Tag Archives: Budd Johnson

IT’S SAD BUT TRUE: UNA MAE CARLISLE (1915-56)

If Una Mae Carlisle is known at all today, it is as a jazz footnote and “friend-of”: protege (perhaps mistress) of Fats Waller; singer on the lone and lovely record date that Lester Young’s band did in 1941; composer of WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER, someone recording with Danny Polo, John Kirby, Big Nick Nicholas, Buster Bailey, Ray Nance, Budd Johnson, Walter Thomas.  Sadly, her life was very short, made even shorter by illness.  I propose that she deserves admiration for her own art, not just for her associations with greater stars.

Una Mae had all the qualities that would have made her a success, and she did get some of the attention she deserved.  She had a big embracing voice; she could croon and swing; she was a splendid pianist — more than a Waller clone.

Here are two samples of her genial, casual art, in 1940 and 1941.  First, the song she composed (its title suggested by John Steinbeck).  The wonderful small group is Benny Carter, trumpet; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Slam Stewart, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.  Una Mae plays piano. Were Ed Berger here with us, he could tell us how Benny came to be in that studio — perhaps a rehearsal for his own Bluebird big-band date a few days later:

Here is one side from the famous session with Lester Young, Shad Collins, Clyde Hart, John Collins, Nick Fenton, Harold “Doc” West in 1941:

I come from that generation of listeners who discovered the sides with Lester through a lp compendium called SWING! — on Victor, with notes by Dan Morgenstern.  I think I was not alone in listening around Una Mae, regarded at best as someone interfering with our ability to hear Lester, purring behind her.  But if we could have shaken ourselves out of our Prez-worship for three minutes, we would have found much pleasure in Una Mae’s singing for its own sake, not in comparison to Billie.  As I do now.

This small reconsideration of Carlisle’s talents springs from a nocturnal prowl through eBay, then on to YouTube, then Google, then here — a familiar path, although the stops are not always in that order.

First, an autographed postcard, 1940-2, when she was recording for Bluebird:

I then visited  YouTube to find — to my delight — two brief but very entertaining film clips (from the 1948 BOARDING HOUSE BLUES) where her magnetism comes through:

I savor her ebullience — while trying to ignore the thinness of the song (which, in fairness, might be more sophisticated than GOT A PENNY, BENNY, which Nat Cole was singing a few years earlier) — and her expert piano work, with its small homages to Fats and Tatum.

I write the next sentence with mixed emotions: it cannot have hurt her fame in this period that she was slender and light-skinned.  Had she lived, she might have achieved some of the acclaim given other singer-entertainers, although I wonder if her easy accessibility would have hampered her with the jazz purists of the Fifties, while making her a pop star of sorts.  Certainly her last recordings (1950) show her being targeted for a large popular audience, which is to say the songs are awful and beyond.

The other song from BOARDING HOUSE BLUES is equally thin, built on RHYTHM changes — but it is not the THROW IT OUT YOUR MIND that Louis and the All-Stars performed in WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS (1965):

Looking for more information on Una Mae, I found that others had — admiringly and sadly — done deep research here and elsewhere.  Because the internet encourages such digressions, I now know more about mastoiditis than I would have otherwise.  It shortened her life.  The disease is now rare.

I present all this as a collage in tribute to someone who should not be forgotten.  And I think of Una Mae as one of the talented people who died just short of great fame.  I can imagine her, as I can imagine Hot Lips Page, on the television variety shows of my childhood, appearing in the nightclubs I was too young to go to.

Although the lyrics are those of a formulaic love song, the mood is apt for her epitaph.  May she live on in our hearts:

May your happiness increase!

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DAN MORGENSTERN ON VIC DICKENSON, BOBBY HACKETT, DILL JONES (March 3, 2017)

Dan Morgenstern and Vic Dickenson are heroes of mine, and I am not alone. That’s Dan, below.

I first heard Vic on records in adolescence and tried to see him as often as possible in New York City, 1970-1981.  Always surprising, always rewarding.

