Tag Archives: Boyce Brown

MAKING THE MUNDANE BEAUTIFUL, or LONG SLEEVES (Part One)

I am slowly getting back into 78-record collecting, thanks to Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera, and I emphasize “slowly”: no bidding wars, and many of the records I’ve purchased would be considered “common” by more well-established collectors, although I will — immodestly — begin with a picture of a record I treasure, bought a few years ago.

However, this post isn’t primarily about the recorded obsession.  It is about the beauty of the ordinary: the paper sleeves once personalized by record stores.  I saw an eBay site devoted to jazz records from Denmark, and was thrilled by the more ornate labels of the records themselves and the beautifully creative sleeves.  There will be only three minutes of music on this post, but you can follow my lead to YouTube, where many of these recordings are waiting for your tender, approving touch.  Today my subject is advertising art at its most sweetly distinctive.

The eBay seller I have borrowed these images from is https://www.ebay.com/usr/seuk880, and the 78s are still for sale, as I write this in the last week of April 2020.  The seller has a large and varied collection, but here are a few that caught my eye — and might catch yours as well.

Tommy Ladnier, in high style:

Billie, originally on Commodore:

Louis, for my friend Katherine:

Hawkins, solo, a two-sided meditation:

This (below) is my absolute favorite of the whole series, and it it were not $10 for the Morton disc and $18 for the shipping, it would be on its way to me now.  Please, someone, buy this so I don’t have to?

Ella and Louis:

Glenn Miller:

Fats meets Freddy:

I don’t know the artist but could not resist the sleeve:

and here Aladdin points the way to swing:

I think ten of these beauties is enough for one post, but if there is interest, I have nineteen or twenty more sleeve-images to share with you.  And would.

I promised you three minutes of music, so that no one would go to bed feeling deprived.  Here’s REINCARNATION by Paul Mares and his Friars Society Orchestra : Paul Mares, trumpet; Santo Pecora, trombone; Omer Simeon, clarinet; Boyce Brown, alto saxophone; Jess Stacy, piano; Marvin Saxbe, guitar;  Pat Pattison, string bass; George Wettling, drums — January 1935, Chicago:

May your happiness increase!

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!

“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!

“GEORGE WETTLING, MARCH 1953”

That’s written on the back of this snapshot — originally taken by drummer Walt Gifford, later held by jazz enthusiast Joe Boughton:

GEORGE WETTLING 3 53

I am assuming that it was taken in the Boston area, but Wettling is the main attraction.  In the great tradition, Wettling played drums for the band — caring more for that than for any extended solo, although his four-bar breaks at the end of Eddie Condon recordings (Commodore, Decca, and Columbia) are justly famous.  He wasn’t as dramatic as some of his more celebrated peers, but any group that had Wettling in the rhythm section could relax, secure that the tempo would be steady, that every accent or sound would make sense as a complementary part of the whole.

Here are two samples of George at work — atypically visible as well — along with Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Cutty Cutshall, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Al Hall, and Eddie himself — from a 1964 television program:

and

and — nearly a quarter-century earlier, sounds only:

and

If you follow the recordings he left behind — with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Hot Lips Page, Lou McGarity, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Louis Armstrong, Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, Muggsy Spanier, Jess Stacy, Frank Teschemacher, Frank Melrose, Boyce Brown, Paul Mares, Omer Simeon, Wingy Manone, Jimmy McPartland, Joe Marsala, Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey, Pete Brown, Jack Teagarden, Joe Bushkin, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Paul Whiteman, Coleman Hawkins, Max Kaminsky, Danny Polo, Herman Chittison, Joe Thomas, Mezz Mezzrow, Benny Carter, Miff Mole, Brad Gowans, Marty Marsala, George Brunis, Ed Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Rod Cless, James P. Johnson, Yank Lawson, Jerry Jerome, Billy Butterfield, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Benny Morton, Jonah Jones, Errol Garner, Billie Holiday, Bujie Centobie, Red McKenzie, Chuck Wayne, Lucky Thompson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Martha Tilton, Connee Boswell, Sidney Bechet, Frank Newton, Bing Crosby, Art Hodes, Doc Evans, Bob Wilber, Tony Parenti, Charlie Parker, Ralph Sutton, Barbara Lea, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Kenny Kersey, Frank Signorelli, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Urbie Green, Marian McPartland, Stuff Smith, Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, Claude Hopkins, Nat Pierce, Jimmy Jones, Marty Napoleon, Buster Bailey, Shorty Baker, Tyree Glenn, Kenny Davern, and many others — you will always hear rewarding music.

May your happiness increase!

THE POET, GRIPPED BY PURE LOVE, EARNESTLY STATES THAT HE WOULD RATHER HAVE THE COMPANY OF THE BELOVED THAN ANY OTHER PERSON, EVEN ONE OF GREATER WEALTH AND FAME, AND THESE WORDS ARE ACCOMPANIED BY A PLEASING AIR

What follows is the Official JAZZ LIVES Love Song.  It captures my feelings exactly and deeply, and the music that accompanies it is perfectly delightful.

The song is I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU — composed by Harry Akst, Lew Brown, and Elsa Maxwell for a night club “revue” for the Casino de Paree.  (I have read that the New York club Studio 54 occupied the same space, decades later.)

My guess about the composition of this song is that Akst created the melody, Brown the lyrics, and that they called on Ms. Maxwell for the details of Society that would make it authentic.  (I can invent the dialogue for their meeting, and I am sure you can also.)  I’ve not seen the film nor a copy of the sheet music, but the song was recorded in Chicago by Charles LaVere and his Chicagoans, and we have the performance I love through a series of nearly miraculous kindnesses.

The jazz connoisseur Helen Oakley Dance arranged for this racially mixed band — not yet accepted as the norm — to record for the nearly-dead OKeh label, and the records were not issued at the time.  (Thanks to hal Smith for this detail.)

