Tag Archives: Buddy Bolden

“OH, MEMORY! OH, MEMORY!” (Part Two): The MANHATTAN RAGTIME ORCHESTRA at THE CAJUN: JOHN GILL, MATTHEW SZEMELA, JON-ERIK KELLSO, CONAL FOWKES, BRAD SHIGETA, PETE MARTINEZ, JESSE GELBER, ROB GARCIA (July 13, 2006)

Once, the Manhattan Ragtime Orchestra had a steady gig in New York City where they made wonderful music.  The club is gone; the gig is gone.  But the music remains.

Here is the first part of this glorious archaeological dig, with almost an hour of new / old 2006 music, and the stories underneath the surface.

Here’s the first video segment:

and the second:

That night the MRO — usually led by clarinetist Orange Kellin — was Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Brad Shigeta, trombone; Pete Martinez, clarinet; Matt Szemela, violin; Jesse Gelber, piano; John Gill, banjo, vocals; Conal Fowkes, string bass; Rob Garcia, drums, and the songs played are WHEN MY BABY SMILES AT ME (Gill does Ted Lewis) / RED PEPPER RAG / UNDER THE BAMBOO TREE (Gill) / RUBBER PLANT RAG arr. Pete / EGYPTIA / “OUR GANG” theme out:

And Part Four, THE RAGTIME DANCE / KROOKED BLUES / NEW ORLEANS WIGGLE / HIGH SOCIETY / SONG OF THE ISLANDS (out theme) //

Those were great times.  And not simply because of any historical-nostalgic longings, but because of the wonderful music, played with inspiration rather than ironies.  I am grateful to have been there, and even more grateful that I could bring a video camera and a tiny tripod . . . gifts from the past that gleam today.

After this post was published, a friend reminded me that the CD,
“MANHATTAN RAGTIME ORCHESTRA: AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL” (with its
wonderful 1898 photograph of Broadway at 28th Street in Manhattan!),
is still available from Stomp Off Records: PO Box 342, York, PA 17405.

May your happiness increase!

“OH, MEMORY! OH, MEMORY!”: The MANHATTAN RAGTIME ORCHESTRA at THE CAJUN, PART ONE: JOHN GILL, MATTHEW SZEMELA, JON-ERIK KELLSO, CONAL FOWKES, BRAD SHIGETA, PETE MARTINEZ, JESSE GELBER, ROB GARCIA (July 13, 2006)

The power of memory:

That girl, and the story of that girl, are both imperishable.  Not only does Mr. Bernstein recall her, but everyone who has ever seen CITIZEN KANE recalls him recalling her.  Or so I hope.

Music, so powerful and so multi-layered, is more slippery in the memory, giving us a mixture of sensations and emotions.  Of course people remember Louis playing 250 high C’s, but how many people can recall with clarity a performance full of lights and shadings that happened once, on the spot, and then was over?

Fortunately we have recording equipment of all kinds, and to think of what would have happened to jazz without it is impossible.  But here’s a New York story with gratifications attached, not simply narratives of what happened.

Exhibit A, “The Big Easy”:

Exhibit B, courtesy of eBay:

Exhibit C, self-explanatory:

In 2005, when I was once again free to explore, I discovered The Cajun, a traditional-jazz club in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood.  It closed in late summer 2006, and it was obliterated to become luxury housing, alas.

The owners were Herb Maslin and Arlene Lichterman (Arlene is still with us) and at our first encounter I offered to help publicize the club, even though I had not yet imagined having a jazz blog.  I was writing for The Mississippi Rag and other jazz periodicals, and offered help with press releases.  She was eager to have what festival promoters call Asses in Seats, so I could come anytime and make notes on performances and the general ambiance.  I was free to modestly of generic food.  (I worked my way through the menu, an explorer looking for edible land.)

I have said elsewhere that I’d seen people of my vintage shooting videos of their grandchildren and the ducks on the pond, and it dawned on me that I could buy one to document the music I and others loved.  Exhibit B was, after Flip, my first real video camera.  It recorded on 30-minute mini-DVDs, difficult to transfer, but it worked in the odd lighting and the built-in microphone was acceptable, especially when I sat close to the band.  At the time, I did not know what I might do with the discs — YouTube was only allowing postings of no more than ten minutes and my editing skills were not even rudimentary — but the thought of capturing what would otherwise be evanescent was entrancing.

Thirteen years later, I uncovered a number of videos from 2006: a small stack of mini-DVDs in plastic cases still sits in a bookcase as I write this.  Some videos, when I shared them with the participants (I ask permission first, the videographer’s “informed consent”) created hot-jazz-PTSD, and will remain unseen.  But the four sets of the Manhattan Ragtime Orchestra pleased my hero John Gill, and the trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, who encouraged me to  post them so that this splendid band would not be just a memory or a record.  I canvassed the musicians, some of whom are friends, and those who responded agreed that these performances should be enjoyed now.

John continues to believe in the music: he told an interviewer long ago, “It’s music of the people. It’s open and honest and straightforward and comes to you with open arms,” and he continues to live that truth in New Orleans.

Here is the first hour of music (a set-and-a-half of four) from the Manhattan Ragtime Orchestra, playing their own warm, spirited “radical pop music”: John is on banjo and vocals, with Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matthew Szemela, violin; Brad Shigeta, trombone; Pete Martinez, clarinet (subbing for leader Orange Kellin); Jesse Gelber, piano; Conal Fowkes, string bass; Rob Garcia, drums.

No tricks, no funny hats, no gimmicks: just real music.  A woman fanning herself: it was July.

Part One, including PORTO RICO / NEW ORLEANS JOYS / TEE NAH NAH (Gill vocal) with Arlene Lichterman cameos / BUDDY’S HABITS / HOME IN PASADENA (Gill) / HIAWATHA (Lizard On A Rail) / DEAR HEART – I’M FOREVER BLOWING BUBBLES //

Part Two, including a Buddy Bolden Medley: DON’T GO WAY, NOBODY – MAKIN’ RUNS / CONGO LOVE CALL / BOUNCING AROUND / SONG OF THE ISLANDS (closing theme) / CREOLE BELLES (Gill) / A BUNCH OF BLUES //

To me, much more gratifying that a fleeting glimpse of a girl and her parasol.  And there is another forty-five minutes of music to come.

May your happiness increase!

A FRIENDLY BOOK: CLIVE WILSON’S “THE TIME OF MY LIFE: A JAZZ JOURNEY FROM LONDON TO NEW ORLEANS” (University Press of Mississippi, 2019)

Many memoirs have, at their center, trauma: abuse, addiction, imprisonment, death, disease, or more.  And many jazz books these days are indigestible: deadened by theoretical labyrinths or limited by the author’s narrow range or by inaccuracies.  Thus it’s a tremendous pleasure to celebrate trumpeter Clive Wilson‘s memoir, gentle, humane, and full of good stories.  It’s available from the usual online sources, and a good overview is here.

The facts first: Clive (you’ll understand why I do not call him by the more formal “Wilson”) heard traditional jazz in England in his youth — George Lewis, Kid Ory, Henry “Red” Allen and others — and was inspired to take up the trumpet.  Although he studied physics in college, he was emotionally connected to jazz, and he gigged at home with New Orleans-style bands before making the leap to visit in New Orleans in 1964.  There he met local musicians, and eventually settled in the city he now calls home.  The cover shows a youthful Clive next to Punch Miller . . . which says a great deal.

At this point, some aural evidence would be fitting: Clive and the Shotgun Jazz Band in 2014, playing WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE, alongside Marla Dixon, Twerk Thomson, and Tommy Sancton:

What makes this book so appealing is almost subliminal.  I love first-hand jazz experiences and anecdotes, and for me the three brief encounters Clive has with Henry “Red” Allen — the gradual incline from eager young fan to being seen as a musician — are worth the price of the book.  And the book is generously fleshed out by detailed gracious portraits of many New Orleans luminaries: Dick Allen, Dave “Fat Man” Williams, Barbara Reid, Punch Miller, Raymond Burke, Slow Drag, George Guesnon, Kid Howard, Kid Sheik, Kid Thomas (keep the Kids together!), Lewis James, Peter Bocage, De De Pierce, Herb Hall, Teddy Buckner (gently but decisively winning a nonverbal argument in music with a vindictive Leonard Feather), Buster Holmes, Harold Dejan, Percy Humphrey, Emilie Barnes, Manuel Manetta, and more.  There are brief glimpses of Louis Armstrong in New York and California and an actual Clayton “Sunshine” Duerr sighting — someone who was only a name in a discography.  (Between 1933 and 1936, Duerr played guitar in three New York sessions, alongside Benny Carter, Floyd O’Brien, Teddy Wilson, Pops Foster, Frank Froeba, Joe Marsala, Jack Purvis, Bunny Berigan, and Eddie Dougherty: someone should have recorded his recollections!)

