Tag Archives: Buster Bailey

IN 1959, THEY SAT RIGHT DOWN AND WROTE HIM LETTERS

I don’t know what happens today if a young fan writes a letter to Lady Gaga, let us say, requesting a signed photograph or, better yet, asking a question.  That rhetorical question in itself may mark me as hopelessly antique, since fans can find out everything online as it happens.  But my guess is that the Lady doesn’t have time to send back handwritten personalized replies, and that is nothing against her.  Even in the Swing Era, musical personalities had their secretaries or staff sign photos for fans.  On my wall, for instance, is a lovely shot of Connee Boswell — her name signed in pen — but inscribed to the fan in a different hand, leading me to believe that Connee took a stack of a hundred photographs and signed her name on each one.

So what came up on eBay several days ago is remarkable.  I can’t do much detective work, because the seller seems innocent about the trove, and perhaps (s)he has no other connection.  Here’s the listing description:

This 1950’s collection of famous jazz musicians includes autograph letters, signed photographs and autographs. There is an autograph letter signed “Pops Foster” and a photograph signed “George Pops Foster.” There is an autograph note signed “Don Redman” and an 8 x 10 inch photo of Redman also signed. There is an autograph note signed “Meade “Lux” Lewis” There is an autograph note signed “Pete Johnson” and a letter by Pete Johnsons wife. There are two autograph letters signed “Alberta Hunter.” There is an autograph note signed “Buster Baily” and an autograph letter signed “Terry Spargo.” There is also a typed letter by Terry Spargo and a signed photograph. There are several autographs including “Moondog” “Israel Crosby” and a few others. All the letters, notes, photographs and autographs are in very good condition! NO RESERVE!

While you peruse and consider, here is a most appropriate musical soundtrack:

“Christopher,” whose last name may have been “Jameson,” seems to have been a young aspiring pianist and fan who wrote to his heroes, either asking a question and / or asking for an autographed photograph.  We don’t have any of his inquiries, but they must have been polite and admiring, because he received gracious unhurried answers.  And what strikes me is that in 1959 he wasn’t writing to Dizzy, Trane, or Mobley, but — for the most part — jazz pioneers.  A few of the pages in his collection look like in-person autographs, but much is unknown and will probably remain so.  But we have the most delightful evidence: paper ephemera of a kind not often seen.  Here, without further ado:

POPS FOSTER gives his address twice, clearly pleased by this correspondence:

DON REDMAN, smiling and fashionably dressed:

TONY SPARGO, handing off to Eddie “Daddy” Edwards:

More from TONY SPARGO:

PETE JOHNSON wasn’t up to much writing, but his wife was encouraging and Pete did send a nice autograph:

“Musically yours,” MEADE LUX LEWIS:

Are the signers (from Brunswick, Georgia) a vocal group I don’t recognize?  I do see MOONDOG:

I don’t recognize the signatures on the first page, but below I see VERNEL FOURNIER, AHMAD JAMAL, and ISRAEL CROSBY:

BUSTER BAILEY signs in kindly and also mentions his new recording, perhaps the only long-playing record under his own name:

an extraordinary and extraordinarily generous letter from ALBERTA HUNTER:

and an even more generous second chapter:

Christopher must have written extremely polite letters to have received such answers, but this selection of correspondence speaks to the generosity and good will of people who were actively performing, who took the time to take a young person seriously.

When the bidding closed, the collection sold for $660 a few minutes ago.  So you can no longer possess these holy artifacts, but you can lose yourself in rapt contemplation of the images and the kind people who not only created the art we revere, but wrote to Chris.

May your happiness increase!

KEN’S POTATO, AN ENDEARING OBJECT

I have friends who aren’t involved in jazz, and one of the most dear is the writer and literary scholar Gretchen, whom I’ve known and admired for over a decade.  Gretchen’s short stories are slippery marvels; her scholarship is both substantial and deeply felt.  (She’s also private; hence the first-name-only.)  Gretchen speaks with the most tender affection of her father, Ken, who is no longer on this planet.

Recently Gretchen told me of the travails of moving her mother from the family residence — but said that she had managed to rescue Ken’s “potato.”  I don’t think I made any witticisms about tubers and their perishable nature; perhaps I just said, “Oh?” and she then explained that Ken had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania and the “potato” was a musical instrument he had made of clay, painted red and gold, and it had the shape of the root it was named for, with holes in it to play musical notes.  I said, “Oh! An ocarina!” and we met in the middle of the nomenclature.  Here’s Ken’s “potato”: he was neither a professional musician nor an artist, but he clearly had a witty style.