Some thirty years later, Columbia Records was cleaning house and someone decided to dispose of a number of unlabeled one-sided vinyl test pressings. Helene Chmura, blessed be her name, asked collector Dan Mahony if he wanted them before they were thrown away; he agreed, and among them were the seven sides from the LaVere sessions of March 11 and April 5, 1935 — this performance comes from the latter.  I read that these were “test-only” performances, which means that they were the Thirties equivalent of audition “demo” recordings. Given the circumstances, we are so lucky — beyond lucky — to have them. (Mahony passed them on to the fine UK collector and gentleman Bert Whyatt; the discs now are held by Charles LaVere’s son Stephen.)

Before I write more, you should hear the music.  The video below was created by the exceedingly talented Chris Tyle (cornet, clarinet, drums, vocal, jazz scholar, bandleader, archivist, writer . . . . ) as a special commission for JAZZ LIVES. Alec Wilder would have called the song “notey,” and deplored the repeated notes; I am amused by the way the lines spin out to accommodate the lengthy lyrics . . . but it goes right to my heart.

The musicians are Charles LaVere, vocal (and possibly trumpet); Johnny Mendell and Marty Marsala, trumpets; Joe Marsala, clarinet / alto; Joe Masek, tenor; Boyce Brown, alto; Preston Jackson, trombone; Jess Stacy, piano; Joe Young, guitar; Israel Crosby, bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.  That’s some band.

I find the lyrics particularly charming.  Of course the notion that “I like you a lot” is a familiar refrain in love songs.  “I like pie, I like cake, I like you best of all,” another.  “It all depends on you” and “I wanna go where you go — then I’ll be happy,” other variations.  But this song, where the singer says “I prefer your company to that of famous members of the upper class who would offer me unique experiences so far beyond the ordinary,” is offering a special kind of love-bouquet.  And it is witty and sweet that the singer doesn’t say, “Mrs. Astor wanted to sleep with me but I told her NO because I like you better.”  No, the lyrics advance a series of whimsical rhetorical possibilities — which must have been especially striking in the Depression: IF Mrs. Vanderbilt invited me to dine . . . and I think we are expected to know that this is a dream rather than a real invitation, and that the singer and the Beloved do operate in the world of the shared hot dog at Coney Island.

But love often is charmingly hyperbolic, and the singer insists, “My preference for you, my fidelity to you, is not a simple matter of preferring you more than your real peers.  I’d rather be with you than with anyone else, no matter how rare and glittering the experience anyone else could offer.”  That, to me, makes it a deep and authentic — even while whimsical — offer of love.

And the music!  It might be too much for some when I say I love every note of this performance, but it’s true — from the repeated vamp capped with a Zutty accent (sounds like his pal Sidney) into Boyce’s melody statement, so sweet yet never sentimental, with that rhythm section, Stacy bubbling, beneath.  Marty Marsala takes the bridge in an impassioned way, with the saxophones playing a written figure to emphasize his statement; a break from Boyce leads into an even more beautiful exposition of the melody.  (If anyone doubts that Boyce was a remarkable player, soulful and precise, let the skeptic listen to that chorus a few times.  It stands alongside the best alto playing I know.)

This — eighty seconds — is a fully satisfying musical offering.  But there’s more. After an interlude concluded by Zutty and a two-note phrase from Preston Jackson, Charles LaVere begins to sing.  (Is it Marsala or  Mandell echoing and improvising around and under him?)  His diction is refined; he is offering us the story in the clearest way.  But the vibrato-laden way in which he ends phrases is both intense and heartfelt; his reading of “be” in the song’s title is so touching. We know he cares!  On a second or third listening, we can honor Jess Stacy, stealing the show yet again.  Tenorist Joe Masek brings out his best early-Thirties Hawkins, and one of the musicians (or a studio onlooker) lets out a fervent yell of approval at 2:37.  I agree with the anonymous emoter.  And the final eight bars are a full-band ensemble, both tender and rocking, driven on by embellishments from Preston Jackson and Zutty’s cymbal.

It’s the combination — witty lyrics without a hint of satire, delivered with the utmost feeling over a hot jazz background — that does it for me.

(In this century, James Dapogny urged Marty Grosz to record the song — which he did, splendidly, on an Arbors CD called MARTY GROSZ AND HIS HOT COMBINATION.)

I send this to performance and video to the lovers in my reading audience, and I encourage you to send it to your Beloved.  If you don’t have a Beloved at the moment and would like one, play this over and over until the music and the lyrics are brilliantly resonant in your head, then hum and sing it under your breath as you go through your day.  It will, I am sure, attract love to you.

May your happiness increase.

BOYCE BROWN, METAPHYSICIAN

Dave Dexter, Jr., wrote in THE JAZZ STORY (1964):

The morning after my first interview with Brown, in 1939 in Chicago, his father arrived at Down Beat‘s old Dearborn Street offices with a glossy 8 x 10 photograph of an alto saxophone, lying in its case without a mouthpiece and flanked on both sides by lighted candles.  Boyce had typed on the attractive folder in which the macabre photograph was mounted:

AGNES                         LYING IN STATE                         1928-1939

And on the inside of the folder to the left, he had pasted this mimeographed requiem and signed it with his first name only:

HER VOICE now is mute. 

While life was breathed into Her, She revealed to me in audible measures many of my faults, and delicately intimate moods found expression through Her being;

Though She was wholly mine, I was never Her master — quite.  Having fully enjoyed the completeness of her unquestioning service, it is with no great sense of sorrow that I lay Her away;

As into the beautiful silence that precedes the touch of the Great Master.

(In Dexter’s interview, Boyce told him of his disappointment with his playing on an unreleased 1935 Charles LaVere session: “They were not good performances.  I failed to communicate with Agnes, but it was my fault, not hers.”)

TAKE A DEEP BREATH. IN FACT, TAKE TWO!

Look closely at the faces of the people you pass on the street or at your workplace.  See how many of those faces are full of tension; how many people look as if they would like to relax but are putting it off for their two weeks off.  Now focus on yourself: are you taking it easy?  To bring it to the more familiar subject of JAZZ LIVES, do you feel as if you are the sound of Freddie Green’s guitar or of Jo Jones’ hi-hat?  Do you float along as if you were a Benny Carter solo?  Or is your inner music ORGY IN RHYTHM by Art Blakey and colleagues?

