As much as we love ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, it’s reassuring to know that it wasn’t the only song ever played.)

The Babies are remarkable for what they aren’t — not a “Dixieland” or “New Orleans” or “Condon” ensemble, but a group of musicians who obviously have studied the players, singers, and the recordings, but use them as inspired framework for their own creativity.  Occasionally, the Babies do offer us a transcription of a venerable recorded performance, but it is so energized (and by that I don’t mean faster or louder) that it seems as if someone has cleaned centuries of dust off an Old Master and it’s seen freshly.  More often, they use portions of an original arrangement, honoring it, as a way to show off their own bright solos.  So the effect at times is not an “updating,” but music seen from another angle, an alternate take full of verve and charm, as if the fellows had been playing the song on the job rather than in the studio.

If you follow the Babies, and many do, you will have known that this recording is coming, and will already have it.  When my copy arrived, I played it through three times in a row, marveling at its energy and precision, its lively beating heart.  SOLID GASSUH is immensely satisfying, as are the Fat Babies themselves.

You can purchase the disc and hear sound samples here, and  this is the Delmark Records site, where good music (traditional and utterly untraditional) flourishes.

May your happiness increase!

“I GIVE UP, HONEY!” or WORDS TO THAT EFFECT (San Diego Jazz Fest, Nov. 30, 2014)

surrender lanin

Both Louis and  Bing recorded this wonderfully emotional song in 1931, as did the Boswell Sisters and Sam Wooding.  In the decade to come, Red Norvo, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Mundy, Artie Shaw, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Bob Zurke and Joe Rushton, Harry James, Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison, Frank Trumbauer, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum.  And that’s only its first decade, and only those performances that were recorded.

surrender1

But we are also concerned with the more recent present — since I call this blog, with full intent, JAZZ LIVES.  On November 30, 2014, a stellar ad hoc small band under the leadership of pianist, vocalist, composer, and fantasist Ray Skjelbred took the stand at the San Diego Jazz Fest, and performed this song.

Before they begin (after the little whimsical 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert interlude)  — you can hear someone, perhaps  Marc, warping its title into I SEE RENDERED DEER, but this is America and freedom of speech is said to prevail.  The other nobilities on the stand are Hal Smith, drums; Beau Sample, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jim Buchmann, clarinet and saxello:

The mood, for those who know their antecedents, is more Boyce Brown – Wild Bill Davison (“The Collector’s Item Cats”) than Bing.  But for those who haven’t had enough of this lovely song in its natural habitat, here is something rare and, even better, complete.  Bing starred in several Mack Sennett shorts early in his career, often appearing as himself and delighting in the slapstick and broad verbal comedy.  Here is I SURRENDER, DEAR:

May your happiness increase!

A FEW GLOWING SECONDS OF GLORY

When I returned to my apartment in New York, I thought, “I need music in here. Music will help remind me who I am, what I am supposed to be doing, where my path might lead.”  Initially I reached for some favorite performances for consolation, then moved over to the crates of homemade audiocassettes — evidence of more than twenty-five years of tape-trading with like-minded souls.

One tape had the notation PRIVATE CHICAGO, and looking at it, I knew that it was the gift of Leonora Taylor, who preferred to be called “Gypsy,” and who had an unusual collection of music.  When I asked drummer / scholar Hal Smith about her, he reminded me that she loved the UK clarinetist Archie Semple. Although I don’t recall having much if any Archie to offer her, we traded twenty or thirty cassettes.

PRIVATE CHICAGO had some delightful material recorded (presumably) at the Evanston, Illinois house of Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft — amateur pianist, sometime composer, friend / benefactor to jazz musicians. Squirrel was both a dear friend of Pee Wee Russell, Joe Rushton, Eddie Condon, Boyce Brown, Johnny Mercer, George Barnes, Lee Wiley, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, and many others — one facet of a very intriguing life.  He deserves a biography.

But back to the music.

I played through the side of the cassette, rewound it, and played it again.  And I kept returning to a short improvisation: BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC, played by Johnny Windhurst (cornet or trumpet) and Jack Gardner (piano) with possibly other players in the background — I hear a murmuring clarinet offering harmony notes — recorded, Gypsy’s typed notes say, circa 1950.

Neither Windhurst nor Gardner is as well known as they should be. Windhurst (1926-1981) was recognized young as a brilliant player, and got to play with the best — Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster in Boston when he wasn’t voting age, then Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Kenny Kersey, John Field, Jimmy Crawford a few years later, moving on to be one of Eddie Condon’s regulars, briefly recording with Jack Teagarden and on his own date with Buell Neidlinger, on a Walt Gifford session, with Barbara Lea (he was both colleague and boyfriend) then moving upstate to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he died too young (once being mugged and beaten) of a heart attack.

I saw him in person once, at Your Father’s Mustache in New York in 1972 — with Herb Hall and Herb Gardner (the latter someone who is very much with us) and Red Balaban.  Windhurst was capable of the most beautiful melodic flights of fancy — a cross between heavenly music of the highest order and Bobby Hackett — but he couldn’t read music, disdained the idea of doing so, and thus turned down higher-paying and possibly higher-visibility gigs from bandleaders.  I read somewhere that Woody Herman wanted to hire him, offered him good pay, promised to teach him to read, but Windhurst — a free spirit — would have none of it.