Thus the book is full of close-ups, and since Clive is and was a practicing musician rather than simply a fan, the stories have substance — not only watching Harold Dejan in a street parade, but playing in one.  And Clive has a wonderful ear for the way people speak, which he shares with love rather than condescension.  Two examples: when he arrives at the New Orleans bus station — fifty dollars in his pocket — he hears two men arguing.  One says to the other: “Now tell me this.  What I did you that made you do that to me?!”  That’s memorable: I’ve been trying to work it into conversation since I read it.  Then there’s Tom Albert’s memory of hearing the Bolden band c. 1904: “I stood there with my mouth open so long, it got full of dirt!”

My copy has fifty or more page-corners turned down to remind me of where the irreplaceable stories, sights, and memories are.  And any reader will find his or her own memorable pages.  (There’s a lovely short piece at the end about what Louis means to him and to us.)  But this book is more than the record of someone who aimed for the right place and stayed there, more than a series of anecdotes (how much a plate of red beans and rice cost at Buster Holmes’ in the mid-Sixties and the secret of its deep flavor).

Clive does not fashion himself in a self-conscious way: the book is not a narcissist’s holiday or a diary.  He isn’t Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, or Stephen Dedalus.  But from the first pages of this narrative, it’s clear that he is someone on a quest — not simply to learn to play the trumpet as they do in New Orleans, but to answer the deep questions “Who am I?  Where do I belong?  What is my purpose on this earth?”  To me, Clive’s search for those answers — his journeys back and forth from the UK to NOLA — is the most rewarding part of this book, because we see him as serious in his introspective scrutiny, whether he is asking his rather rigid father a dangerous question across the dinner table or continuing the same deep inquiries as an adult.  In this way, the book has a resonance beyond his musical aspirations and realizations.  It becomes more than a “jazz book”; it feels, without pretensions, much like the chronicle of the development of a personality, an awareness, a developed consciousness.

Clive is modest both in his description of his endeavors, and there is no self-congratulation, but we see the growth of someone we can value for a kind of gentle honesty as well as for his trumpet playing.  And that makes TIME OF MY LIFE a book not only to enjoy, but to recommend to those who wouldn’t know Kid Howard from Kid Rock.

A soft-spoken, friendly, yet meaningful work of art, “ça c’est plein.”

And here’s a little taste:

I recommend it with pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

LYRICISM, DRAMA, FUN, SWING: TIM LAUGHLIN, CONNIE JONES, DOUG FINKE, CHRIS DAWSON, KATIE CAVERA, MARTY EGGERS, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 29, 2014)

I’ve seen and heard a great deal of live jazz performance since 2004 (and before then) and occasionally I feel as if the video camera has been grafted on my body (“More than five thousand published YouTube videos,” he said immodestly) — but the band that follows is one of my great pleasures.

TIM AND CONNIE FQF

It’s a delicious hybrid of deep New Orleans, Bob Crosby Bobcats, Teddy Wilson and Basie small groups.  I speak of Tim Laughlin’s All Stars featuring the master of melody on clarinet; Connie Jones, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  Here they are in all their delightful gliding majesty at the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest.

TIM AND CONNIE

YOU’RE LUCKY TO ME:

BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES:

DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME?:

And a vocal feature for someone who’s not only one of the greatest instrumentalists I know — but also a great musical actor and singer, Mister Connie Jones — NEW ORLEANS AND A RUSTY OLD HORN:

I treasure these musicians and these performances, and feel privileged beyond words that I have been in the same room (with a camera) with these masters.

May your happiness increase!

JOURNEY TO UNMAPPED PLACES: “JAZZ LIVES: TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART” by JAAP VAN DE KLOMP

JazzLives Blog

Between 2005 and 2008, the Dutch photographer and jazz scholar Jaap van de Klomp began a series of soulful pilgrimages in honor of the men and women who had created the music he so loves.

The result is the lovely and often sad book of photographs, JAZZ LIVES, which takes its subtitle, TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART, from the words chiseled into Lester Young’s gravestone.

Yes, gravestone.

Every jazz lover knows the familiar photographs of our heroes and heroines: Billie Holiday with her dog; Louis Armstrong snappily dressed in London; Charlie Parker on the bandstand.  But where are our idols now?

The two hundred and more pages of JAZZ LIVES document where their mortal remains lie: with elaborate gravestones, unmarked plots of overgrown land, monuments proud and forlorn.  Jaap took his camera across the United States and Europe to capture these landscapes, resulting in a heartfelt pilgrimage to shrines of the dead. Each photograph is accompanied by a concise biography by Scott Yanow, and the book is organized by instruments once played.

The gravestones sometimes speak of posthumous reputation and fame: huge blocks of costly stone or unmarked areas of grass.  A monument for Ellington and empty space for Bud Powell.  An essay by Dan Morgenstern opens the book; one by the jazz musician and writer Bill Crow closes it. A simply written but evocative essay by the photographer himself explains something about his travels.

But the graves say so much — by presence and absence, reality and implication — about Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Serge Chaloff, Vic Dickenson, Andrew Hill, Sarah Vaughan, Illinois Jacquet, Django Reinhardt, Jack Teagarden, Britt Woodman, Al Grey, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet, John Carter, Russell Procope, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Dorsey, Eric Dolphy, Willie the Lion Smith, Gigi Gryce, Roland Kirk, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Wardell Gray, Stuff Smith, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Hank Mobley, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Teddy Wilson, Herbie Nichols, Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Milt Hinton, Jimmie Blanton, George Duvivier, Jo Jones, Zutty Singleton, Denzil Best, Billy Higgins, Sidney Catlett, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Ivie Anderson, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Johnny Hartman, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billy Strayhorn, Sun Ra, Bennie Moten, W. C. Handy, Tadd Dameron, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, and others.

To give some sense of the breadth of his searching, the gravestones of trumpet players included in this book are: Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Hot Lips Page, Henry Red Allen, Cootie Williams, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Lester Bowie.

Jaap, born in 1940, has been involved with the music and the musicians for more than half a century, including Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd, Kenny Drew, and Kenny Clarke among others.

But he is not only a person of great feeling and a fine photographer.  Jaap is one of those rare souls who wants to share what he has done.  He wrote this to me, “The book which is sold out in the Netherlands by now will not be reprinted and has been proven to be physically too heavy for worldwide distribution. In this form I still hope to reach more jazz enthusiasts with a book which was a great pleasure to make.and which is still a very dear project to me.”

He has offered to make his book available as a digital download — for free — to anyone who emails him at info@jaapvandeklomp.nl  with JazzLives in the subject line.  The whole book is about 150 MB and it might take a few minutes to download.

This is generosity without hidden motive, and it is a beautiful work of art and devotion.

May your happiness increase!

DO WHAT ORY SAY: “CREOLE TROMBONE: KID ORY AND THE EARLY YEARS OF JAZZ,” by JOHN McCUSKER

It’s always a pleasure to encounter a new jazz book that’s not a rehash of overexposed source materials or burdened by academic ideologies, and John McCusker’s fresh look at the life and music of trombonist / composer / bandleader Edward “Kid” Ory (1886-1973) is just such an engaging book.

In CREOLE TROMBONE, McCusker carefully documents Ory’s roots, his development as an artist, and the scenes in which he lived and workd — not only rural Louisiana and New Orleans, but California in the early years of the twentieth century and Chicago in the Twenties.

We learn a great deal about a variety of subjects — life on a sugar cane plantation, New Orleans band battles and etiquette, early recordings and the music business.  And there are portraits, some of them from an unusual angle or an unexpected perspective, of Joe Oliver, young Louis Armstrong, Mutt Carey, Jelly Roll Morton, Freddie Keppard, Buddy Bolden, and others.