This is the closing segment from a long and glorious afternoon of video interviews — here are the preceding ones:

Since it would pain me that someone had never heard BOTTOM BLUES — Vic, Hot Lips Page, Don Byas, Albert Ammons, Israel Crosby, Sidney Catlett — here’s spiritual uplift for the week:

For those who like my explications (and it’s fine if you don’t) here is the post I wrote in 2008 about BOTTOM BLUES.  No saucy video, but another sound source.  And another opportunity to hear that music.

News flash: yesterday, April 20, Dan and I completed another round of interviews — recollections more than interviews, really — around two hours of video in thematic segments, which will appear on JAZZ LIVES in due time. Because I was spoken to in terms from gentle to harsh about the previous videos being hard to hear, I bought a different microphone and we made sure more light came into the room.  Thus, the April 20 sessions will be loud and clear, which is as it should be.

Blessings on Dan and the men and women he keeps alive for us all.

May your happiness increase!

LOUIS’ VICTORIAN ERA

No, not the steely Queen or Julia Cameron’s photographs.  This man.

LOUIS and ALPHA and dog

Some people celebrated yesterday (August 4) as Louis Armstrong’s “real” birthday.  I disagree, but choose to stay away from such disputes.  To me, every day we can think about or hear or see Louis is a collective cosmic birthday.

People who are drawn to Louis — magnetically, but his spiritual warmth — often gravitate to particular periods: the Hot Fives and Sevens, the later period — whether you define that as JACK-ARMSTRONG BLUES, WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR, or WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.  Thanks to Gosta Hagglof, Ricky Riccardi, Dan Morgenstern, and Mosaic Records, we’ve had the opportunity to rediscover the Decca classics of the Thirties and the All-Star gems.

But there’s a particularly rewarding period of Louis’ recordings that has been almost overlooked — the Victors of 1932-33.  Those who live to find fault have found plenty with the backing band — although they are at worst uneven, with beautiful solo episodes from Keg Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Budd Johnson, and the earliest recorded evidence of Louis and Sidney Catlett working together in deep harmony.  If one drops one’s prejudices, the material is also excellent — songs by Fats Waller, Tony Jackson, and the immortal Harry Woods.

And Louis is in spectacular form, playing the melody with all his heart, singing earnestly (and often with delightful floating levity), and improvising so very memorably.  Listen to what he does on the middle-eight / bridges / channels, as if he had decided earthly boundaries didn’t matter, and he could just lie back in the upper atmosphere no matter how fast the band was playing.  Some contemporary brass players — I think of Rex Stewart — took it as a stylistic point of honor to play more notes per bar as the tempo increased; Louis lazed over the pounding rhythms, as if he were a giant cat awaking from a splendid nap.

Spousal commitment of the highest order:

Friends don’t pass you by:

Revenge, served hot yet sweet:

May your happiness increase!

EDDIE CONDON, BUD FREEMAN, and THE CREATION OF JOY

Commodore Love

Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, and I go ‘way back, although those two gentlemen would not have noticed me all that much.  I only saw Eddie once at close range, in the summer of 1972, and at several late concerts; I saw Bud once at a Newport in New York tribute to Eddie.

But I have been following both men since I was a youth in suburbia, when department stores had record departments and there was always a reason to walk to the one nearby or tag along when my parents, who loved to shop for what I think of as home-trivia, went to one that I couldn’t walk to.

I started collecting Louis Armstrong records, which should not shock anyone. But soon I decided that Jack Teagarden was fascinating as well, and bought THE GOLDEN HORN OF JACK TEAGARDEN, which featured Pee Wee Russell, Eddie, Wild Bill Davison, George Wettling, and others.  Then, in 1969, the Mainstream label started to issue vinyl compilations drawn from the Commodore Records catalogue.  Most, if not all, were in reprocessed stereo, had obtuse liner notes, limited discographical information . . . but here I could hear SERENADE TO A SHYLOCK.  I was hooked for life.  And I became a deep convert to Condonia, and the territory known as the Land of Bud.