I am writing this post to nudge my readers in the direction of a new blog, full of compassionate, easy-to-swallow wisdom . . . affectionate thoughts to help anyone get through the day with sweetness rather than strain.

It’s Lorna Sass’s new blog, REFLECTIONS OF A LIFE COACH, and you can read about breathing easily here:

http://lornasassreflectionsofalifecoach.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/breathing-into-a-new-day/

And if all of this sounds oddly digressive to you and you wish I would go back to posting videos and writing about Boyce Brown, I do understand.  But let’s never forget that the lovely music we so admire — say the voice of Lee Wiley singing SUGAR — requires proper breathing.  Had Lee been as tense as some of us are, we’d never listen to her records.  Purr, don’t gnash!

“BOYCE BROWN: JAZZMAN IN TWO WORLDS” by Hal Willard (1999)

BOYCE BROWN: JAZZMAN IN TWO WORLDS by Hal Willard

Originally published in The Mississippi Rag, February 1999

In the relatively short history of jazz, many strange and spectacular characters have made unique contributions to the music and its lore.  April 1999 marks the 43rd anniversary of the time one of the strangest, and in some ways most spectacular characters attracted attention with a comeback album.

His name was Boyce Brown, and he had been among the best saxophonists in jazz, rating high in the survey lists of Down Beat magazine, the bible of jazz.  But it wasn’t so much the comeback as it was where he came back from that attracted attention.

Brown had given up music to become a Brother in the Catholic Church and was in the midst of undergoing years of training to enter the strict Servite Order.  He was having a middle-age metamorphosis, and his effort to create a new life was causing considerable controversy within the Church, where many priests and Servites questioned his seriousness of purpose and wondered whether he really had abandoned his former life.

Boyce Brown was a man out of place — out of place in jazz, and, because he came from the jazz world, perhaps out of place in the world of Catholicism that he sought.

If ever a soul seemed lost in the raucous, raunchy, rigorous life of jazzmen, it was the gentle, contemplative, ascetic Boyce Brown, whose quiet, unobtrusive nature was made the more so by impaired vision, an odd appearance, and herky-jerky body movements caused by physical deformities.  Yes, for 20 years or more, he was listed among the top alto saxophonists in jazz.

His birth in Chicago, or April 16, 1910, had been difficult.  It was a breech delivery, and when Boyce finally emerged, he was seriously injured.  The doctor put Boyce aside and devoted his attention to saving the mother.  Boyce’s Aunt Harriet, who was in the delivery room, saw what was happening and moved to do what she could for the baby.  She picked up the misshapen and struggling newborn and literally shaped his head with her hands, saving his life.  But, among other injuries he suffered, one eye was gone and the other was damaged.

So, as an adult, Boyce Brown faced the world with a glass eye, limited vision in the other eye,an oddly-shaped head and a partially caved-in chest.  He walked sort of lop-sided, with a halting, loping gait, one shoulder drooping.  Sometimes he would hold his head at funny angles, stretching out his neck like a bird truing to find kernels of grain.  Some people even called him “Bird” in those days before fellow altoist Charlie Parker came along and became “Bird” for all time.

It wasn’t just his appearance that set Brown apart in the jazz world.  He liked to write poetry, and he liked to talk about it and discuss philosophy and other deep, unjazz-like subjects, to the confusion and consternation of his fellow musicians.  Besides, he lived with his mother.

Boyce started playing the saxophone at 14 and by the time he was 17 in 1927 got his first job.  It was with a trio in a joint called Amber Light, owned by Al Capone and managed by Bugs Moran.  Moran showed solicitude for the youngsters in the band by telling them to hide behind the piano if customers started shooting.

Brown’s playing attracted the attention of other musicians, and when Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey came to town with their new joint band, Tommy went to hear Boyce and then asked him to join them.  But when Boyce sat in with the Dorsey band, he got the volatile Tommy upset when he cocked his head at a strange angle and leaned over to squint at the music.  Tommy thought the audience would be distracted and put off by the contortions.  Boyce told Tommy he had to bend over only once per sheet of music because he could memorize it at a glance, despite his poor vision.  He had a photographic memory, and perfect pitch as well.

Nevertheless, Brown lacked self-confidence, and he also was afflicted by a sense of responsibility.  He felt he should stay with and support his mother because his father was an alcoholic and unreliable.

So, Brown stayed home.  Although he subsequently toured around the country with different bands, he chose to play most of the 20 prime years of his musical career at the Liberty Inn, a strip joint on Chicago’s rowdy North Clark Street.

Boyce Brown in the Liberty Inn was the definition of incongruity.  He drank, but not to excess, and, of course, he couldn’t see much of what was going on.  Sometimes he sat backstage between shows reading philosophy, his face literally buried in the book.  This disturbed some people because they didn’t understand it.

Despite his aloofness, Brown liked the girls.  They were kind to him and seemed to understand him — although they perhaps wondered why he never made passes at them and otherwise ignored their nakedness.  He told friends that the girls were nice and not bad as most people seemed to think.  At one point, Brown was briefly engaged to a girl outside the business, but he again decided he couldn’t leave his mother and Aunt Harriet, whom he also was helping.

Time and again he left the Liberty Inn to play with other bands, but he always returned.  Something there suited him.  Maybe it was a psychological refuge; there was much honesty and little pretense in the Liberty Inn.

As the years passed, Brown was bothered more and more by the contrast between his manner of making a living and his attitudes about life and people developed through his philosophical readings.  He got in the habit of going for long walks in the early morning hours after work, wondering about his life as a musician, the paradoxes and the fact that he wasn’t fully utilizing his abilities.  He became depressed and even thought about suicide.

One morning his walk took him past St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church on Granville Avenue, and he heard organ music.  He stopped to listen.  As children, he and his brother, Harvey, had been iterested enough in classical music to stage record concerts for their friends.

