Tag Archives: Brownie McGhee

THE WAY IT SHOULD BE DONE: A NEW BOOK BY DEREK COLLER and BERT WHYATT

Before you read another word: if you know the remarkable work of Derek Coller and the late Bert Whyatt, you can skip to the bottom for details on how to buy it: you won’t need me to convince you of its worth.

Full disclosure, for those who like FD: I corresponded with Bert and exchanged information and tapes for the Bobby Hackett book he and George Hulme did, and I am mentioned in this new book as a source pertaining to Frank Chace.

Now for larger matters: when I pick up a book purporting to be on jazz, I value clear presentation of information, at best first-hand narrative or close informed analysis, any ideological basis (if there must be one) aboveboard.  I should come away from any reading feeling that I know many new things or have been given new ways of perceiving what I know.

Here’s what repels me (details omitted to avoid legal action):

During the twentieth century, jazz was at the center of multiple debates about social life and American experience. Jazz music and its performers were framed in both positive and negative manners. The autobiographies of _____ musicians _____ and ______ provide insight into the general frames they used to frame jazz experience and agency sometimes at odds with dominant discourses. Through Michel Foucault’s notion of ethical substance, I analyze the way in which jazz is constructed in their autobiographies. Several themes are used by both autobiographers to frame their actions, which are constructed in a complex and ambivalent manner revealing both the ethics of jazz and its covert culture.

A long pause.  Happily, I can leave Foucault to his own devices, and enthusiastically recommend CHICAGO JAZZ: THE SECOND LINE, the opposite of the miasma in italics.  And, for the curious, the picture above is of Sig Meyer and his Druids, c. 1924 — including Volly De Faut, Arnold Loyacano, Marvin Saxbe, and Muggsy Spanier.  In itself, that photograph says everything you might need to know about the depth of research in this book.

Coller and Whyatt come from the old school of scholars — note I don’t write “critics” — who believe that the stories musicians tell about themselves and others are more worthy than what listeners believe they hear.  This is a collection of articles — essays, portraits, studies — by both authors, published in Storyville, The Mississippi Rag, the IAJRC Journal, Jazz Journal, and as liner notes — between 1983 and 2016.

For once, I will quote the publisher’s copy, because it is so apt:

When Derek Coller decided to pay tribute to his late friend – the author, biographer, discographer and researcher, Bert Whyatt – he looked for a common theme under which to group some of the articles they had written together over the years. He found it in Chicago where their research activities had gravitated towards the style of music created by the young white musicians from that city and its environs – particularly those who rallied around the figurehead of Eddie Condon – as they listened to and learned from the pioneer black stylists, many of them the greatest jazz players to emigrate from New Orleans, including King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Johnny and Baby Dodds and Jimmy Noone. Two trips to the USA, made by the authors in 1979 and 1992, led to meetings and correspondence with some of the musicians in this compilation, and to learning about many others. There are connections between most of these articles, interviews and notes, with an over-lapping of jobs, leaders and clubs. Some of the stories are about pioneers: Elmer Schoebel, Jack Pettis and Frank Snyder, for example, were in the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1923. Trombonist George Brunis, chronicled here, was also a member of that band, though his long career – during which he played with Muggsy Spanier, as did Rod Cless and George Zack, in the Spanier Ragtime Band of ‘Great Sixteen’ fame – has been more widely documented. Floyd Bean and Tut Soper, here too, were also Spanier alumni. The articles originally appeared variously under a dual by-line, or by either Whyatt or Coller, but always with consultation and discussion prior to publication. Here they become a lively mix of the voices of the authors as well as the musicians and their families, building a story through biography, reviews and discography. The book is illustrated with evocative black and white photographs and images, and there is an Index of names and places to help the reader keep track of the musicians, composers, producers, promoters and writers who created this part of the history of jazz.

“A lively mix” is an understatement. First off, the book is full of wonderful anecdotage, primarily by the musicians themselves.  And it helps to explicate Chicago — which is often legendary but certainly under-documented — as its own world of jazz, where one could encounter Jimmy Yancey, Brownie McGhee, Bud Jacobson, Brad Gowans, Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes — see the 1949 photo facing the table of contents.