McCusker is praised for his “meticulous research” in three of the back-cover blurbs, and the book does not disappoint here.  Not only does he make use of published work by scholars including David Sager, Henry Kmen, Al Rose, and interviews with the surviving musicians held in the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University, but he has spoken to Ory’s relatives and drawn liberally on Ory’s unpublished autobiography (made available to him through the generosity of Ory’s daughter Babette).  As usual, there are brief “historical” passages in which the author works to set the scene for those unfamiliar with it, and the expected use of census and baptismal records.

The book offers thirty pages of endnotes, contains twenty photographs of Ory, his family, and the bands — only three of which will be familiar.  CREOLE TROMBONE also reproduces lead sheets from six unpublished Ory songs — the most intriguing being MUSSOLINI CARRIES THE DRUM FOR HITLER and DON’T FORGET THE SANTA FE TRAIN AND BUS.  (Do I hear a CD project, “The Unrecorded Kid Ory,” in the works?)

I came away from the book with an increased awareness of and respect for Ory — not only as independent and ambitious, but someone with a keen eye for making his musical activities pay off.  I was struck by Ory the entrepreneur (circa 1912-13) who not only booked his own dances — arranging for his band to play in a hall he had rented — but because he was worried about competition, paying to rent a hall two blocks away and keep it dark that night.

The most animated parts of the book, of course, are the first-hand recollections of the musicians: a leisurely word-picture of the worst place Ory ever played, Spano’s, that catered to prostitutes and “freakish” men and women; his depiction of life in a Storyville brothel, where a customer who hung his trousers over a chair would find himself wishing he had been more cautious.  McCusker’s research delves into the musical communication between more formal ragtime-dance music and hotter jazz, between Ory and his colleagues and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  Ory and Joe Oliver were advertising their band as playing “Jazz” as early as November 1917; in 1922, “Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra” was broadcasting on the radio in California.

McCusker is by profession a photographer and journalist, someone obviously wanting to add to the record and to make it accurate, so that Ory would not be overshadowed, forgotten, or ignored — very good reasons to research and write a book.  McCusker clearly admires Ory but the book is not worshipful.  His writing is lively and the book moves quickly; although he relies greatly on sources, it does not resemble an academic thesis.

Because McCusker sees Ory as a seriously influential figure, I was not surprised to find a great deal of study devoted to the years before Ory made his first recordings in 1922.  Ory’s musical career continued until 1933 or so, then — after a decade of non-musical work) it resumed for nearly two decades.  But CREOLE TROMBONE covers the years from 1943 to Ory’s death in a few quick pages.

Had Ory retreated into an old man’s obscurity, I could understand this, but in that period Ory made more than two-thirds of his recordings, many for major labels (Columbia, Decca, Victor, and the Norman Granz conglomerate) toured Europe several times — and was more popular than ever before.

Since I first encountered Ory’s music in this period — as a member of a 1946 Armstrong group and on two Verve recordings that paired him effectively with Henry “Red” Allen, I find the omission curious, and the book feels to me hurried or deflating.  This could have been an economic decision (a press choosing a manuscript of X words only and its author deciding to concentrate on the less explored early period), but the last pages of this otherwise rewarding book feel truncated.

But here’s my offering to make up for it:

Another view of the authorship of MUSKRAT RAMBLE from Louis himself — twice (thanks to Ricky Riccardi) — here.  Who knew that fried muskrat had such powers?

May your happiness increase.

“THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS,” by JUDITH SCHLESINGER

“Has JAZZ LIVES gone crazy?” some of you might ask.  No, even though the book I offer for your consideration might seem to some to have only a tenuous connection to jazz.

But Judith Schlesinger’s new book, THE INSANITY HOAX: EXPLODING THE MYTH OF THE MAD GENIUS, is immensely relevant to the mythological accretions that jazz has had foisted on it for the last century.  And the book is also immensely lively and entertaining.

Any jazz listener might list those jazz musicians celebrated for the irresistible combination of deep creativity and — to some — inevitable mental illness.  Shall we begin with Charlie Parker?  Buddy Bolden.  Then add Leon Roppolo, Cassino Simpson, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk.  A quick scan of “jazz musician” “mental illness” on Google brings up Charles Mingus, Billy Tipton, Rosemary Clooney, right there alongside Virginia Woolf and Vincent Van Gogh.  Let’s not even talk about Billie Holiday, shall we?

These creative artists make good copy, and their “mental instability” has been used as modern-day evidence that Plato was right: to be creative, one must be beyond the “normal” that many people demonstrate.  Schlesinger states it simply: “The mad genius is a beloved cultural artifact, a popular spectacle . . . . It provides the perfect container for every romantic fantasy about both madness and genius–and doesn’t have to be any more precise than that to be useful.  But a fact, it is not.  There is simply no good reason to believe that exceptionally creative people are more afflicted with psychopathology than anyone else.”

What fascinates Schlesinger is not so much arguing about biographical details: were Mozart’s scatological jokes evidence of a disordered mind?  But she is much more intrigued, and sometimes horrified, by the ways that modern “scientists” and “chroniclers” have distorted, invented, appropriated, and misread evidence to make it fit their portrait: Creative = Crazy.  And the misrepresentations are sometimes set in stone: Schlesinger has done all kinds of fascinating homework: her detective work about Beethoven’s “death mask” is a delight.

She is especially drawn to — and sympathetic to — jazz musicians and the burden of half-truth and complete fallacy attached to them, especially posthumously.  She proudly asserts that the creative people she admires are “heroic,” rather than “mentally disabled,” and — without making lists, points us towards the much more stable, well-adjusted figures in the music business who don’t get the press because their narratives can’t be forced into romantic myth.  Consider Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, Marian McPartland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane — musicians too busy practicing their craft and having a good time in the process to be Mad Geniuses.

When it comes to the way in which jazz musicians are perceived by psychologists and therapists, the examples Schlesinger finds would be hilarious if they weren’t so appalling.  Did you know that Coltrane’s “excessive practicing” and search for “the perfect mouthpiece” were dead-on symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder?  So writes Gregory Wills.  Ask Arnold M. Ludwig’s opinion about Bix Beiderbecke and you get this: Bis had “mental problems” because he had trouble, late in life with his embouchure.

THE INSANITY HOAX shows off Schlesinger’s sharp eye and sharp wit, but she’s more than George Carlin riffing on the absurdities she has read about, observed, and experienced.  Although she has a free-swinging style, the book is no improvisation: it offers thirty-five pages of endnotes and bibliography.  No doubt it will irritate those — patients, academics, therapists, and practitioners — who see the DSM as a sacred book, those who take Kay Redfield Jamison’s simple equation (all great artists are or have been mentally ill to be such great artists) as true.  But it is intelligent, forthright, full of information, and a pleasure to read: one of those books I wished were longer.

You can find out more about the book here.

“WHAT DO YOU CALL THAT?”

With some regularity, I get an email note from a sincere, curious JAZZ LIVES reader or viewer who has encountered a stirring, perhaps unclassifiable musical performance: “What style is that?” or “What do you call that kind of jazz?”

The questions make me sad.  Sometimes it seems as if listeners are made nervous by the music’s potential to surprise, as if jazz had become a little dog, very sweet-natured, that could turn around and bite badly.

Uncertainty makes us tremble, but I didn’t think that the need for certainties would have so infected our ability to love the music on its own terms.  Some people with good hearts and ears will only be truly easy and happy when they know that a performance of ATLANTA BLUES is “down-home,” “Mainstream,” “pre-bop,” “trad,” “neo-retro,” and the like.  Pick your terminology.  It reminds me of those charts in INTRODUCTION TO JAZZ books with everyone neatly listed, either in tables or in timelines, from Buddy Bolden (he was “New Orleans,” we knew) to Charlie Parker (safe at home in “be-bop”).  Roy Eldridge gave birth to Dizzy Gillespie, and so on.  I always found those charts annoying because of their conservative narrowness: were Ben Webster and Lester Young “Swing” players who weren’t allowed to go out of their front yards?  And the charts left so many people out: I never saw Joe Thomas anywhere.

Although I am an “academic” by profession (I have taught English to college freshmen and sophomores for longer than Bix Beiderbecke’s time on earth) I blame the academics even before there were Jazz History courses, in their attempts to standardize, categorize an organic art form into something teachable — with final exam questions to be determined later.  Charts and boxes, timelines and categories are attempts to quantify something that threatens to spill out and over the edges.  These restrictive mechanisms have governed literary anthologies (organized by “schools” and arranged by the birthdates of the writers being studied) for many generations.