Brown returned to the church morning after morning to listen to the music, and he soon began going inside to hear better.  One morning a priest noticed him standing in the shadows at the back of the church and approached to welcome him.  From that contact, one thing led to another and on August 12, 1952, Boyce Brown, who had been raised an Episcopalian, became a Catholic.  He was 42 years old.

But just being a Catholic didn’t satisfy him.  He wanted deeper involvement.  One day at St. Gertrude’s, he met Father Ed Calkins, a missionary of the Servites, a religious order of friars started in the 13th century.  Brown asked about taking his religious feelings further.

Father Ed sent Brown to the Servites’ director of vocation, Father Hugh Calkins, his brother (two other Calkins brothers also were priests).  Father Hugh listened as Brown described his concern about being accepted for further work in the church.  He feared his background of playing jazz in “low” places for so many years would rule him out.  Father Hugh let Brown ramble on about his worries for a time, and then told him he would make a good Brother in the Servite Order.

As for jazz, Father Hugh said, it just so happened that he himself was fond of jazz.  In fact he was a pretty good amateur pianist, if he did say so himself, and felt he and Brown would enjoy playing together.

After a few more interviews, in the fall of 1953 Boyce Brown entered the monastery and began training to become a Brother.  When Father Hugh was questioned by a superior about Brown’s seriousness of purpose, he said Brown was one of the most deeply spiritual men he had ever met.

That was fine, the superior said, bring him in.  “He might say enough prayers to get the rest of us into Heaven.”

Two years later, Brown entered the Novitiate at Mount Saint Philip Monastery about 10 miles north of Milwaukee and on Feb. 26, 1956, took his vows as Brother Matthew.

Part of Boyce Brown’s training, and his vocation as a Brother, involved menial work in the monastery, kitchen, tailor shop, laundry, bakery, and boiler room, and he swept the halls.  Sometimes, when his work was done, he played the saxophone, but not often.  His first year of training, he played hardly at all, so everyone was surprised when, at the Christmas party, Brother Hugh sat down to play the piano — and called on Brown to get his saxophone.  When he and Brown got going, Father Hugh said, they “rocked the refectory,” and played together many times after that.

Father Hugh, outgoing and enthusiastic, had a talent for public relations — another incongruity — and when Brown took his vows, the priest sent out a press release.  A week later, Time Magazine and other publications carried items with the news.

About two weeks after that, the Chicago Tribune carried a front-page story about the jazzman turned Brother.  This was followed by a picture story in the Trib‘s rotogravure section.

As the word spread, ABC-Paramount telephoned Father Hugh and asked if Brother Matthew could go to New York and make a record.  Father Hugh, bursting with excitement, got an okay from church superiors and then got in touch with jazz spokesman Eddie Condon, who knew Brown in his early days, and asked him to handle arrangements for a record date.

Father Hugh’s press release now had gathered maximum momentum.  Father Hugh had become official spokesman, escort, PR man and general factotum for Brother Matthew.  (Later, he collected considerable information and provided much of the material for this article.)  Father Hugh and his charge appeared and played on Garry Moore’s “I’ve Got A Secret” television program, with Moore himself on drums, the day before the record session.  They played “My Blue Heaven.”

Boyce Brown’s and Father Hugh’s “secret” was that they played jazz in a monastery.  The panel was game show host Bill Cullen, who was raised a Catholic, radio comedian Henry Morgan, supposedly an agnostic; and actress Faye Emerson, then married to bandleader and pianist Skitch Henderson.  Her religious beliefs were unknown, but she was the one who guessed the “secret,” but not until the time allotted to do so had expired.  She finally remembered seeing Brown’s picture in Time, and Henderson had told her about Brown’s past and background.

Father Hugh and Boyce spent that night in the Abbey Hotel, and the religious motif was played to the hilt.  The next day, a Life Magazine photographer showed up at the recording session, and a spread of pictures appeared in the April 23, 1956 issue.

Condon had rounded up a band of star jazzmen: on cornet, Wild Bill Davison, who had played with Brown in the old days; Gene Schroeder on piano; Pee Wee Russell on clarinet; Ernie Caceres on baritone sax; Cutty Cutshall on trombone; George Wettling on drums; Bob Casey on bass and on a few numbers, Paul Smith on guitar.  The session was a little more orderly, somber and sober than might have been the case in Brown’s former life, but Davison and a couple of others nevertheless broke out the booze, and Brown joined in without hesitation, showing he still was one of the boys.

Unfortunately, he still wasn’t one of them musically.  The tunes played included Brown’s “theme song,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” plus “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Blues for Boyce,” a tune improvised for the occasion.  While Brown still was holed up in the Liberty Inn tootling for the strippers, the others had been learning from each other and their colleagues and developing as musicians.  The upshot was that his horn figuratively became caked with rust.  However, the record was issued, entitled Brother Matthew, and although it wasn’t really that bad, it was not a success.  It did not create a demand for more music from the monastery.  This was a disappointment to Father Hugh, but probably not to Brown.

Father Hugh had hoped to use the record as a fund-raiser for the Servites and their missions in South Africa, but a hit record and satisfying demands for more might not have been Brother Matthew’s idea of serving God, his fellow man and himself in the quietude of a monastery.  Brown told Father Hugh he felt he had said all he had to say through his music.  After all, that was a life he voluntarily gave up.

So, sans success, Brother Matthew was allowed to go back to his chores and his meditations, but his serenity was gone.

In early 1957, Dave Garroway called and wanted to do a segment on Brother Matthew for NBC’s “Wide Wide World” program on Sunday afternoon.  The idea was to contrast Brother Matthew’s playing with a dixieland band with the Gregorian music sung by the Servite members.  This was done and went out over the network, live.  Father Hugh described the broadcast as a success, but perhaps the superiors were beginning to wonder about all the worldliness and all the talk from Father Hugh about good public relations.  Was this a religious order or was it Madison Avenue?

Whatever was actually said, or implied, brown began to worry about his future with the Servites.  Final vows to enter the Servite Order for life were coming up, and Brows was afraid he wouldn’t be accepted.  He told Father Hugh of his concern, and when the priest went before his superiors in the monastery at Hillside, a Chicago suburb, he discovered that Brown’s fears were well-founded.