For me, the complete and absorbing charm of the book and the research under it is in the focus on those musicians whom I’ve known as names on record labels or in discographies.  Yes, there is coverage of Muggsy Spanier and George Brunis (the first already the subject of a fine biography by — no surprise — Bert), but the other portraits are welcome because the musicians depicted never got the attention during or after their lifetimes.  I will simply list them: Jack Pettis, Frank Snyder, Elmer Schoebel, Rod Cless, George Snurpus, Maurice Bercov, Floyd O’Brien, Oro “Tut” Soper, Floyd Town, Johnny Lane, George Zack, Jack Gardner, Chet Roble, Floyd Bean, Bill Reinhardt and his club Jazz Ltd., Dan Lipscomb, Frank Chace, Jimmy Ille, Art Jenkins, Doc Cenardo, Freddy Greenleaf, and Paul Jordan.

And that is surely not all.  Photographs new to me, of course.  And when I open the book at random, gems leap out: on page 202, pianist Tut Soper describes Chicago as “the center of gravity as far as jazz is concerned.”  On page 63, we are in trombonist Floyd O’Brien’s datebook for 1928, describing gigs and who was in the band.  On page 227, jazz writer Larry Kart recalls hearing (and recording) clarinetist Frank Chace and pianist Bob Wright playing Coltrane’s LAZY BIRD and Tadd Dameron’s IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW.

I mentioned anecdotage earlier in this post, and will add a few excerpts from string bassist Harlow Atwood (201-2), talking of clarinetist / clubowner Bill Reinhardt and early rehearsals (Fall 1932) for Charlie Barnet’s first big band:

(. . . Charlie then was a 17 years-old pothead fugitive from Moses Brown Prep in Providence, R.I.) which boasted the legendary Jack Purvis on trumpet and Scoops Thompson (he sold drugs by the scoopful!) on guitar.  The two wildest dudes I ever met in the business.  That band, by the way, opened the brand-new Paramount Hotel, owned by Charlie’s family, on New Year’s Eve of ’32-’33 and lasted exactly one set.  Barnet’s mother, shocked to her socks by Purvis’ romping charts, fired Charlie herself.  I was sitting at Charlie’s table and heard the conversation.  

And, later, Atwood’s memories of valve-trombonist Frank Orchard (memorable for appearances on Commodore Records — I also saw him at Jimmy Ryan’s in the Seventies) who also acted as M.C., played piano, guitar, and sang — and who installed “a 2 1/2 times life-sized photo of himself at the club’s street entrance”:

The sets were pure Mack Sennett.  Frank would tinkle a piano intro, then switch to rhythm guitar for the opening chorus, grab his guitar and up to the mike to sing / play a chorus, then do the sock chorus on trombone lead and finally sprint back to the piano for the ending.  Plus, of course, introductory blather.

That’s purest jazz catnip to me, and I hope to you also.

If you’d told me a few years ago that I would hold a book with a detailed portrait of the pianist Jack Gardner in it, or a reference to tenorist Joe Masek, I would have thought that impossible.  And I have taken so long to review this book because of its irresistible nature.  When I received it in the mail, I left it visible in my apartment, and when I passed by it, I would stop to read a few pages: its distracting force was just that powerful.  I apologize to Derek and to the shade of Bert for being so tardy, but if you are in the least curious about Chicago jazz — from the teens to the Seventies — you will find CHICAGO JAZZ: THE SECOND LINE fascinating, quotable, and invaluable. I wish there were a bookshelf of volumes of equal merit.

Buy a copy here or here .  Alas, the book doesn’t come with a I BRAKE FOR SIG MEYERS AND HIS DRUIDS bumper sticker or a multi-volume CD set of previously unheard live sessions recorded by John Steiner, but we will make do with this lovely collection.

May your happiness increase!

QUIETLY ACCOMPLISHED: CHRIS BARBER’S “JAZZ ME BLUES”

The biographies of jazz musicians often follow a predictable path, from Mother at the organ or Dad’s 78s, precocious talent, hours of rigorous training, encounters with older professionals, early gigs, and then success.  If the musician is stable and fortunate, the narrative quiets down to a series of gigs and concerts; if the subject is tragic, the pages darken: alcohol, drugs, abusive relationships, auto accident, major illness, premature death.