It’s a tribute to any art — jazz, poetry, painting — that such well-meaning acts haven’t killed it dead.

Then, of course, jazz is a music that blessedly stirs up fierce allegiances.  That’s a good thing!  I love to see people who hug their music to their hearts: both they and the music are fully alive in such moments.  But allegiance devolves into party skirmishes and ideological statements: my music is PURE; yours is COMMERCIAL.  Mine is THE TRUTH; yours is CORRUPTED.  The journalists and critics saw good copy here and thus we had DIXIELAND versus BE-BOP and the like, the ancient doing battle with the new.  The musicians knew better and respected each other: Baby Dodds and Max Roach weren’t at war.

But the need to name, to classify, to take big living entities and force them into little boxes — a chilling process — hasn’t gone away.  Too bad.  It gets in the way of our ability to sink deeply into the collective creativity that jazz offers us if we’re wondering what to call what we’re hearing.

Let us be guided by Eddie Condon: WE CALLED IT MUSIC.

THE RETURN OF “SEARCH ENGINE TERMS”

It’s that time again: when I share with JAZZ LIVES readers the delightful and often perplexing phrases that readers online have used — like tiny inflatable rafts — to drift towards this blog.  I don’t know what they were thinking to begin with or whether they found solace on the shores of this blog, but I collect these verbal and logical oddities with a mixture of affection and puzzlement.

The first two leave me without an appropriate response:

dressed as a girl by my mother

green and purple flying insect

This search term is a little more relevant, but one wonders what the seeker had in mind: an ordinary picture of someone playing a large brass instrument, its coils wrapped around the player’s head, or someone with his / her head stuck in the instrument.  All suggestions entertained:

head in tuba

The next one makes me think of Zutty Singleton’s ability to play the melody — often in press rolls — on his drum set.  But could Zutty convince us of BODY AND SOUL or perhaps YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT LOVE IS?  I wonder:

ballad snare drum

Jazz musicians have social lives, spouses, houses, pets, and more — but why didn’t anyone tell me about this young lady?  I’m at Sofia’s to hear Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks fairly often.  Peter, you could bring her over to say “Hello,” couldn’t you?

peter yarin’s cute girlfriend from iowa

The next artifact is something I must have; I’ll file it next to the Buddy Bolden iPhone app:

joe oliver’s first cd

Louis Armstrong sang that OLD MAN MOSE was dead (a sad thing); here I think we have someone in the grip of phonetic spelling who connects the song to an All-Stars version after 1950.  All right, so I’m trying to make something logical out of this.  (Frankly, it’s “the old man mous” that gets me.):

the old man mous is dead cozy cole

Real estate questions, no doubt, concerning the most popular woman in jazz necrology:

billi holiday’s hous in harlrm

Is this a reference to OSTRICH WALK, or perhaps to a picture of an ostrich playing a plunger-muted trumpet a la Cootie Williams?  The mind reels:

ostrich muffled trumpet music

He didn’t look that large or imposing in the few photos we have of Mr. Beiderbecke, but perhaps the writer is referring to his psychic presence, which is admittedly huge.  At least it’s not the cornet-playing arachnid, Big Spider Back:

big beiderback jazz

I know why the next search engine term makes me rancorous.  It suggests a student in a jazz history program in what we call the Academy looking for a quick answer to a homework assignment / oral presentation / paper.  Plagiarism is the most common and least curable ailment of our times!  And I am also sure that the approved answer is No, because everyone knows that Goodman stole his clarinet technique from Noone and his arrangements from Henderson.  Now I have to lie down:

did benny goodman offer any thing new to jazz

I am amused by this Zionist approach to someone I admire, even though I think Albert Edwin Condon never had a bar mitzvah:

eddie condon jewish

Spelling counts:

mike the knife buddy tate

Does “Swat And Lowdown Low-Down” have anything to do with”green and purple flying insect“?

woody allen benny goodman swat and lowdown low-down

Here’s a pharmacy student who loves jazz, I think:

what drugs billie holiday

The references to Billie make me write, once again, that there is a worldwide fascination with her last husband, Louis McKay, which I would like someone to explain to me.

Until the next batch of SEARCH ENGINE TERMS accumulates, may I wish you all happy searching?

HIGH SOCIETY at THE EAR INN (Sept. 11, 2011)

It was immensely reassuring to arrive at The Ear Inn last Sunday and to find that little had changed.  Yes, the immense plaster-of-Paris pink ear had been taken away, but I hope that it had spent the summer in a spa and will be back soon.

The music was just as sweetly inspiring as it has been for the last four years, with the EarRegulars led by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet, with his trusted accomplice John Allred, trombone, the two of them (this century’s Bobby and Vic) supported by James Chirillo, guitar, and Greg Cohen, bass.  Exalted second-set visitors were Dan Block, alto, and Matt Musselman, trombone.

Here are swinging examples to remind us all what can happen when the right musicians get together to enjoy themselves.

An easy WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS:

MY GAL SAL, not frivolous in the least:

BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME:

SOMEDAY SWEETHEART (with frequent and apt references to SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH by Mr. Cohen):

HIGH SOCIETY:

What was it that Buddy Bolden said?  “Open up that window and let that foul air out.”  Or, barring that, how about a romping BREEZIN’ ALONG WITH THE BREEZE:

STARS FELL ON ALABAMA, featuring the remarkable Mr. Allred:

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL, with Dan Block joining in:

A feature for two eminent trombonists, John and Matt Musselman, IF I HAD YOU:

LINGER AWHILE (which any reasonable person would want to do)

Incidentally, the dancers who spun so nimbly in such a small space are David Crawford, Carolyne Elyse Findley, and Danielle Hammer — jazz in motion!

I felt welcomed back to New York in a seriously joyful way.  If there’s a society more exalted than this, I’ve never encountered it.

P.S.  I am posting this from the lobby of the Athenaeum Hotel — the site for the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua — where last night Mister Kellso played as beautifully as I’ve ever heard him . . . among other generous improvisers.

WISHING WILL MAKE IT SO

Every jazz fan who’s’ ever owned a record, a CD, or even a download has a mental list of recorded music he or she has never heard but yearns to hear.  I’m not talking about the Bolden cylinder or the Louis Hot Choruses, but here are some new and old fantasies.  Readers are invited to add to this list (my imagined delights are in no particular order).

The 1929 OKeh recording of I’M GONNA STOMP MISTER HENRY LEE — what would have been the other side of KNOCKIN’ A JUG, with Louis, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Lang, Joe Sullivan, Happy Caldwell, and Kaiser Marshall.  Did Jack sing or did Louis help him out?  Was the take rejected because everyone was giggling?

The “little silver record” of Lester Young, circa 1934, probably one of those discs recorded in an amusement park booth, that Jo Jones spoke of as his earliest introduction to Pres.  When I asked Jo about it (more than thirty-five years later), he stared at me and then said it had disappeared a long time ago.

On the subject of Lester, the 1942 (?) jam session supervised by Ralph Berton, who broadcast some of the results on WNYC — the participants were Shad Collins, Lester Young, J.C. Higginbotham, Red Allen, Lou McGarity, Art Hodes, Joe Sullivan, Doc West . . .

UNDER PLUNDER BLUES by Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, Hal Singer and Herb Hall: from the session released on Atlantic as MAINSTREAM.  We know that the tapes from this and other sessions were destroyed in a fire, but the fire seems to have happened almost eighteen years after the recording.  Hmmm.

The 78 album Ernest Anderson said he created — one copy only — for the jazz-fan son of a wealthy friend, a trio of Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, Bobby Hackett, and Sidney Catlett.

The 1928 duets of Red McKenzie and Earl Hines.

SINGIN’ THE BLUES, by Rod Cless, Frank Teschemacher, and Mezz Mezzrow.

DADDY, YOU’VE BEEN A MOTHER TO ME — by Lee Wiley, Frank Chace, Clancy Hayes, and Art Hodes, recorded at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house.  (I’ve actually heard this, but the cassette copy has eluded me.)

Frank Newton’s controbution to the 1944 Fats Waller Memorial Concert.

The VOA transcriptions from the 1954-55 Newport Jazz Festivals — Ruby Braff, Lester Young, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Jo Jones; Lee Wiley, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson; Billie Holiday, Lester, Buck, and Teddy Wilson.  (I have hopes of Wolfgang’s Vault here.)