They thought Boyce Brown was an alcoholic and not ready to devote his life to the Servite Order.  Sometimes the other members smelled alcohol on his breath.  A bottle of booze was found in his room.  One Sunday, he left the monastery to play  a few hours in a band led by drummer Danny Alvin and returned with the smell of liquor about him.  Once, his hands shook when he was helping a priest serve Mass.

Father Hugh pleaded the case.  He pointed out that members of the Order were allowed to drink in moderation and that’s all Brown was doing.  He said there was no evidence that he ever drank to excess.  His hands shook because of nervousness.  Father Hugh cited Brown’s value to the Order as a fund-raiser and as an entertainer of the other members (which may have been the wrong approach).  Father Hugh said he had never known anyone with a deeper spirituality, with a richer goodness of soul.

The superiors were unmoved.  They told Father Hugh he was prejudiced in favor of Brown because they were friends, they played jazz together and Father Hugh loved jazz.  There was every indication they would not accept Boyce Brown when he came up for consideration.  Father Hugh’s grand public relations gambit — a Brother who played jazz — had backfired.

But Brown never came up for consideration.  A few days before the day he was to face the superiors, he helped serve a meal at the monastery, then sat down to eat.  But instead of eating, he got back up and went to his room.  He took off his robe and folded it neatly.  Then he lay down on his bed.  A few minutes later, a painter working in the next room heard an unearthly, terrible moan.  He called a priest.

Boyce Brown was dead.  It was Jan. 30, 1959 — two months and 16 days before his 39th birthday and two years and 10 months after the Brother Matthew record was made.

“God spared him from possible being rejected,” Father Hugh said.

Father Hugh’s feelings about Boyce Brown were profound.  “He was without a doubt one of the most genuinely religious-minded persons I have ever met.  In the sense that he had an intuitive awareness of things that even many priests, many theologians, never grasp.  He said he saw music in colors — he heard chord changes, but he saw them, too.  Some sounds were a rich purple or a deep blue.  I checked with a psychologist and he said that some artists do that; their senses coordinate.  It’s an overlapping of senses.”

In the aftermath of Brown’s departure, Columbia Pictures called Father Hugh to talk about making a movie of Brown’s life, with Father Hugh as technical adviser.  He was, of course, enthusiastic and the idea went as far as a scriptwriter coming to interview Father Hugh in depth.  Then he told the monastery superiors about it.  The rejection was flat and unequivocal; the lives of the seminarians would be disrupted by movie people wandering around and climbing all over the monastery.  The project was called off.

By the way, Father Hugh had envisioned Anthony Perkins in the role.

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Note: I’m very grateful to Jim Denham of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST (http://www.shirazsocialist.wordpress.com.) for uncovering a copy of this truly detailed article.  Hal Willard died not long ago, so I can’t thank him in person, but his research into Boyce’s life and his conversations with Father Hugh Calkins were invaluable.  A long and beautiful overview of Boyce’s life and recordings can be found in Richard M. Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, with comments from Dave Dexter, Jimmy McPartland, George Avakian, and others — including excerpts from Boyce’s poetry and a letter he wrote to that “bible of jazz,” Down Beat . . . where he had won the 1940 poll for alto saxophone.

BLUES FOR BOYCE

Boyce Brown (1910-1959) is a tantalizing, elusive figure.  Although he played hot jazz with the great Chicagoans, he was not one of them — hard-living and hard-drinking.  The picture above shows him in 1956, surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Eddie Condon, and George Wettling, at his final recording session.

Scott Yanow calls Boyce “eccentric,” “outlandish,” “an erratic individual,” although those characterizations sound ungenerous.  I think of the famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s THE FAMILY REUNION, “In a world of fugitives, it is those that turn away that appear to run away.”

In the case of Boyce Brown, it is difficult to know if he chose to turn away from the world of musicians and gigs for the world of the spirit, or if the earthly world scorned him.  All we know are the facts of his short life.  He became a professional musician at 17 and recorded with some of the greatest Hot players — but his path was an unusual one outside the clubs and recording studios.

Boyce loved marijuana and what it could do, but it didn’t contribute to his death.  He didn’t die of tuberculosis or freeze on a Harlem doorstep, but prejudice and sorrow seem to have shortened his life.  He is certainly underrated and not well-known or well-remembered.  I agree with Jim Denham (of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST) who thinks that Boyce should be both remembered and celebrated.  And although I’ve never met Jeff Crompton (of HELLO THERE, UNIVERSE) I and other jazz fans are indebted to him for his generosities.  (You can find the blogs written by Jim and Jeff on my blogroll.)

What facts I have collected seem at first an assortment of weird personality traits, but viewed lovingly, they are the markings of a rare bird.

Boyce was someone who “saw” musical notes as colors.  He nearly died at birth; the midwife saved him by reshaping his unformed skull.  His parents encouraged him to take up the saxophone in hopes that it would strengthen his weak chest.  When he played, he had a habit of stretching his neck out like a bird — causing him to be rejected at an audition for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

Eddie Condon said Boyce was “a slow reader,” Condon-speak for partial blindness.  Boyce lived with his mother, wrote poetry, listened to Delius.  Condon’s SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ contains Boyce’s whimsical poem about ROYAL-T (slang for the best marijuana), hilarious and tenderly decorated by Boyce himself — a Hot illuminated manuscript.

He named his alto saxophone Agnes, and thought deeply about her personality and moods; if a recording disappointed him, he blamed himself for not being in harmony with his instrument.  All of this might seem freakish on first perusal, but other musicians have spoken of their synesthesia (Marian McPartland, whom no one considers an eccentric, told Whitney Balliett that the key of D was daffodil yellow), and Ben Webster, hardly an introvert, called his saxophone Betsy or Ol’ Betsy.

But before we get caught up in the debris of habit and personal history, let us — as Al Smith used to say — look at the record.  Or listen.  Two, in fact, from 1939: CHINA BOY and JAZZ ME BLUES:

Boyce sounds like himself.  Those rolling, tumbling figures are the playing of a man on a mission, someone with a message for us in the eight or sixteen bars allotted him.