Both of them are ferociously underrated musicians and their music, when mentioned, is often viewed patronizingly.  More about that later.  But I would fight for the Commodores and later Deccas to be taken as seriously as any small-group recordings of the period.  Click here for several sound samples: clear your mind of jazz-history debris (the categorization of this music as Not Terribly Innovative and Created Mostly by Caucasians) and listen.

CONDON MOSAIC

I’ve had the new Mosaic Records cornucopia of the Condon / Freeman Commodore / Deccas 1938-1950 sitting on my coffee table, the box unwrapped but the discs still virginal, for two weeks now.  I think I was afraid of breaking the spell.  Sometimes the hallowed records one remembers just aren’t what one has idealized, and one hears all the flaws.

But I began to listen, and disillusionment never appeared.  I approached the set in two ways — front and back — starting with the first Commodore session (admiring the way that I could hear shadings and subtleties I’d never heard before) and then the later Deccas . . . unheard Dave Tough, James P. Johnson, Johnny Windhurst, and more.

Here are the details.  Eight CDs, 199 tracks, many new Decca alternates, everything in gorgeous sound, $136.00.  Wonderful photographs, many new to me — and I’m a Condon obsessive.  Notes by Dan Morgenstern, a real plus.

The Commodore and Decca band sides of the first period, 1938 to 1944, are elated and elating music.  Even at slow tempos, a delicious energy bubbles through.  Condon and the Blessed Milt Gabler, the guiding light of Commodore, favored obscure pop songs of the early Twenties — PRAY FOR THE LIGHTS TO GO OUT, TELL ‘EM ABOUT ME, YOU CAN’T CHEAT A CHEATER, IT’S TULIP TIME IN HOLLAND, as well as impromptu blues and durable ballads. Where some of the later Commodore sessions (for example, those led by Muggsy Spanier) sound heavy in their earnestness, the Condons sound light, frisky.  One can study a record like MEET ME TONIGHT IN DREAMLAND or TAPPIN’ THE COMMODORE TILL for its ensemble lightness or densities, as well as the glowing solos.

And the Deccas that follow are almost as glorious — with alternate takes of beloved performances (IDA and JUST YOU, JUST ME) as well as familiar ones in wonderfully clear sound.

As with any Mosaic set, the incautious listener will go down into the depths and arise befuddled by an over-abundance of beauty.  Although the price is far lower than a collection of the original 78s, I urge any student of the music to listen with serious caution, as one might have in 1938 or 1945: two sides, at most, making up a listening session.

I have written elsewhere at length about my hopes for a re-evaluation of Eddie Condon as a color-blind prophet of authentic music, but here I wish to praise him as a beautiful Intuitive, someone who knew what tempos (the plural is intentional) would work, a guitarist who knew the right chords and whose beautiful sound uplifted any group.  Even in his last appearances, when the guitar was more an ornament than an instrument, Eddie knew how to make a group cohesive and sprightly.  I mean to take nothing away from Freddie Green, but rhythm guitarists and aspiring swingsters should study his work on these sides.  And if you take contemporaneous sides recorded by similar bands where Condon is not present, his absence is immediately heard and felt.  That’s the musician.  As for the man, history — taking his actions and utterances as the only evidence — has leaned towards a portrait of a man more enamored of alcohol than anything else, a wise-cracking smart-ass whose jibes were often mean. Some of that might be true: his quick-witted retorts were often not gentle, but the music, ultimately, is what counts.  And the Mosaic set offers it in glorious profusion.  (I would offer the WOLVERINE JAZZ sides as an engaging way to play “jazz repertory” that isn’t bound and gagged by the originals.)

Several heroes also shine through these sides.  One of the most noble is Jack Teagarden — as singer and trombonist.  I suspect that Teagarden has been ill-served by his durability (which is an odd statement, I admit) and his narrowing repertoire.  If one were to see him merely as a re-creator, say, of BASIN STREET BLUES into infinity, one would do him a great disservice.  I defy any trombonist to be as limber, as inventive, as surprising.  And as a singer he is simply glorious, even on the less inspiring material, such as IT’S TULIP TIME IN HOLLAND (which I find and always found terribly endearing).