Some of these are bound to remain out of our reach forever; some are tantalizingly close.  But the Savory discs show us that miracles of a jazz sort DO happen.  As do the acetates Scott Black rescued from a dumpster in New Orleans.

What discs do you dream about?  This post, incidentally, has been taking shape in my mind for weeks, but what nudged it towards the light was our visit to a wonderful Berkeley, CA flea market / second-hand store called BAZAAR GILMAN, where there were records.  No revelations, but a splendid mix of oddities, including a few RCA Victor vinyl home recording discs and a few Recordio-Gay ones.  All full, with dispiriting titles such as WEDDING MARCH, BERCEUSE, and PIPE ORGAN.  But one never knows!

While you’re up, would you put on those airshots from the Reno Club, 1935?  (There was a radio wire: how else could John Hammond have heard the nine-piece Basie band in his car?)

GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE! — at THE EAR INN (Nov. 14, 2010)

Two reeds and a rhythm section! 

Not the sweet crooning of Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, the jostling-around of Bechet and Mezzrow, or the outright can-you-top-this of Soprano Summit and Summit Reunion.

No.  Dare I say it . . . something better.  Dan Block (clarinet and tenor), Pete Martinez (clarinet), Matt Munisteri (guitar), and Jon Burr (bass).  Cornetist John Bucher looked in for a brief visit, but otherwise it was a reeds-and-rhythm soiree, and a very lovely one at that. 

When I listen to these performances again, I think of songbirds having a deep conversation, or vines intertwining, gracefully and ardently.  Four of the most thoughtfully compatible jazz improvisers, reveling in the sounds they could make together, their lines complementing and completing each other’s spur-of-the-minute inventions, never colliding or overriding.   

Dan and Pete admire each other too much to be competitive, so the ensembles were riffing contrapuntal delights rather than a cutting contest between their Albert system clarinets (thanks to Michael McQuaid for the identification), and when Dan picked up the tenor, it was jazz with a great deal of swinging courtesy: “You play the melody and I’ll improvise around it, and then we’ll switch.” 

And the other members of the quartet were having a wonderful time: Jon and Matt, working hard, creating long lines and rocking propulsion.  Don’t let the darkness of their corner at The Ear make you miss out on the strong melodies they create!

Here’s a sample of the delights last Sunday at The Ear Inn (that’s 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City):

Although the dawn wouldn’t break over Soho for hours to come, Dan suggested MARIE:

Fats Waller’s encomium about his Baby (complete with exultant verse), I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY:

A logical development on the amorous theme, a slow, swaying LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, with nods to its early, memorable singer (Mr. Crosby) and improviser (Mr. Russell):

Hark, a hot cornetist — over my shoulder!  John Bucher joins in for THREE LITTLE WORDS, with riffs that evoke the 1943 Commodore recording with Lester Young and the Kansas City Six:

RUSSIAN LULLABY is a song near to my heart — it works well at so many tempos, and has echoes of Ed Hall, Ruby Braff, Teddy Wilson, Joe Thomas, and Vic Dickenson attached to it (what could be wrong?) — and this version is a classic on its own terms:

And an extra minute, too good to leave out:

Dan Block suggested I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY (or BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES) which turned out to be an excellent idea:

In keeping with the generally romantic repertoire and Dan’s love of Irving Berlin, A PRETTY GIRL IS LIKE A MELODY:

Memorable creative improvisation — with more surprises to come!

WHAT’S THE MAGIC WORD?

Before recordings and sound film changed the world, music didn’t travel well.  Myth says that you could hear Buddy Bolden’s horn miles away, but trumpet players know that is unlikely.  You certainly couldn’t have the complete Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress recordings on a little box in your shirt pocket. 

Recordings, then sound film, made it possible for music to be portable, reproduced, and represented far away in time and space from its origins.  Preservation is an extraordinary gift, letting us visit the dead and cherish them whenever we want.  When the Ellington band played RING DEM BELLS on a Victor record or in a 1930 film, thousands who would never see that band live could experience it. 

But “representation” is never flawless, because all individual perspectives are necessarily subjective.  A recording engineer or cameraman captures one version of what listeners experience.  Most recordings and films seem, at best, to compress the exuberance of the artists.  Jazz anecdotal history is full of the names of great performers who, we are told, never “came though whole” in the recording studio.  And films  — even contemporary performance films — have their own, sometimes intrusive, conventions that must be obeyed.     

Our texts for today are two representations of Bing Crosby singing PLEASE.  The music is by the sadly short-lived Ralph Rainger, the lyrics by Leo Robin, and Bing first performed in the 1932 film THE BIG BROADCAST, one of Paramount’s efforts to get all the musical stars it could assemble into one film, to lure people away from their radios and back into the movie theatres.  The plot of this film is exceedingly foolish, but it’s only an excuse for a now irreplaceable variety show.     Bing Please 2

And here’s the performance itself — all too brief:

I love the flimsy fictions that this clip requires a viewer to accept.  I think, just before it begins, Bing says to his pal, guitarist Eddie Lang, “Well, let’s run it through again,” suggesting that they are rehearsing a new number.  He holds the sheet music, but casually.  And Lang is not paying much attention to the music on top of the piano.  (He was a wonderfully subtle player, never equalled.)  Do you hear a piano?  Who’s playing it?  The invisible but entirely sympathetic pianist is Lennie Hayton, which suggests that Bing and Eddie were adeptly (and not in close-up) miming to an already-recorded track, which was common practice.

Because it is a rehearsal in someone’s home (is it Eddie’s?), Bing has his vest, suit jacket, and hat off.  Our eyes are drawn to his natty two-tone shoes as he keeps the beat.  Then, after the first sixteen bars, a delightfully fictive moment occurs when Bing grins like a boy who has gotten away with three cookies instead of two and tells Eddie, “Well, I think I know it.”  (The record of PLEASE was released to coincide with the movie’s premiere, so Bing’s fans in the audience might have already had the Brunswick record while onscreen their hero was pretending he was learning the song.  But in the darkness of the movie theatre, such facts might be brushed aside.) 

Confident now, Bing launches into his own version of romantic scat singing, flicking his eyes to the ceiling, and begins getting dressed.  

Frank Tuttle, the director of THE BIG BROADCAST, wrote in an unpublished memoir (which I found in Gary Giddins’s wonderful Crosby biography), “Bing didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. . . . [he] was extremely cooperative and his sense of comedy was first-rate from the opening shot.  His approach was casual and he liked to move around.  We worked out interesting pieces of business so that he wouldn’t have to just stand there and deliver a number.” 

Thus, the striptease in reverse — bolstering the illusion that Bing was only a regular fellow who just happens to burst into song with such art.  We know this isn’t true, but watching Bing sing while getting dressed is rather like watching him sing while changing a flat tire — a splendid feat.  I don’t know if it was intentional, for comedy, or not, but Bing has some small difficulty getting his other arm into his vest, and he goes through a good deal of straightening and smoothing — while singing — before beginning to button it.  Once the vest is on, he is clearly loosening up the rhythm, and gently swinging PLEASE, confidently and cheerfully, wooing the imaginary girl right out of her reluctance, and perhaps out of her vest.  What man ever buttoned his vest with such swing, using each button as a visual accent?  Bing emphasizes the beat, bobbing his head.  It’s comic but understated.  It’s jazz made visual.  

Next comes the jacket — and Bing has more trouble finding the armhole while he makes the dramatic musical transition from “a gloomy Romeo” to “Oh, please . . . ” most endearing.  In fact, his fumbling with his right arm behind his back seems to go on and on, although he is whistling prettily, unfazed by the burden of getting dressed.  Then, there’s no need to pretend that this has been a “rehearsal,” as Bing and Eddie perform the closing phrase together, and Bing, hat cocked jauntily, tells Eddie, “Well, I’ll see you tonight,” and Eddie answers, “OK.”  Hardly Lubitsch, but entrancing in its pretend-casualness. 

And he sings so beautifully to Lang’s fetching accompaniment, their work mixing romanticism and swing, the effect both earnest and funny.  I found myself listening to the clip for the music — both casual and deliciously light, then watching the two men act (Lang, serious, plays the musical sidekick, never taking the spotlight away from Bing).