The jazz eminences who have written autobiographies (excepting Billie Holiday and Anita O’Day, although I am sure some readers will add to that list) have been the more fortunate ones, and their books depict elders looking back on friendships and triumphs.  Often the narrator is justly proud, and his / her singular personality is a strong consistent presence.

Trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber, born in 1930, continues to have a wonderful career — one that began with “traditional jazz” and stretched the definition to include different music incorporated into his own.  He’s played and recorded for more than sixty years with British jazz legends Ben Cohen, Ottilie Patterson, Ken Colyer, Acker Bilk, Pat Halcox, Lonnie Donegan, Monty Sunshine, Bruce Turner, Ian Wheeler, Beryl Bryden; with American stars Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Jordan, Ed Hall, Ray Nance, Albert Nicholas, Joe Darensbourg, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Cecil Scott, Don Frye, Floyd Casey, Ed Allen, Sidney deParis, Hank Duncan, Wild Bill Davis, Russell Procope, Dr. John, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lewis and George Lewis, Clarence Williams, Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, Sam Theard, Jack Teagarden, Ornette Coleman, Scott LaFaro, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band . . .so the reader who opens a Barber autobiography hopes for good stories.

But this long list of names isn’t all there is to JAZZ ME BLUES (written with the very capable help of Alyn Shipton . . . Barber says in his acknowledgments that they first talked about this book in 1982) — published this year by Equinox in their Popular Music History series.

Barber follows the usual chronological path from his early encounter with jazz to becoming an international eminence. However, it took me about thirty-five pages (the book is 172 long) to settle in to JAZZ ME BLUES because of his distinctive personality.

He isn’t forceful or self-absorbed, telling us of the wonderful thing he did next. Barber comes across as a quietly modest man who has no need for us to admire him. Chronicling his life, he is so placidly matter-of-fact that it might take readers by surprise. But once we do, the absence of self-congratulation is refreshing, as if we were introduced to a very talented person who had been brought up to think self-praise was vulgar.

An interval for music.  First, STEAMBOAT BILL and HIGH SOCIETY from the Fifties:

GOIN’ HOME BLUES from 2013:

Aside from its subject’s remarkably modest approach to his own life, JAZZ ME BLUES has two great pleasures.  One is Barber’s unwillingness to stay neatly in the style that had brought him success. Beginning in the Sixties, his band takes on different shadings while not abandoning the music he loves: he brings in electric guitarist John Slaughter, altoist Joe Harriott, organist Brian Auger; he works and records with blues and gospel legends; he plays extended compositions. Again, since Barber speaks about these events with polite restraint, one must estimate the emotional effect of being booed by British traditionalist fans who wanted “their” music to stay the same. Barber is not making changes to woo a larger audience or to stay in the public eye, but because he is genuinely interested in adding other flavorings to a familiar dish. He is a determined seeker, and he grows more intriguing in his quests.

The other pleasure I alluded to at the start, delightful first-hand anecdotes. Readers deprived of their own contact with their heroes always want to know what the great men and women were like, and JAZZ ME BLUES — although never mean-spirited in its quick sketches — is a banquet here. Not only do we hear about Sonny Boy Williamson and Zutty Singleton (the latter saying he is most happy in a band without a piano because pianists all “lose time”) but about Van Morrison, George Harrison (who likes the 1930 BARNACLE BILL THE SAILOR) and colleagues Lennon and McCartney; we read of Howlin’ Wolf saying grace quietly and sweetly before a meal. Trumpeter Ed Allen tells Barber that he always used to learn the songs for Clarence Williams record dates in the taxi on the way to the studio.

And Barber has been in the right place at the right time. When he comes to America, he sits in at Condon’s. After an uneventful beginning, “. . . suddenly the rhythm section started to swing. I looked round and Eddie had picked up his guitar and joined in. From then on, with him there, every tempo was just right, and everything swung. His presence was subtle, but it made the world of difference. I knew what a fine player he could be, as, when the band had appeared at the Royal Festival Hall in 1957. I’d gone along to their late night concert. The thing that sticks in my memory from that night was Eddie taking a half-chorus solo on a tune in the ballad medley. It was just perfect, and with the tuning of his four-string tenor guitar it had a very distinctive sound. It reminded me of Carmen Mastren, who was a true virtuoso.”