I can’t say enough about Charles Ellsworth Russell, so I will simply say this.  To me he is the equal of Lester Young, of Benny Carter, and (yes!) of the King of Swing.  Too much has been made of his “eccentricities,” which are ultimately the hallmarks of an utterly self-aware and courageous musician.

The later Commodores often featured a violently effective front-line pairing of Wild Bill Davison and George Brunis, but these sides most often have Bobby Hackett and other lyrical trumpeters / cornetists: Max Kaminsky, Billy Butterfield, even Johnny Windhurst.  Hackett is my idea of angelic music: let that statement stand by itself, and Kaminsky’s even, compact playing is a wonderful model.  The rhythm sections on these records are delights in themselves: consider Jess Stacy or Joe Bushkin, George Wettling, Dave Tough, coming-to-the-rescue Lionel Hampton and even on one long delicious 1943 date, Sidney Catlett.  I can’t ignore delicious cameos by Fats Waller and Lee Wiley.

In 1969 and onwards, I tended to skip over the Bud Freeman trio sessions (with Stacy and Wettling).  How narrow my perspective was.  I now hear them as gloriously radical creations, slyly subversive answers to the Goodman Trio. In some ways, they are the most “free” recordings before the term became more common in jazz: three rollicking eccentrics going at it, each on his own path, improvising wildly and sometimes acrobatically.

And since Miles Davis is the Great Exalted Potentate of All Jazz in the past decades, I present this little passage (found my accident) where he speaks of Lawrence Freeman:

Lester had a sound and an approach like Louis Armstrong, only he had it on tenor sax. Billie Holiday had that same sound and style; so did Budd Johnson and that white dude, Bud Freeman. They all had that running style of playing and singing. That’s the style I like, when it’s running. It floods the tone. It has a softness in the approach and concept, and places emphasis on one note.

I didn’t make that up.

Rather than reading more of my words, I hope you listen to the music presented on the Mosaic site.  These sessions are as precious as any of the more “hallowed” contemporaries.  I would put them next to the Ellington, Hampton, Basie small groups of the period, and they stand up splendidly in comparison to the independent-label recordings of the Forties.  Clear your mind of the odious categorizations and enjoy.

Postscript: before writing this post, I intentionally did not read the beautiful liner notes by Dan Morgenstern, who was on the scene and knew Eddie . . . because Dan’s influence is so strong (in the best way) that I wanted to attempt to write this from my own perspective.  But I know that Mister Morgenstern and I will agree.

May your happiness increase!

OSCAR PETTIFORD, FOUND

OP front

Bassist, cellist, and composer Oscar Pettiford is in the odd position of being both legendary and forgotten (as Whitney Balliett wrote of Pee Wee Russell). If you ask any aficionado of jazz string bass playing to name a dozen favorites — living and dead — it’s likely that the names will come easily.  But Pettiford’s is often not among them.

Yes, he died young, but not before performing and recording every famous musician (with some notable exceptions) in a short career.  An incomplete list would include Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Woody Herman, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, Lucky Thompson, Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Julius Watkins, Ben Webster, Sammy Price, Ruby Braff, Mel Powell, Ellis Larkins, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Billie Holiday, Red Norvo, Clifford Brown, Buddy De Franco, Phineas Newborn, Kai Winding, Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, Don  Byas, Clyde Hart, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson, Joe Thomas, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Martial Solal, Attlia Zoller, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Billy Eckstine, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson, Charlie Shavers, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Ed Hall, Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, Maxine Sullivan, Dick Hyman, Eddie Bert, Joe Derise, Ike Quebec, Jonah Jones, Buck Clayton, Helen Humes, Benny Harris, Boyd Raeburn, Serge Chaloff, Howard McGhee, Sir Charles Thompson, Wynonie Harris, Vic Dickenson, Red Rodney, Tal Farlow, Denzil Best, Jo Jones, Leo Parker, Al Haig, Al Hibbler, Nat Pierce, Bill Harris, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Art Taylor, Wynton Kelly, Lockjaw Davis, Jackie McLean, Kenny Clarke, Dave McKenna, Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Chris Connor, Hank Jones, Earl Coleman, Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Billy Taylor, Chuck Wayne, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Al Cohn, Frank Wess, Jimmy Cleveland, Barry Galbraith, Joe Morello, Joe Wilder, Harry Lookofsky, Jimmy Jones, Urbie Green, Ernie Royal, Herbie Mann, George Barnes, Clark Terry, Dave Schildkraut, Helen Merrill, Jimmy Raney, Horace Silver, Doug Mettome, Quincy Jones, Duke Jordan, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Cecil Payne, Toots Thielmans, Red Garland.