The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing his volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker.  I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat.  More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis and Frank Teschemacher.  Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”

(Boyce’s descendants in this century might be Michael McQuaid and John “Butch” Smith — players who know that the alto saxophone needs a great deal of punch to keep it from sounding like a polite older relative.)

Here is a link to Jeff Crompton’s excellent, generous survey of Boyce’s life — where he shares with us a rare disc, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, where Boyce and Wild Bill Davison are the front line:

http://jeffcrompton.blogspot.com/2010/05/brother-matthew.html

The Boyce Brown discography is brief — his recordings could fit on three compact discs — but it is choice.  His better-known associates surely valued the reticent altoist.

I apologize for the onslaught of data, but in trying to explain something about Boyce Brown, the details of his recording sessions are valuable when we have so little else.  As far as I can tell, no one interviewed him during his playing career, and the press coverage he received at the end of his life emphasized (however gently) his uniqueness: the lady preacher with an alto saxophone.

Boyce was first recorded as a member of a working band, Paul Mares And His Friars Society Orchestra (a John Hammond idea?) : Paul Mares (tp) Santo Pecora (tb) Omer Simeon (cl) Boyce Brown (as) Jess Stacy (p) Marvin Saxbe (g) Pat Pattison (b) George Wettling (d).  One session, the results unissued in the 78 era, took place on January 7, 1935.  (The music came out on Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society # 6, twenty years or so after Boyce’s death.)  The same four songs were re-recorded on January 26, and were issued on two OKeh 78s that I imagine were quite hard to find even in 1935: NAGASAKI, REINCARNATION, MAPLE LEAF RAG, THE LAND OF DREAMS (the last based on BASIN STREET BLUES).  These four (and a MAPLE LEAF RAG from the first date) have been issued on the 2-CD Retrieval set of the complete New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  Theoretically all eight titles have been issued on “Chicago 1935,” a CD on the Gannet label, but I’ve never seen it.  REINCARNATION, possibly a composition of Boyce’s, was named for one of his spiritual beliefs — unusual but not unknown in 1935 Chicago.

On March 11, 1935, Boyce returned to the studios with Charles LaVere And His Chicagoans : Johnny Mendell, Marty Marsala (tp) Jabbo Smith (tp,vcl) Preston Jackson (tb) Joe Marsala (cl,ts-1) Boyce Brown (as) Bud Taylor (ts-2) Charles LaVere (p,vcl) Joe Young (g) Leonard Bibbs (b) Zutty Singleton (d) The Chicagoans (vcl) for BOOGABOO BLUES and UBANGI MAN, neither title issued on 78. On April 5, the LaVere band tried again, without Jabbo Smith;  Joe Masek (ts) Israel Crosby (b) replaced Bud Taylor, Leonard Bibbs.  They recorded I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU, SMILES, ALL TOO WELL, and BOOGABOO BLUES.  Again the sides were not released on 78, but several lp issues exist — one of the strangest issues a later dub (a copy given to me by Ralph O’Callaghan) — a 16 rpm 7″ record labeled “Black Diamond.”  On the other side was a 1933 Reuben Reeves session.

Four years later, on October 11, 1939, Boyce was recorded again, and these sides had wider distribution; he was a member of Jimmy MacPartland’s band: Jimmy McPartland (cnt) Bud Jacobson (cl) Boyce (as) Floyd Bean (p) Dick McPartland (g) Jim Lannigan (b) Hank Isaacs (d).  These sides have been made possible by the Friend of Jazz George Avakian and Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft and George Avakian, and they appeared in the Decca CHICAGO JAZZ album:JAZZ ME BLUES, CHINA BOY, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, and SUGAR.

Hank O’Neal tells me that Boyce joined in on the private sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house in the late Thirties, and that one track from these sessions was issued on a 1965 collection called MORE INFORMAL SESSIONS AT SQUIRREL’s, a recording worth searching for.  Hank also recalls that Squirrel, thirty years later, characterized Boyce as gifted but troubled.

Boyce’s most hard-to-find session (also in Chicago, February 12, 1940) was as a member of THE COLLECTOR’S ITEM CATS, which featured the then also little-known Wild Bill Davison, cornet; Boyce; Mel Henke (a pianist who gained later fame on the West Coast); Walter Ross on bass; Joe Kahn on drums.  Two sides, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, came out on Collector’s Item 102: a 78 issue — shared with us by Jeff Crompton.

Boyce also worked in the “ideal” band co-led by cornetist Pete Daily and pianist-composer Frank Melrose.  A good deal of their privately recorded music has been released on the Delmark CD BLUESIANA.  (The thought of Boyce and Kansas City Frank on gigs — creative individuals who did not fit the stereotypical idea of the hard-drinking Chicago jazz musician — is intriguing, and it makes me regret, not for the first time, that few fans at that time carried stenographer’s notebooks to interview these men.)

The late Bob Thiele spent some time in Chicago (where he recorded a band with clarinetist Bud Jacobson and Frank Melrose, something to bless Thiele for).  An unissued 1945 session for Bud Jacobson and His Hot Club Orchestra includes Bill Stapleton (cnt) Jacobson (cl,ts) Boyce (as) Mel Grant (p) Dick McPartland (g) Pat Pattison (b) Lew Finnerty (d), playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE, WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING, INDIANA, and HOT CLUB BLUES.  Does anyone know who or where the Signature masters are held, and have any of my readers ever heard this music?