I told Gretchen, that as the “ocarina,” this instrument had cropped up on several of my favorite recordings — from sessions supervised by John Hammond, marrying “hilbilly” music and “swing,” led by the singer / successful composer Redd Evans, featuring the jazz master pianist Teddy Wilson, and an ocarina solo by one of the musicians, identified on the label only as “Hot Sweet Potato.”  I wrote a long post about those sides here but it’s from the jazz side of the aisle, its emphasis on Teddy Wilson.  Since our focus today is on the potato, I will simply share the music.  First, the frolicsome-somber THEY CUT DOWN THE OLD PINE TREE:

The flip side of that 78, RED WING, is much more worn (someone loved it even more) and the first reed solo is by Buster Bailey, another hero, on clarinet, but the potato gets in a few notes at the end:

This post isn’t about the cultural history embodied in 1939 “crossover music,” nor is it about the ocarina per se — so I ask for some restraint in the commenting audience for the moment.

It is, however, about the way some adults are such good and loving parents that their adult children still remember them with the deepest affection.

Gretchen told me today that “Ken often picked it [the potato] up from where it stood on the hutch in the family room and played it for sheer enjoyment.”  I imagine I can hear those notes, and Ken is alive to me in them, as he is to Gretchen, in that space where music, love, and memory hold hands sweetly.

May your happiness increase!

“UNDER THE INFLUENCE”: DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES ALTERED STATES OF BEING, LOUIS, LESTER, GIL, ZOOT, HAWK, BUSTER, VIC, DEXTER, and MORE (Sept. 5, 2019)

Another highly elevating conversation with Dan Morgenstern at his Upper West Side apartment — the most recent in a series of encounters that began in March 2017.

But first, several relevant musical interludes: VIPER MAD, with Sidney Bechet, sung by O’Neil Spencer:

YOU’SE A VIPER, Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, vocal by Jonah Jones:

Cab Calloway’s 1932 THE MAN FROM HARLEM:

and Louis’ WAS I TO BLAME (For Falling in Love With You):

Dan talks about the magical herb, with comments on the music of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young in the military, Zoot Sims, Gil Evans, and more:

Tales of Ralph Burns, Buster Bailey, Condon’s club, Vic Dickenson, and more:

The magical tale of Louis and Coleman Hawkins at Newport, Hawk, Benny Carter, Zutty and Marge Singleton, and more:

Under the influence with heroes, including Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, seeing Sweets Edison gracefully handle things, and an early venture into LSD:

To close, I hope you’ll hum this playful exhortation from Buster Bailey in the days to come.  “Let’s all get mellow!”:

May your happiness increase!

THRILLING TERRIBLE CHILDREN, SEDATELY WELL-BEHAVED ADULTS (IN JAZZ, OF COURSE)

Consider this very truncated list: Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Purvis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Jabbo Smith, Sandy Williams, Cassino Simpson, Dave Tough, Tony Fruscella, Fud Livingston, Dick McDonough, Serge Chaloff, Fats Navarro, Fats Waller, Bunny Berigan.

What do they have in common?  Would you, were you a recording supervisor, hire them for a record date?  Would you hire them for your orchestra or gig?  Could you count on them to do the work asked of them?  (A hint here: as much as I revere, let’s say, Fruscella or Livingston, I wouldn’t want them driving the kids to summer camp.)

That list contains poets of the music, artistic trailblazers, instantly recognizable creators, memorable improvisers.  But it is also a list of people who didn’t show up on time or at all for the gig or has to be awakened in the middle of a song to play, people who were addicted to alcohol, food, drugs, and sex; people who had borderline personality disorder; people who stole, lied, and destroyed property; people who refused to bathe or change their clothes . . . and more.

Even if this seems blasphemous, do me the kindness to read on.

And if you proclaim that Genius must be forgiven anything because it’s Genius, I wonder how you would feel if the Genius vomited on your living room rug or stole money from you.

I suspect that most jazz fans are Apollonian (in Nietzsche’s dichotomy): they drive in the proper lane; they shower regularly; they hold jobs; they change the registration sticker on their car when the law says they must.  But, perhaps as a result, they are fascinated by the Dionysiac, the Bad Boys and Girls of Jazz, the people whose behavior is flashy, self-destructive, eccentric, illegal.