This suggests that Oscar’s peers respected him and called him for gigs and recordings.  It’s not as if he was obscure: his career was longer than, say, Blanton’s or Steve Brown’s.  But, oddly for jazz, which loves to mythologize the musicians who die young and abruptly (and Pettiford died as the result of a 1960 automobile accident) he hasn’t received the benefit of the weird reverence fans and writers have for the young dead.

Of course, it could be that bass players don’t get the respect they and their instruments deserve, but it is and was hard to ignore Pettiford on a session. He offered a rhythmic foundation that was powerful rather than obtrusive, but when he soloed, his lines have the solid eloquence that any horn player would aspire to — while seeming light rather than ponderous.  And as the list of players above suggests, his musical range was exceedingly broad: he wasn’t captured on record in free jazz or ragtime, but he elevated every other variety of jazz and jazz vocal performance he was part of.  Had he lived longer, he might have enjoyed the visibility of a Milt Hinton or a Ray Brown, but we have only brief moments of him on film (the 1945 THE CRIMSON CANARY) and a few seconds of his speaking voice.

Surely he should be better known.

Enough words and keystrokes for the moment: listen to his 1960 feature on WILLOW WEEP FOR ME:

and here he is, playing his own BLUES IN THE CLOSET — from a little-known 1953 television broadcast — on cello (which he took to for a time after breaking an arm in a baseball game):

And his stirring solo on STARDUST:

Now, two pieces of good news that might go some distance in making Oscar’s name and music known to a larger audience.  One is that there is a YouTube channel, PettifordJazz, with sixty videos of Pettiford solos, ensembles, and compositions.  That means that no one has to start collecting Oscar’s music — it is being made available to all for free.

Oscar (or “O.P.”, as his colleagues called him) also spent the last two years of his life in Europe (mostly in Scandinavia and Germany), and recorded often there.  Sessions with guitarist Attila Zoller have been issued and reissued on a variety of labels (in the vinyl era, they appeared on Black Lion) and a famous 1960 concert in Essen with Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Coleman Hawkins was available forty years ago.  Recordings made in 1958-59 for the German radio network have now been issued for the first time on compact disc, in beautiful sound, as OSCAR PETTIFORD: LOST TAPES — GERMANY 1958 / 1959, on SWR Music.

American expatriates Lucky Thompson (on soprano sax for a gorgeous, melancholy SOPHISTICATED LADY) and Kenny Clarke (drums on the final five performances of the disc) are the “stars,” but Zoller stands out as a beautifully measured guitarist.

OP cover rear

And although some US critics of the time might have been condescending to European players, this disc shows their equal mastery. Trumpeter Dusko Goykovich duets with Oscar on the opening BUT NOT FOR ME.  Other notable players here are clarinetist Rolf Kuhn; light-toned tenorist Hans Koller; baritone saxophonists Helmut Brandt, Helmut Reinhardt, Johnny Feigl; altoist Rudi Feigl; guitarist Hans Hammerschmid; drummers Jimmy Pratt and Hartwig Bartz.  The songs are a mix of standards and originals: BUT NOT FOR ME / SOPHISTICATED LADY / A SMOOTH ONE / O.P. (Hans Koller) / MINOR PLUS A MAJOR (Kuhn) / POOR BUTTERFLY / ANUSIA (Hans Koller) / MY LITTLE CELLO (Pettiford) / THE NEARNESS OF YOU / YESTERDAYS / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET (Pettiford) / BIG HASSLE (Hammerschmidt) / ATLANTIC (Helmut Brandt) / ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE / BLUES IN THE CLOSET — the last two are live performances.