Also in 1945, the jazz scholar / collector / recordist John Steiner held a series of concerts at the Uptown Playhouse Theater in Chicago.  His Jimmy Noone Memorial Concert (in August) featured Darnell Howard (clarinet), Boyce, Baby Dodds (drums), Gideon Honoré (piano), Jack Goss (guitar), Tut Soper (second piano), and Pat Pattison (bass).   On another occasion, Steiner sponsored a “jamboree” resulting in forty-five minutes of recordings of Lee Collins, Boyce, Darnell Howard, Volly DeFaut, pianists Gideon Honoré, Tut Soper, Jack Gardner, Mel Henke, and Chet Roble, among others.  and drummer Jim Barnes were among the contributors.  But in April 1946, a fire destroyed the Playhouse, and Steiner lost 150 unissued sides by Jack Gardner and groups, 20 sides by groups led by Boyce, a few by Frank Melrose, and location recordings by Honoré, Zinky Cohn, Punch Miller, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Jimmy Yancey.  (A sorrowing moment of silence is appropriate here.)  This information comes from the fascinating website devoted to S D (Steiner-Davis) Records: http://www.hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/sd.html.

Boyce’s last session was a decade later.  His absence from the recording studios might have been in part the result of changing fashions in music; what had been sought-after Hot Jazz was soon pushed aside with the popularity of bop, but I imagine that Boyce became more reclusive.  All this is supposition, but he seems to have been unfitted with the survival skills jazz musicians require: call up a club owner, create an opportunity to record.  One thinks of the nearly-blind Art Tatum and the completely blind George Shearing and Jeff Healey, but they might have been recognized as stronger personalities with more audaciously commanding technique than Boyce’s subtle ways.

Boyce seems always to have been contemplating the eternal rather than the quotidian, and he was baptized a Catholic in 1952.  The LIFE magazine story notes that a club owner “objected to” Boyce’s habit of for blessing himself before beginning to play.  I can only imagine that scene, and JAZZ LIVES readers might write the dialogue — the club owner astounded and irate, Boyce gently explaining that this was what he did before he played.  I have written of other musicians (Frank Newton as my prime example) who loved the music without reservation but recoiled from the business of music, and Boyce seems to be one of that tender breed.  Putting his beliefs into action, Boyce entered the Servite monastery as a friar in 1953 — devoting himself to chastity, poverty, and the contemplation of spiritual ideals and sorrows.

When Boyce went into a New York recording studio on April 2-3, 1956, he was no longer “Boyce Brown” but “Brother Matthew,” a monk, someone who wanted his royalties from the sale of the recording to go to missions in Africa.  The session was the idea of a record company executive, and certainly it had journalistic potential as good copy in that era of “comeback” stories, reuniting a monk who still could play Hot with his internationally famous colleagues.  Boyce was showcased with the Eddie Condon band of the time, and a LIFE photograph shows him gingerly accepting a drink from Wild Bill Davison, peering tentatively into the glass — whether from blindness or caution, one cannot say.

Since Condon was under contract to Columbia Records (thanks again to Avakian) he may not have played guitar on the sessions — guitar credit goes to Paul Smith, Eddie’s brother-in-law, but Condon “conducted,” which is what he did so well.  This group was Wild Bill Davison (cnt) Cutty Cutshall (tb) Pee Wee Russell (cl) Boyce (as) Ernie Caceres (bar) Gene Schroeder (p) Bob Casey (b) George Wettling (d) Eddie Condon (cond), and they recorded OUT OF NOWHERE, I NEVER KNEW, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, MY BLUE HEAVEN, LINGER AWHILE, BLUES FOR BOYCE, SISTER KATE, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN.

Those who collect Fifties television kinescopes may have seen Boyce on the Garry Moore Show (Moore loved hot jazz) or I’VE GOT A SECRET.  I can’t envision Brother Matthew being comfortable on show as a genial oddity — the jazz-musician-monk — but perhaps he did it because it would bring good publicity and contributions to the Order.

This link contains the LIFE story (pages 173-6) on that final session: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SE8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA173&lpg=PA173&dq=Boyce+brown+alto+sax&source=bl&ots=_QEpuuHPor&sig=TbeyWW0CUzC6-OjG8fS09vtg03k&hl=en&ei=eP9ATvOOHM-whAfYxP2xCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFsQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=Boyce%20brown%20alto%20sax&f=false.

Note: the link above opens most easily if one is willing to copy it whole and paste it into a new browser; then you will be able to peruse 1953 weekly pictorial journalism, including ads for durable house paint and Blue Cross hospital insurance.

After the session, Boyce went back into the monastery to devote himself to things of the spirit; pictures show him playing music with the other monks and making sandwiches in the kitchen.  He remained there until his death three years later.  Jim Denham believes that the Servites wouldn’t give Boyce final confirmation as a priest and he died of a heart attack shortly after that bitter disappointment in the monastery outside Granville, Wisconsin.

George Avakian told the late Richard M. Sudhalter in Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, “Looking back, I think he’s just as interesting now as I thought he was then.  The things he did, people are doing that kind of thing much more now.  But at that time nobody was: the element of surprise was a big factor. People hearing him for the first time were just flabbergasted.  I know I was. Where did this guy get this odd way of playing?  Where did it come from?  I guess there was a rather mysterious quality in all that.  Part of what makes it so interesting.”

Interesting, but tragic as well.  In a society that prides itself on cherishing the appearance of individualism, it is sad that Boyce Brown — surely an individualist with something beautiful on his mind — became marginalized as freakish, not only because he looked different, but because of his piety.  And although the jazz world prides itself on music and behaviors that go against the grain; it didn’t always do so effectively in this instance.  Thoreau’s different drummer didn’t get the gig.

But perhaps Boyce was fortunate that he had a monastery to retreat to, and spiritual things to which he could devote himself.  I think ruefully that had he been born fifty years later, he might have borne the weight of the popular-psychological tags we now take for granted.  Would we have classified him as a depressive, as differently abled, as someone suffering from social phobia, someone exhibiting Asperger’s, a victim of low self-esteem?  Birdlike and half-blind, he seems to me a creative spirit who turned away from this coarse world of fleshly realities to contemplate larger things, someone who wanted to do good for those who could not help themselves.