Bing Please

Bing’s performance of the song in the film and on the hit record spurred Paramount to make a short film (rather like the Mack Sennett shorts Bing had starred in).  I found a copy of the poster on eBay, and a wonderful piece of Art Deco foolishness it is, with a pretty blonde’s disembodied head grinning from the C in CROSBY; Bing playing the guitar (which he couldn’t) wearing something like a bathrobe, the lower half of his body swallowed up by the background.

PLEASE stars Bing, Mary Kornman (who was “Mary” in OUR GANG silents and worked with Bing in other movies), with Vernon Dent (who worked with Sennett, Harry Langdon, and in numberless two-reel films with The Three Stooges) as her huffy, pudgy suitor.  Giddins writes that it was presumed lost until the 1990s and unearthed by film preservationist Bob DeFlores.

The plot is paper-thin: my summary comes from the Mary Kornman website (www.marykornman.com) which proves that everything is indeed online:

This movie, filmed on location at Yosemite National Park, was not discovered until 1960.  In it, Mary plays a voice teacher, Beth Sawyer, on whom Bing has set his affections.  Playing himself, Bing hides his identity as to finagle lessons out of Beth in order to get close to her. Mary then enters him in a singing contest only to find out Bing’s true identity.  Humiliated by this, Mary rejects Bing but is soon won over as he croons a chorus of “Please” through her parlor window.

Fictions abound here as well.  As the sequence begins, a beautifully dressed “Beth,” with matching hat, turns on her radio — and out comes the sound of a dance orchestra playing the song for which the movie is named.  Coincidentally, Bing, wearing a pristine straw boater and neat dark suit, lurks outside her house, dramatizing his exasperation by some gesturing with a small object he discards.  The camera cuts to a momentary shot of a huge man in soiled white painter’s overalls, momentarily transfixed by the music, who takes off his hat and puts it back on again.  Director Gillstrom had trained in silent films, for you can see the idea balloon form above Bing’s head, “Hey!  That’s my song!  I could sing it to her!  Through this open window!  Wow!  What an idea!  Gee!” 

“Beth” at first doesn’t even register that a man is nearly climbing through her open window, singing along with the radio (something that would make many women call 911).  It’s as if Mary Kornman has forgotten her cue, although she does remember to sulk while Bing sings.  He sings beautifully, but without Tuttle to remind him how to understate, his gestures are at war with the song’s wooing intimacy.  Using a clenched fist to signify “I could hold you tight in my arms” is unromantic, even though it is perhaps the only gesture possible for a man still holding his hat).  And Mary Kornman may have been a delectable little girl in silent comedies, but her acting is petulantly limited.  Bing emotes and “Beth” pouts, until his repetition of “Please!” win her over.  The lovers kiss, after a fashion; her dog turns its head away, and we are left hoping that they are going to be happy forevermore, even if she has to climb out of the window to be with Bing. 

But all this overacting doesn’t obscure the beauty of Bing’s voice, his phrasing, although I prefer the sound of the more casual version with Eddie Lang.     

Back to the song itself, one I’ve loved since adolescence.  When Bing was most popular as a romantic crooner, jazzmen, inspired by his recordings, took his repertoire for their own.  Think of I SURRENDER, DEAR and WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS!  Louis, Billie, and Hawkins (who memorably recorded I’VE GOT TO SING A TORCH SONG, WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE, and JUST ONE MORE CHANCE).  Later on, Ruby Braff continued the tradition, including PLEASE and a whole album devoted to Bing.  But no one except John Gill has taken up the song, a pity.  I asked my Expert, Jon-Erik Kellso, about it, and he told me the melody line wasn’t easy for musicians who didn’t know the song to pick up on the spot.  If any musicians are reading this blog, would you please consider playing this song?  I’ll put more money in the tip jar when I hear it, I promise.

However, while researching this post, I also found a bouncy version of the song by Ambrose and his Orchestra.  This performance, however, deflates my theory about the song’s qualities.  Did it need Bing, John Gill, and Ruby to let its light shine through?  What you’ll hear is a fine 1932 dance record, but the yearning quality so essential to PLEASE is obliterated at this tempo.         

These clips remind me of truths that should be self-evident.  The young Crosby wasn’t an infallible actor; he needed a fine director to make sure that naturalness or “naturalness” prevailed.  But how he could sing!  And how splendidly Eddie Lang could play!  And they live in these filmed moments.   

So if someone asks you, reprovingly, “WHAT’S the magic word?” (if anyone uses that phrase today), you must respond, “It’s Bing Crosby singing PLEASE, of course.” (Thanks to Peter Karl for that witticism, again.)

BASIE’S BAD BOYS: ADVENTURES IN LISTENING

In jazz, the most rewarding art combines mature technique, deep feeling, and the willingness of players and singers to become carefree children, trying new things with no censorious adults looking on.

Consider a four-song Chicago recording session that took place one day before Valentine’s Day in 1939.  In total, the results are slightly less than twelve minutes.  But what a memorable brief expression!  The players, perhaps named years later, are “Basie’s Bad Boys,” a title both accurate and inspired.  Basie played not only piano but organ (according to Jo Jones, the organ was particularly ancient, recalcitrant).

He was joined by the rest of his irreplaceable late-Thirties rhythm section: Walter Page, bass; Freddie Green, guitar; Jo Jones, drums.  Jimmy Rushing sang the blues on one number and trombonist Dan Minor accompanied him on it; trumpeters Buck Clayton and Shad Collins stood side-by-side with Lester Young, playing clarinet as well as tenor on “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Goin’ to Chicago,” “Live and Love Tonight,” and “Love Me Or Leave Me.”

I have occasionally been severe about John Hammond-as-mythologizer in this blog, but this session was one of his finest ideas, a worthy addition to “Jones-Smith, Inc.” and the 1940 rehearsal session that paired Goodman and Basie, Young and Christian.  The November 1936 session that produced “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Lady Be Good” was Hammond’s revenge on Decca, the company that had signed Basie to a restrictive contract, the payoff being $750, a paltry sum even in 1936 dollars.  I believe that the Basie band was just about to escape from its Decca servitude in early 1939, so this session might have been another naughty gesture on Hammond’s part – making recordings for Vocalion while the band was still under contract to Decca, sides that then could be issued once the band was free.  These sides were recorded in Chicago, in what Hammond remembered as a really terrible studio, making them impossible to issue.  Ironically, the studio was called United – and that the Basie small band certainly was on this date.

I first heard this music on a precious vinyl record issued in Sweden on the Tax label, “The Alternative Lester,” which contained, among other things, previously unissued takes of “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Dickie’s Dream,” and “Lester Leaps In,” heady stuff in the late Seventies.

Tidied up, all four sides then appeared on a two-record Columbia anthology, “Super Chief,” which had a color drawing of Basie’s smiling visage superimposed on the front of a locomotive (Basie, like Ellington, loved trains and the music they made).  This anthology also offered brilliantly idiosyncratic notes by Michael Brooks, a writer who took chances: some of his swooping metaphorical leaps are audacious.  Brooks had also interviewed Jones and other Basieites, and their recollections are priceless.

The four sides are now available on the Lester Young Mosaic box set (MD4-239), and they sound spectacular.  I had not heard them for a few years, having been separated from my copy of “Super Chief,” but they burst through the speakers.

They represent an Edenic glimpse into what the Basie band truly was – a good-natured, intense traveling jam session made up of supremely telepathic players.  For me, the great period of that band was delineated by Lester Young’s arrival and departure.  I can still marvel at individual solos recorded from 1940 onwards by Clayton, Dicky Wells, Buddy Tate. Don Byas, Vic Dickenson, that gliding rhythm section, Rushing and Helen Humes.  But the demands or expectations of the marketplace made the band outgrow itself.  What was a small group at the Reno Club in Kansas City was compelled to become a Swing Era big band – nearly doubling in size and heft.  It gained power yet lost mobility.  Some of the early Deccas show the ghost of the Reno Club band: “Panassie Stomp” and “Out the Window” come to mind.  But as arrangers came in, capable ones, and popular tunes became part of the repertoire in hopes of a hit record, the Basie band sounds like someone who has gained fifty pounds overnight.  On the 1938 radio airshots from the Famous Door (the two versions of “Indiana”) – soloists have room to invent, to play. Behind a trumpet solo, Lester creates a background, which the reeds fall in with instantaneously.  The two dozen-plus men on the stand function as a small group, musically jostling and joking.  The best recordings of the period balance soloists, the rhythm section, and spare riff backgrounds.  But as the Basie band became identified with “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” those sliding trombones, trumpets fanning their metal derbies, saxes repeating patterns, became the norm.  What had been extemporaneous became more mechanical.  Arrangements might have been necessary as the band grew, to prevent small collisions, but no wonder Lester complained that rehearsals had become tiresome, that Vic Dickenson, legend has it, was fired for falling asleep on the stand.  The unthinkable had happened: the band had become dull.