There is one video extant of Windhurst — I wrote about it, and him, in 2009 (and received wonderful comments from people who had played alongside him) here.

I did not know much about pianist Gardner, except that what I’ve heard suggests a delicate barrelhouse approach, and I seem to recall he was a large man called by some “Jumbo Jack.” But an exquisite biographical sketch of Jack by the diligent writer and researcher Derek Coller can be found here.  (Our Jack Gardner is not the man who led an orchestra in Dallas in 1924-5.)  Jack first recorded with Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland, then got more visibility with Harry James (you can hear him on SLEEPY TIME GAL and he is also on Sinatra’s first recording with James) 1939-40, then he crops up with Muggsy Spanier, Red Nichols, Bud Freeman, and after being captured on sessions at Squirrel’s from 1950-52, we hear no more from him.

I know THE BATTLE  HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC as a very assertive religious song in which the enemies of the Lord receive divine punishment:  “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” and so on, even though later verses of the song — known to how many? — suggest that there is a balm of kindness.

More importantly than the theological, I and others know it as a hot number — think of “Red Nichols” as played by Danny Kaye and “Louis Armstrong” as played by himself in THE FIVE PENNIES, sending the sermon. Everyone from Art Hodes to George Lewis to Gerry Mulligan has recorded it, but I suggest that no version you will ever hear matches the sweet delicacy of this brief celestial interlude by Windhurst and Gardner.

Windhurst doesn’t venture far from the melody — the recording catches less than a whole chorus, and aside from a bluesy transformation near the end, it is melodic embellishment rather than harmonic improvisation.  But he treats the melodic line with lightness, fervor, and love; every note is caressed; his tone is so beautiful as to make “golden” into an affront.  Gardner plays a simplified version of barrelhouse support but never gets in Windhurst’s way. The whole duet is tender, yearning — the music of the spheres in under a minute.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

May your happiness increase!

MEET ME AT THE CORNER OF THEN AND NOW

Although the physicists explain gravely that time — make that Time — is not a straight line but a field in which we may meander, it often feels as if we are characters in a Saul Steinberg cartoon, squinting into the looming Future while the Past stretches behind us, intriguing but closed off.  We anxiously stand on a sliver of Now the thickness and length of a new pencil, hoping for the best.

Jazz, or at least the kind that occupies my internal jukebox, is always balancing (not always adeptly) Then and Now.  For some, Then is marked in terms of dates: this afternoon in November 1940, or this one in July 1922. The most absorbed of us can even add artifacts and sound effects: uncontrollable coughing, a trout sandwich, the sound of dancers’ feet in a ballroom.

But for me, Then is a series of manifestations, imagined as well as real, that have no particular date and time.

Bix and Don Murray watching a baseball game. The Chicago flat where Louis and friends drank Mrs. Circe’s gin and told stories. Mezz Mezzrow on the subway. Strayhorn auditioning in Ellington’s dressing room. Mystics Boyce Brown, Tut Soper, and Don Carter, each imagining the universe in his own way. Eddie Condon picking up the tenor guitar. Hot Lips Page shaking a Texan’s hand. Art Hodes and Wingy Manone politely deciding who gets to wear the bear coat tonight. Francene and Frank Melrose having Dave Tough and friends over for a scant but happy meal of rice and peppers. E.A. Fearn making a suggestion. Billy Banks arriving late for the record date. Bird washing dishes while hearing Art Tatum. Joe Oliver having a snack in a Chinese restaurant.

Any jazz fan who has read enough biography can invent her own mythography of the landmarks of Then.

Now, although it recedes as I write this, is a little easier to fix in time and space, in the way one pushes a colored push-pin through a map.

Andy Schumm, cornet and archives; Dan Barrett, trombone; Dan Levinson, reeds; John Sheridan, piano; Howard Alden, banjo; Kerry Lewis, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums: late in the evening of September 20 at the 2013 Jazz at Chautauqua, now reinvented as the Allegheny Jazz Party.

OLD MAN SUNSHINE (LITTLE BOY BLUEBIRD):

SHAKE THAT JELLY ROLL:

LITTLE WHITE LIES (in an arrangement inspired by British Pathe sound film of the Noble Sissle band — and piling rarity upon rarity — giving us a glimpse of Tommy Ladnier playing):

DEEP NIGHT:

GET GOIN’ (in honor of the Bennie Moten band, which also had spiders to deal with in Kansas City):

KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW (Sheridan’s verse gets everyone in the right mood):

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

18TH AND RACINE (a street intersection in Chicago / an Andy Schumm original / the title track of the Fat Babies’ delicious new CD on Delmark Records):

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL (with a wonderful surprise at 3:00 — why isn’t there a whole CD of this?):

See you in Cleveland, Ohio, between September 18 and 21, 2014, for more of the same delicious time-superimpositions, courtesy of the Allegheny Jazz Party, where such things happen as a matter of course.

May your happiness increase!