This post would not have been possible without the information from and gracious help of Jim Denham, Jeff Crompton, Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, Tom Kelly, Hank O’Neal, Hal Smith, David J. Weiner, and Aunt Ida Melrose.  I have remembered (perhaps hazily) information I read long ago in Dave Dexter, Jr.’s THE JAZZ STORY, and a February 1999 profile in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG, whose author I cannot trace.   If any JAZZ LIVES readers have more information or links to people who knew or knew of Boyce, I would be delighted to read their comments or to incorporate them into a future post.  Boyce Brown deserves more than partial oblivion.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! — THE FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND (ON DISC and VIDEO)

Imagine a jam session after hours in Chicago, circa 1934 or so (the date, being imagined, is flexible).  Waiting their turn to play are Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Omer Simeon, Boyce Brown, Guy Kelly, Jess Stacy, Earl Hines, Cassino Simpson, Frank Melrose, Joe Sullivan, Wellman Braud, Truck Parham, Zutty Singleton, George Wettling, and others.

No, the late John Steiner didn’t record such a gathering of saints and heroes. 

But a modern evocation of such a gathering is to be found when one of my new-irreplaceable-favorite jazz groups, the FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND, comes to play. 

They are Ray Skjelbred, leader, piano; Steve Wright, reeds, cornet; Dave Brown, string bass, Mike Daugherty, drums.  Everyone in the quartet has been known to sing a chorus or two.  It’s a thrifty, focused, engaging quartet — listeners get more than their money’s worth!

I’ve shared some YouTube videos of the band, performing at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle, Washington — and more are at the bottom of this blogpost. 

But there’s good news tonight, as a famous radio broadcaster used to say.  The First Thursday Jazz Band has just come out with their debut CD — drop evertyhing and pay attention, please! 

It’s an old-fashioned production: recorded on the job (but with a sweetly attentive audience) in good sound, with a variety of songs and approaches — one of those CDs you can listen to the whole way through and come back to again right away. 

If you know anything about Ray Skjelbred, you know that he rocks — and he loves both classic and unusual material.  And people who admire him can argue (in the nicest of ways) if he is a greater soloist than an accompanist.  Like Stacy, Ray is so fine backing up someone else that occasionally I want to listen to the track again just to hear his bubbling down-home fills and figures. 

Ray’s partner in the rhythm section is the quietly propulsive Dave Brown.  String bassists tend to get less respect than they deserve, but rhythm is Dave’s business.  And business sure is swell.  He has a big plush sound (no amps, thank you kindly) but he doesn’t need one.  And his time is neither stodgy nor over-eager: I think of the Blessed Walter Page when I hear Dave play.

Mike Daugherty (the man with the red drum) is a jovial player with fine time and a whole galaxy of sonic effects from his kit.  He doesn’t opt for the usual tricks, but often just stays on his snare with a rich, padding brush carpet, or moves around his set in a way that feels just right.  No showboating, no look-at-me, not ever.

Steve Wright should get triple or quadruple pay, but I don’t think he’d even entertain the notion of asking for it.  A sweet alto player (a style I miss a great deal) with deep but casual lyricism, a clarinet player who can be Russell-tart or Darnell Howard-smooth, and a neat, unflurried Bixian trumpeter — sweetly to the point.

That’s the band — and these fellows are having a good time purling through the repertoire.  Their quiet pleasure comes through from the first note.

The CD is called simple RAY SKJELBRED and the FIRST THURSDAY BAND, and it’s on the Orangapoid label (number 103).  It has a wonderfully diverse repertoire — Don Redman and Chris Smith, Louis and Red McKenzie, old favorites, oddities, and deep blues.  (JAMES ALLEY BLUES, sung guttily by Bob Jackson, is priceless — immediately identifiable as authentic.) 

The songs are YELLOW DOG BLUES / YEARNING AND BLUE / CAVERNISM / SOLID ROCK / TRY GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP / DON’T BLAME ME / LOVER COME BACK TO ME / FAR AWAY BLUES / NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU / SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY / LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART / HUSTLIN’ AND BUSTLIN’ FOR BABY / JAMES ALLEY BLUES / CHERRY / PENNIES FROM HEAVEN / SHAKE THAT JELLY ROLL. 

I wish I could send you to your local record shop and be assured that it would be there — several copies! — but I think those days are gone, gone, gone.  However.  Obviously if you meet Ray at a gig (or the other FT chaps) you can buy a copy for the pittance of $15.  But for most of us, the idea of meeting Ray or the FTJB in person has a certain dreamlike quality.  So for $18, Ray himself will mail you a copy.  He promises!  The details go like this.  Ray Skjelbred can be found at 19526 40th PL. NE., Lake Forest Park, Washington 98155.  If you need more information or want to make a quantity order of a hundred copies, feel free to let me know and I will tell Ray immediately.  Here’s what the cover looks like.

Now.  I promised some new YouTube clips (I regret that they aren’t mine, but they are still lovely) recorded at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant on June 2, 2011.

Let’s begin with a ruminative PENNIES FROM HEAVEN that has all sorts of bonuses — Ray plays the verse in fine Crosby fashion, and Steve solos on clarinet and cornet:

Something in memory of Frank Melrose and George Wettling (with Tesch and Bud in the dim background), the WAILING BLUES:

Want to be some place where they huggy and kissy nice?  How about NAGASAKI?

And two highly reason-able songs, with connections to Red McKenzie, Wingy Mannone, Jack Teagarden, Fats Waller — the first being NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU (vocalizing by Mike Daugherty):

And that eternal plaint, WHAT’S THE REASON (I’M NOT PLEASIN’ YOU)?

ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON might have been just another Thirties cowboy song if Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham hadn’t been handed it in the Vocalion studios.  “Take another one, Higgy!”  I think also of the version with vocal by Al Bowlly to which Bob Hoskins emoted in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.  Vocal by Mike, doubling by Steve:

And THE SONG IS ENDED:

But that last song title (with apologies to Mr. Berlin) isn’t accurate.  There are more videos from this evening on YouTube, and — that new CD! 

Be the first one in your neighborhood to be walking around with a wide grin — and when someone says, “Why the hell are YOU so happy?” you can say, “Have you heard the new CD by The First Thursday Jazz Band?”  And — if you’re a really charitable spreader-of-the-good-word, you can share your headphones / iPod, or even invite them into your car for a few minutes of The Real Thing.