And just because it’s accessible and stirring, here is that film clip — from an otherwise undistinguished 1945 murder mystery, THE CRIMSON CANARY, which features Hawk, Pettiford, Howard McGhee, trumpet; Sir Charles Thompson, piano; Denzil Best, on a fast SWEET GEORGIA BROWN line by Hawkins called HOLLYWOOD STAMPEDE:

Ultimately, I think if you’d asked Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, or any number of jazz luminaries, “What about this O.P. fellow?  Should I listen to him?” the answer would have been a very strong affirmative.  So let us do just that. These tapes were lost, but have been found: spread the word about Oscar.  Remind those who have forgotten; introduce those who never knew.  “Learn it to the younguns!” as the youthful protagonist of Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN hears at the start of that novel.

May your happiness increase!

BRING ENOUGH CLOTHES FOR THREE DAYS: FINDING JIMMY ROWLES

Before we get to the great pianist — the singular Jimmy Rowles — some context.

BRING ENOUGH CLOTHES FOR THREE DAYS is a phrase that has vanished entirely from our usual discourse . . . unless one is planning a weekend getaway. This stern summons from the government was used as a comic gambit by Timmie Rogers. During the Second World War, men eligible for the draft would be sent a form letter from their draft board beginning with the word GREETINGS, which would then include the following command as a prelude to being inducted into the armed forces.  If the military took them, they wouldn’t need more clothing; if not, they could return home.

Enough history, perhaps, but needed.  I bought this record a day ago, excited by the names on the label.

EXCELSIOR 001

Leader / singer / composer Rogers, an African-American comedian who died in 2006, was most recently known for his appearances on the Redd Foxx SANFORD AND SON, but he had enjoyed greater popularity earlier.  He was a competent singer and tipple / ukulele player, but his music is not our focus.

Please note the esteemed names in the personnel: guitarist Kessel, bassist Callender, drummer Young, tenor saxophonist Davis, and pianist “Rowels,” perhaps pronounced to rhyme with “vowels”?

To me, this record is evidence that the synchronous universe is at work again. What are the chances that some generous hip soul would post this video on February 25, 2013, and that I should find a copy of the same record at that shrine, the Down Home Music Shop in El Cerrito, California, two days ago (for a dollar plus tax, which is not all that distant from a Forties price)?

February

At 1:11 our man, born James Hunter (later Jimmy or Jimmie Rowles) comes through, sounding like his own angular version of Nat Cole, followed by an equally youthful Barney Kessel, echoing Charlie Christian in his own way.  Since Rowles remains one of my musical heroes — idiosyncratic, intuitive, inimitable — this early vignette gives me pleasure.

He appeared in 1941-42 on a Slim (Gaillard) and Slam (Stewart) record date which also featured Ben Webster and Leo Watson, but none of the records was issued at the time; he also shows up on broadcasts by the Lee and Lester Young band and on private discs featuring Dexter Gordon, Herbie Steward, and Bill Harris.  Radio airshots found him with the Benny Goodman and Woody Herman orchestras . . . but this December 1943 session with Rogers — one side only — is early and choice Rowles, and according to Tom Lord it is the first issued evidence of Rowles in a recording studio.  He would return often until 1994.

Rogers would record with Benny Carter, Jimmy Lunceford, Lucky Thompson, J.C. Heard, Joe Newman, Budd Johnson, and others (now unidentified) but his jazz career was shorter and less illustrious.

And, as a brief interlude, and here’s Mister Rogers himself on film . . .

But listen again to “Rowels.”  He illuminates not only his solo but the ensemble passages.  And what a career he had in front of him.

This post is for Michael Kanan.

May your happiness increase! 

WHEN LOVE GETS HOT, SPECIAL INSTRUMENTS ARE REQUIRED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ear is first mystified, then delighted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

HotFountainPen

and here is more gossip about the hot fountain pen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your happiness increase!