JAZZ ME BLUES is an engaging portrait of a continuing life in jazz (with rare photographs, a selective discography, and an index). It is available in North America exclusively through ISD ($34.95 hardcover): ISD, 70 Enterprise Drive, Suite 2, Bristol, CT 00610: orders@isdistribution.com.

May your happiness increase!

SWINGING FOR JOHN PENDLETON: HAL SMITH’S INTERNATIONAL SEXTET at SACRAMENTO (May 27, 2011)

What better way to honor a beloved jazz friend, now gone, than with the music he loved so much?  And played so eloquently by the people he admired so deeply. 

The man: John Pendleton, whom you’ll hear spoken of in the videos that follow.

The musicians: Hal Smith’s International Sextet, recorded on May 27 at the 2011 Sacramento Jazz Jubilee.  That’s Hal (drums), Katie Cavera (guitar / vocals), Clint Baker (string bass / vocals), Anita Thomas (clarinet, alto, vocals), Kim Cusack (clarinet, tenor, vocals), Carl Sonny Leyland (piano, vocals).

“Music speaks louder than words,” Charlie Parker told condescending Earl Wilson in that famous film clip, and Bird was right, so I won’t elaborate the virtues of this rocking group at length: viewers can find their own pleasures for themselves. 

But I would point out that Hal, Katie, Sonny, and Clint make a peerless rhythm section, with their four sonorities weaving together, their pulses aligned without their individualities being flattened for some specious idea of the common good.  Hear the ripe-fruit sound of Katie’s guitar; the swish and flow of Hal’s cymbals, the deep commentaries of Clint’s bass, the down-home rock of Carl’s piano.  And the horns intertwine with each other and float over this sweet propulsion: Kim, bringing his own perspective to Bud Freeman, Eddie Miller, Joe Marsala, Pee Wee Russell, and Frank Chace; Anita, completely in control but entirely fearless, following her impulses in the best self-reliant way.  And the vocalizing is wonderful (jazz instrumentalists make the best singers!) neither slick nor amateurish.

Watch everyone on the stand smiling — always a guarantee of heartfelt music and deep gratifications being spread all around. 

Katie and Anita tell us all about the new dance craze that everyone’s doing — or should be doing — that’s TRUCKIN’:

RIDIN’ ON THE L&N celebrates a train that ran between Louisville and Nashville, according to Brother Hal, who knows these things:

John loved baseball and swing.  Hence this funny, surprising TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME:

A hot one!  RUNNIN’ WILD (hear Clint’s bass behind Kim):

SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY is such a simple song, but it works so well on our deepest impulses to go home, or some imagined version of it.  Katie and Anita remind us that Doris Day had a great hit with this song; the rest of the band says (implicitly), “Hey, remember the great Buck Clayton Jam Session?”  Works perfectly:

Here’s Carl’s version of the 1949 hit by Sticks McGhee (younger brother of Brownie), DRINKIN’ WINE (SPO-DEE-O-DEE).  Original lyrics — according to Nick Tosches and Wikipedia — reprinted below, definitely unvarnished and unsanitized.*

Katie is not salacious in person, but she loves songs about Twenties flirtation — perhaps she was a naughty flapper in a past life?  Here’s MA! (HE’S MAKING EYES AT ME):

I couldn’t abide THIS OLD HOUSE even when I owned one (no real-life workmen were ever such models of decorum and skill) but I love LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE, and it’s clear that Anita does too.  Music by J. Fred Coots, Danny’s uncle:

And a little Basie is always good for the soul, as Hal reminds us with JUMPIN’ AT THE WOODSIDE:

I never met John Pendleton, but he must have been what the Irish call a grand fellow to have these candid people so deeply devoted to him.  And to have such wonderful music played in his memory!

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*”Drinkin’ that mess is our delight, And when we get drunk, start fightin’ all night. Knockin’ out windows and learnin’ down doors, Drinkin’ half-gallons and callin’ for more. Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’wine! Goddam! Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’wine! Goddam! Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’wine! Goddam! Pass that bottle to me!”