Consider this: if someone could come up with an authenticated needle used by Billie or Bird, or a piece of Bix’s mummified blue sweater, how much would those holy relics — the jazz Shroud of Turin — fetch on eBay?

Violently erratic “bad” behavior makes good copy.  How many biographies of Bix are there, as compared to his more restrained contemporaries? How many theatrical presentations “recreating” Billie are there, as opposed to the lives of other singers who drank Seven-Up?

I was motivated to write this piece because of the just-issued biography of Johnny Guarnieri, SUPERSTRIDE, beautifully written and researched by Derek Coller, depicts a good husband and father, and a craftsman, someone serious about his art even when striding joyously.

I think of others of the same general character: people who kept pocket notebooks and were thus early to gigs, who came prepared to make music, with horns that worked and a knowledge of the charts; musicians who could transpose and knew their keys; who came to the club date in appropriate, even elaborate formal wear; whose clothes were clean; who conducted themselves as professionals and whose behavior might have been placid and thus not worthy of chronicling, but who behaved as adults.

Think of Maxine Sullivan, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, Teddi King, Eddie Barefield, Al Hall, Ed Hall, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Bennie Morton, and Buster Bailey among others: artists who didn’t use “genius” as an excuse for childishness.  Sadly, I sense a silent snobbery among jazz fans, who look down on these mature men and women because their personal lives are uneventful.  And, aside from Hinton, Wilder, and Ed Hall, how many of the artists in the list above have been properly chronicled?   Men and women who didn’t destroy themselves and others are proper figures to contemplate and admire.  Even if they are tediously busy being professional, monogamous, and sober, their lives  have much to show us.

Obviously it’s not thrilling to write about someone who does his or her job without drama, but we should be celebrating these artists as grownups.  And grownups are hard to find in any field.

Here’s music made by several grownups: musicians, classically trained who could cut the charts and swing like mad, who appear on many record dates because they were both creative and reliable: William C. Bailey of Memphis, Tennessee, coincidentally backed by Osie Johnson, drums, and that very same Johnny Guarnieri among others:

I wonder what would happen to us, as an audience, if we chose not to fetishize childish self-destructive behavior, and instead celebrated adult behavior?

Inspiration for this post is, as it often is, thanks to Sammut of Malta, whose thoughts are always inspiring.

May your happiness increase!

The ON THE LEVEE BAND at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Part One: Nov. 24, 2018)

Official Jazz history, which tends to compress and simplify, has often portrayed Edward “Kid” Ory as both a limited trombonist and a man lodged in the earliest decades of the music.  Both of these suppositions are wrong; as far as the first, ask any trombonist how easy it is to play what Ory played, and for the second, Ory’s later groups played for dancers in the Forties and Fifties and thus he was very much aware of the subtleties of the Swing Era-and-beyond four-four rhythmic pulse, as his later recordings show.  Drummer / scholar Hal Smith’s ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND takes its name from a club Ory ran in California, and its musical inspiration from those later performances.

Unlike some quite respected traditional jazz bands, the OTL floats rather than pounds, and its horn soloists clearly enjoy the freedom of playing with and among such gliding pulsations.  It’s their secret, one that perceptive listeners enjoy, even if they are not aware of the swinging feel of the group.  At times, they remind me happily of the ad hoc groups of Swing Era veterans recruited to perform “Dixieland” tunes c. 1959-60: think of Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, and Buster Bailey over a grooving rhythm section — playing the opening ensembles correctly and respectfully but going for themselves in solos.

In addition to Hal, the band as it performed at the 39th San Diego jazz Fest featured Charlie Halloran, trombone, Ben Polcer, trumpet, Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano, Alex Belhaj, guitar, Josh Gouzy, string bass. These selections come from a set the band did on November 24, 2018.

AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING:

TISHOMINGO BLUES, with a vocal by Ben:

Joe Oliver’s SNAG IT:

SAN, named for a King:

DUSTY RAG, a feature for Kris, Josh, and Hal — reimagining classic ragtime in New Orleans — that means Morton — style:

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?:

HIGH SOCIETY / WITHOUT YOU FOR AN INSPIRATION:

What a pleasure this band is.  And here is their website, as well as news of their debut CD here . And here is my review.  I approve!  And the band also has the Gretchen Haugen Seal of Approval, which is not an accolade easily won.