But it had not happened yet at this session.  “I Ain’t Got Nobody” had been a favorite of both Basie and Hammond as a piano feature; on another clandestine 1938 session, Basie, Page, and Jones, strolled through that potentially lachrymose song, first as a meditative Fats Waller medium-tempo rhapsody, full of baroque excursions – a tribute to Basie’s friend and mentor.  Then, as if moving into Modern Times, away from His Master’s Voice, Basie played it in his own faster tempo, leaving spaces all along for Page and Jo to propel, to encourage.  This three-minute lesson in jazz piano history is available on the Vanguard “From Spirituals to Swing” set and the Phontastic “Lester – Amadeus” disc.

The 1939 “I Ain’t Got Nobody” from Chicago begins at the brisk tempo Basie had concluded with in 1938, yet with an unusual Basie-with-rhythm introduction: his first phrase a characteristic simple riff owing something to “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me.” I suspect that it was one of Basie’s beloved gestures, but it would have been a sly in-joke if he had been thinking of “Habit,” whose opening phrase states that the lover is addicted to the Love Object – while playing “Nobody,” whose lyrics drip lonely self-pity.  His second figure moves into an upwards chromatic run, something Basie would often use to end a number rather than begin it.  Even though Green’s guitar is deeply buried, felt rather than heard at best, the sound of the rhythm is so instantly infectious that a listener does not notice the oddity of Basie’s introduction at first.

Then he launches into the familiar melody, leaving only the most bare contours, stating the theme in widely spaced, ringing chords.  Basie casually alternates passages of embellished melody with his familiar catch-phrases: what makes this potentially threadbare style so winning is his rhythmic sense, as well as the nearly choral support the rhythm section gives, Page’s bass resounding like a reassuring heartbeat.  Even when the gesture Basie launches into (the phrase just before the bridge) is such a timeworn Waller phrase, his good humor and rhythmic delight maskits familiarity.  (Even when borrowing from Waller, Basie’s individuality is as strong as Louis’s or Bird’s: who, on hearing this, would mistake him for another pianist?)

During that bridge, I hear some talking, perhaps merely an affirmative grunt from Basie or one of the musicians?  Was Basie telling Lester that he was up next, or was Hammond directing traffic?  It’s clearly not a Fats-aside, meant to be heard, but a private nudge or reminder – teasingly audible but not decipherable, even given the clarity of the CD.  Readers with better hearing than mine — it has stumped fellow listeners! — are invited to send their conjectures for appropriate prizes.

But musicians did not give such verbal cues on record unless it was an informal session or if the take was to be scrapped.  This makes me wonder if this performance, the first one mastered that session, was originally a casual warm-up, a run-through to get a balance in this murky studio.  But I can imagine that the musicians and Hammond, at the end of this take, thought that this performance too good to discard.  Basie ends his chorus with a single repeated note, one of his trademarks (where else did Harry Edison get this ultimately irritating mannerism from?) that perhaps he used as a signal, “I’m finished.  Your turn now.”

Everything we might expect is transformed when Lester enters, not dancing in on a complex swooping tenor phrase, but announcing his presence on clarinet.  His announcement is a simple phrase followed by a rest, but it is arresting.  What strikes the listener is Lester’s particular tone.  Early in his career, he played a cheap metal clarinet – the kind of instrument students and band musicians, who marched outdoors, would have used instead of the more delicate wooden models.  And Lester’s particular sound is supposed to have been the result of this instrument.  Benny Goodman is supposed to have been so entranced with the way Lester played clarinet that he gave Lester a better one (one rebuttal to tales of Goodman’s stinginess).  This instrument was stolen some time during Lester’s stay with the band, but his colleagues say that he never played a metal clarinet on records.  But his tone, piping, narrow, almost shrill, forceful, is not like any other clarinetist’s, not Shaw, Bigard, Noone . . . .

A digression here.  While vacationing in Maine, the Beloved and I went twice to an open-air flea market, the most varied and intriguing one I ever saw.  There I saw not one but two metal clarinets for sale, and nearly succumbed to their lure.  Visible rust kept me from even inquiring the price.  If I could have been sure that a metal clarinet would enable me to approach Lester’s sound(s), I would have bought one happily.  But I remembered a conversation with a musician in his eighties, who said that everyone who plays an instrument inevitably sounds different, because of the shape of one’s skull and the cavities within it govern what happens when a player buzzes into a metal mouthpiece or makes the reed vibrate.  That anyone could sound like anyone else would be miraculous, and that someone like Paul Quinichette succeeded so well in copying aspects of Lester’s tone is remarkable rather than deplorable.

But back to Lester.  we hear that tone first, then his eloquent use of space, one tumbling phrase separated from the next by breathing-pauses.  Although his range is consciously limited (most clarinetists cannot resist the temptation to fill the air with ornamental notes that show off technique but destroy potential architecture) and his note choices restrained, he is bobbing and weaving over the background.  What we hear is greatly influenced by Basie’s spareness, translated into Lester’s vocabulary, sensibility, and instrument.

That background is both plain and propulsive: the muted trumpets of Clayton (left) and Collins (right)  doing four doo-wahs in succession behind him.  No doubt that phrase was a familiar one for jazz players well before Ellington popularized it in capital letters as part of the lyrics and music of the 1932 “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”  But one doesn’t notice its familiarity because it fits so well.  A listener senses only that something dynamic and irresistible has taken place, as the texture of the rhythm section (Basie’s treble line, Page’s steady tread, the whish of Jones’s hi-hat) has suddenly exploded into a much more richly textured sound, Lester’s thin, penetrating line undulating over the deeper, half-muffled choral punctuations of the horns.  Basie’s chorus was anything but monochromatic, but when the horns enter, color explodes in the listener’s consciousness.

And the dynamic contrast is not only strong but unexpected: often, recordings began with the piano or the rhythm section, then went to a chorus of a soloist over that rhythm, then (and only then) was the soloist joined by other horns in support.  Because of the time limitations of the 78 rpm record, everything seems telescoped: not overly fast, but moving at top speed with no time for elaborate transitions between one kind of display and the next.  As was common practice, the trumpets laid out during the bridge, their absence letting us hear the dry slap of Jo Jones’s wire brushes on his snare drum.  (In my mind’s eye, I see him, even late in life, boisterous, grinning, wrists and elbows in motion.) Lester remembered his childhood in New Orleans with affection, and here he offers his own version of the clarinet’s traditional place in the ensemble, dancing in arcs of notes over the brass.  The remainder of his solo, its balance between a bridge made up mostly of passages of repeated notes, the upward arpeggios that bookend that bridge (their highest note verging on the shrill) — could be committed to memory, genuinely his, simple yet inevitable.  And its tonal variations, so different from what a “better” clarinet player might have offered, and so much more rewarding. Another clarinet player might have worked up to a high note, a dazzling technical flurry to conclude his solo; Lester, making way for the next player, winds down into a sweet decrescendo, a musing figure, generously bowing out as if to prepare the way.

When he concludes, the transition is seamless and wondrous.  From clarinet-backed-by-trumpets, we have Buck backed by Lester and Shad, the two of them using another simple Swing Era convention that develops the earlier backing riff but doesn’t repeat it.  (This was the glory of the Basie “Kansas City” style that other orchestras tried to imitate but failed at, choosing instead to repeat the same riff for chorus after chorus.)  This figure seems an orchestral transcription of one of Basie’s favorite triplet figures.

In some ways, what one realizes in this performance is the strength and pervasive durability of Basie’s personality.  Although he was a modest, reticent man, his artistic identity was so strong that his soloists seem to share his most characteristic thoughts, shapes, and utterances, as he is drawing upon theirs.  This record is of course the triumph of individualists, having their instantly recognizable time to say their piece, but it is also the triumph of a completely integrated artistic community, where ideas have become generously-shared communal property.  And the two kinds of expression balance.  Soloists step forward, testify, and then take their place in the congregation so that the next person can speak.