Catch them at a gig; buy the CD.  Have a good time.

May your happiness increase!

EIGHT FOR THE FOURTH (July 4, 2018)

His limitless world.

Photograph courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

I thought I would — to celebrate Louis’ birthday (no arguing, now) — post my own very idiosyncratic survey of recordings I have loved for decades.

TOO BUSY, June 26, 1928 (Lille Delk Christian, Jimmie Noone, Earl Hines, Mancy Carr):

RED CAP, July 2, 1937 (Shelton Hemphill, Louis Bacon, Henry “Red” Allen, George Matthews, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, Pete Clarke, Charlie Holmes, Albert Nicholas, Bingie Madison, Luis Russell, Lee Blair, Pops Foster,  Paul Barbarin, Chappie Willett):

TRUE CONFESSION, January 13, 1938 (J.C. Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes, Bingie Madison, Luis Russell, Lee Blair, Pops Foster, Paul Barbarin):

IN THE GLOAMING, March 10, 1941 (George Washington, Prince Robinson, Luis Russell, Lawrence Lucie, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett):

I WANT A LITTLE GIRL, September 6, 1946 (Vic Dickenson, Barney Bigard, Charlie Beal, Allan Reuss, Red Callendar, Zutty Singleton):

JEANNINE, I DREAM OF LILAC TIME, November 28, 1951 (Gordon Jenkins, Charles Gifford, George Thow, Bruce Hudson, Eddie Miller, Dent Eckels, Charles LaVere, Allan Reuss, Phil Stephens, Nick Fatool):

HOME, August 14, 1957 (Russell Garcia):

CABARET, August 25, 1966 (Robert Mersey, Buster Bailey, Tyree Glenn, Marty Napoleon, Bobby Domenick, Buddy Catlett, Danny Barcelona):

When I try to imagine a universe without Louis, I cannot.  And I don’t want to.

May your happiness increase!

“THE SAVORY COLLECTION 1935-1940” (Mosaic Records MD6-266, 6 discs)

Along with many of the faithful, I have been waiting and hoping since 2010 that this set would become a reality. When it arrived, I turned immediately to the fifth disc — one of a pair containing thirty-nine live performances by the Count Basie band from May 1938 to February 1940, and I was open-mouthed and astonished three minutes into the first performance (one of four particularly extravagant frolics from the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing) — music that I thought I would never have the good fortune to hear.

Mosaic Records box sets usually have a similar effect on me, but this one is — as a character in a Sean O’Faolain story says — “beyond the beyonds.”  And, as a point of information, the box set contains substantially more music than was released through iTunes downloads.

You can learn more and hear something Savory here.

This set is more than a dream come true: it feels like a whole freight train of them.  In a postscript below, I’ve copied Loren Schoenberg’s list of the enlightened and generous people who this set possible.  Full disclosures: one, I was asked to write a few hundred words for this set, and thus one of my dreams came true, and two, I bought mine — with my allowance.

A Savory Disc

I will write primarily about the Basie cornucopia, but it is true for the set.

Many listeners forget the distinction between music created and captured in a recording studio and the sounds played “live.”  Many of the performances in the Mosaic box explode with happy ebullience.  Some of that is the freedom to play without being stopped at three minutes and twenty seconds (I hear John Hammond’s voice saying “Too long, Basie!” at the end of a take that could not be issued at the time) — in fact, the freedom to play without any recording supervisor (Hammond, Oberstein, Stephens, Hanighen) or their disapproving presence (Jack Kapp’s wooden Indian) in the room: the freedom to make a mistake and convert it into something remarkable by proceeding on.  Often, the recording studio is all we have or will ever have, but its stated and unstated restrictions can make for a chilly environment.

Some of the joy comes from playing from dancers — the radio airshots from the Randall’s Island festival are particularly frolicsome.  And we can’t discount the freedom to have a drink or something to inhale.

On the Basie sides, so much is both new and reassuring.  Lester Young, Dicky Wells, and Jo Jones sound like schoolboys who’ve been told the school has burned down.  Herschel Evans, so passionate, is in wonderful form (here and elsewhere in the set).  I can’t leave out Bennie Morton and Vic Dickenson, Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, a particularly eloquent Jimmy Rushing, and Helen Humes’ most tender singing the lyrics to BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL.