Clayton’s solo is another triumph of what Louis called “tonation and phrasing,” Buck’s sound, his way of attacking his notes.  Like Lester, he announces himself – his choice being a punchy, staccato phrase reminiscent of the spare closing riffs of “Every Tub.”  Although the trumpet style of the late Thirties was often commanding, insisting, Clayton’s sound (his horn cup-muted as it often was) asks rather than demands, hitting some notes precisely, bending and slurring others.  But his originality is paramount.  Even when he fills his second phrase with one of the oldest motifs in jazz, a direct reference to Bolden’s “funky butt, funky butt, take it away,” the borrowing does not intrude.  The listener, again, doesn’t think, “Oh, that old thing?” because the notes tumble on, one of Clayton’s talents being in rhythmic placement, instinctively knowing how many notes would fit neatly in a scalar phrase.  His solo is not made of a series of ascents, but a progression of descending phrases, somewhere between Bill Robinson dancing down the stairs and a waiter with a full tray of dishes making his way, carefully but rapidly.  And Buck seems to improvise on his own ideas: the beginning of his bridge contains a clearly articulated descending figure, which he later turns into a half-comedic slide down an imagined slope.  At times, the solo uses repeated notes (not as Lester did) in a way that players like Muggsy Spanier would flatten into predictable pounding of simple ideas.  What makes Clayton’s work pleasing is his vocalized tone, his rhythmic subtleties.  And, as Basie had signaled the end of his solo by playing with one note, Clayton earnestly turns the same figure over and over as his thirty-two bars come to a close.

On a more predictable recording, with everyone given a turn, the next soloist would have been Collins, but that would have courted the monotony of one trumpet following another.  What comes next is a brilliant offering, something that didn’t happen often: Lester coming back for another solo, this time on tenor.  (It happens on the Kansas City Six recording of “Them There Eyes” and on the Glenn Hardman session, on “China Boy” and perhaps elsewhere.)  With feline grace, Lester doesn’t “leap in” immediately, but there is the pause of a short breath, the silence heightening our expectations: what will happen next?  And instead of a horn or horns backing him, there is only the rhythm section – but Basie has become his own orchestra, his simple bell-like rhythmic figures (new ones this time) urging Lester on.  Behind him, one must marvel at the supple, pulsing time that Jo, Walter, and Freddie grant – a rhythmic wave that could sustain a weaker soloist and push a strong one to creative heights.  Again, in Lester’s solo, one hears those arpeggios, up and down, his turning melodic lines into a blues.  This second solo seems to encapsulate all of his style.  It could be sung; it is full of unexpected pauses; it has its own wandering yet logical shape.  On tenor, he purrs, cajoles in a more mellow way.  I would love to hear his two solos on this recording played simultaneously, Lester as one-man band, playing counterpoint with himself.  I’d be nearly as happy to see the two solos notated in parallel, to see their shapes over the same chords.  Until then, I will simply play this record over and over.

Records made for issue on the expected 10″ 78 discs were planned to be somewhere between three and three-and-a-half minutes long.  Studios had clocks, but experienced musicians had to know how many choruses could fit at a particular tempo.  After Lester’s chorus, one way to conclude the record – with time for one chorus – would have been a collective improvisation, or a riff beneath another soloist leading to a final four bars of jamming.  (Think of the Holiday-Wilson “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and how it ends, for instance.)  This record’s final chorus is an egalitarian one, audibly something worked out in progress, which completes the circle that records were.  In the first instance, Clayton’s chorus came between Lester’s two solos, affording him time to put down his clarinet and clip his tenor on to his neck strap – something that big-band reed players were expected to do with ease, even in the middle of an arrangement, although photographs show them having stands for their instruments on the job.  However, after Lester’s tenor chorus is concluded, there is a brief space, not quite strictly delineated, where all one hears is Basie responding with punctuations to the initial two-trumpet riff, Jones’s accents moving the music along.  It takes Lester four bars, more or less, to get his clarinet into play, and then we hear him begin to dance over the background again.  The listener who is prepared for another clarinet-with-rhythm bridge is in for a surprise, as that bridge is given over to trumpeter Shad Collins, a new member of the band whose style came out of the same roots as Clayton’s – but one would never mistake one for the other.  Jo Jones said that Shad made each note pop out as if he were making spitballs, but there is more to his style than a simple percussive attack.  As Clayton’s tone is beseeching, fragile, Collins’s tone is nearly derisive, needling, a buzzing that is, in some way, insect-like.  Yes, there is a stylized bit of Armstrong declaration, but also the teasing sonic play of Rex Stewart.  His solo goes by so fast but deserves a rehearing.  And, in the last eight bars, everything coalesces precisely because the band seems willing to go on forever, happily unchecked – Lester singing his wry song over the trumpets, Basie commenting and urging everyone on, and the rhythm pulsing without strain or exhaustion.  Everyone pedals happily off into some imagined swing paradise.

Ezra Pound, always writing manifestoes, had a simple one: MAKE IT NEW.  This 2:55 of recorded time is a true embodiment of that principle.  Take ideas going back to Economy Hall and make them ardent, emotionally strong, by blending individuality and community.  Synthesize without ever seeming synthetic.  All this in a badly-designed recording studio in Chicago one day in February nearly seventy years ago.

The other three sides will reveal their beauties with repeated listening, but I will suggest only these.  The sound that Basie got from the organ on “Goin’ to Chicago,” his familiar piano gestures transfigured by that instrument, and the beautiful depth of Page’s bass.  The way Basie and Jo accompany Clayton’s lovely open blues chorus; the sound of Lester’s clarinet behind Jimmy Rushing’s voice, veering in 1939 between entreaty and delicacy; Dan Minor’s plainer version of Dicky Wells’s familiar phrases behind Jimmy, and Shad’s commentary, which gives way to another rocking episode of Lester, on clarinet, riffing over the two trumpets in what was the simplest of blues riffs.  (Where was Dicky?  Had he misbehaved, or was Minor finally being given a chance to have a solo – a mere twelve bars of traditional blues accompaniment?  Hammond must have approved of Minor’s playing, because Minor stands alongside Bechet, Ladnier, James P. Johnson, Page, and Jo – some band! – on the 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert.)  On “Live and Love Tonight,” a 1934 movie song – recorded by the Ellington band and who else in a jazz context, and whose choice was it? – Basie’s organ introduction is melodramatic, suggesting the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Bijou, his volume nearly overwhelming the microphone, before it settles down into a marvelous Clayton melodic statement.  Listeners who don’t quite understand the reverence musicians had for Basie might listen closely to his accompaniment – on a bulky and balky instrument – behind Clayton.  It is a graduate seminar on how to guide, cheer, and raise a soloist and the band.  And Basie’s solo chorus that follows is anything but a solo – in fact, the soloists who should get our attention are Page and Jones.  February in Chicago might have been brutal, for someone coughs quietly during that bridge, too.  And the Waller-Basie trill that he can’t help inserting near the end of the chorus is hilarious: given the bulk of the organ’s sound, it is like Oliver Hardy on point, executing a pirouette.  Lester’s chorus is emotionally and rhythmically moving, apparently a series of easy ascents and descents through the chorus – but his tone is earnest and unfulfilled, as if whatever request he was making was, he knew, not going to be granted.  The ending is more pious than one might have expected, but I suspect it was a combination of time running out and no one having anything to say after Lester’s exposition.  Jo Jones said of “Love Me Or Leave Me,” happily, that he could be heard now, which is true, and we hear him closing his hi-hat cymbals decisively rather than keeping them part open, but the sound is crisp, especially considering the murk which dominated the previous three sides.  This version of Donaldson’s edgy lament predates “Dickie’s Dream,” but it suggests that these chord changes were meat and drink to this Basie band much as “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” also by Donaldson, pared down to “Moten Swing,” was for the 1932 band on into 1937 or so, as broadcast openings and closings show.  This, one feels, is what the band must have sounded like when everyone was fully warmed up: hear how Clayton manages to turn a phrase over and over in the middle of his solo, how Lester dances in to his, followed by a full Collins chorus, and then an abbreviated chorus, the sound of a band running out of time.  This recording – a simple series of solos over rhythm with a get-it-all-in final sixteen bars – is a banquet, even though it leaves us wanting more.

Artists at play, blessedly and brilliantly.

POSTSCRIPT: Both Dan Block and Doug Pomeroy, whose opinions I trust, feel that Lester was probably playing a metal clarinet on the 1938 Kansas City Six recordings.