I hear the arrangements anew — often, the Basie band is perceived as a springboard for soloists, and there’s much justification for that — but these airshots make it possible to hear the sections as if for the first time.  (Also, it’s evident how the arrangements become more complex.)  And the rhythm section!  Before hearing these recordings, I didn’t take in that Jo Jones was still playing temple blocks in mid-1938, and it’s a common assumption that Freddie Green and Walter Page were going along in a serious 4/4, four quarter notes to the bar, but their work is full of wonderful variations, accented notes and syncopations.  Even when a soloist closely follows the version created in the recording studio (some audience members wanted to “hear it the way it was on the record”) everything sounds joyous and free.

And since Bill Savory had professional equipment and the discs were splendidly restored by Doug Pomeroy, overall the recording quality is superb — far from the airshots we know recorded by a fan in the living room holding a microphone to the radio speaker to funnel sounds onto his Recordio disc.  The sound is not only clear — one hears details and the gentle enthusiasm of the audience — but large.  I can’t explain what “hearing the sound of the room” actually means, but there is a spaciousness that is delightful.

The new repertoire — not just Basie — is also a treat, as if we had been offered an audio equivalent to Bob Inman’s SWING ERA SCRAPBOOK . . . Basie performing RUSSIAN LULLABY (with Jimmy singing), ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, ROSETTA, LIMEHOUSE BLUES, and BUGLE CALL RAG.

To the other gems, some of which have already been well publicized:  Coleman Hawkins’ six-minute rhapsody on BODY AND SOUL; Fats Waller at the Yacht Club — so revealing of what he was like as pianist, singer, personality, and entertainer — with dance medleys of songs by J.Fred Coots (a close friend) and Sammy Fain; windows into his world that the Victor sides never provide.  Five minutes of young Ella; the Martin Block Jam session with the painfully lovely STARDUST featuring an ailing Herschel Evans; another Block session featuring Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, Zutty Singleton, Charlie and Jack Teagarden, and Fats; Mildred Bailey singing TRUCKIN’ with the verse; Leo Watson taking on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE with the John Kirby Sextet and JEEPERS CREEPERS with Johnny Mercer; pearly Bobby Hackett, more from Joe and Marty Marsala, who didn’t get to record enough; Stuff Smith; Ben Webster, Albert Ammons, Chick Webb, Albert Ammons, Carl Kress and Dick McDonough, Ernie and Emilio Caceres, Roy Eldridge, Stew Pletcher, Ram Ramirez, Red Norvo, Teddy Bunn, Kenneth Hollon, Vernon Brown, Milt Hinton; Lionel Hampton, Charlie Shavers, Cozy Cole, Buster Bailey, Joe Thomas, George Wettling, Ed Hall, Carmen Mastren (with several long solos!), Jonah Jones, new music from the here-and-gone Teddy Wilson big band, the wondrous Benny Carter ensemble, and Glenn Miller; a set of four solo piano improvisations by Joe Sullivan, one of them ten minutes long — a true picture of the artist as a barrelhouse Joyce, wandering brilliantly.  And I am sure I’ve left someone out.

These six CDs are the Arabian Nights of swing, documents of a time and place where magic came out of your radio all the time.

I think it is obvious that I am urging listeners to purchase this set while they can.  But I must modulate to another key — that is, to quietly comment on the culture of entitlement, which, sadly, also infects people who love this music.  When some of the Savory material was issued on iTunes, some complained, “I don’t do downloads.” Now that it is all — plus more music — available on CD, I’ve heard some whinge, and yes, that is the right word, that they don’t want to buy this box set for various reasons.  Some think, incorrectly, that the six discs of the box have only what was released on iTunes, which is incorrect.  Check the Mosaic discography.

I’ve even heard people being petulant, “Why doesn’t this set include X or Y?” not understanding that the artists’ estates were paid for the music — think of that! a legitimate reissue! — and that some estates wanted extravagant reimbursement.

Consider what this set offers — rarities never even dreamed of — and do some simple math, how much each prized track costs the purchaser.  And, on another level, what you would pay to keep Mosaic Records afloat.  I know that, say, ten years ago, if you’d told me I could have thirty-nine new Basie performances for slightly more than a hundred dollars, I would have leaped at the opportunity, and I am no plutocrat.  Of course, one is free to ruminate and grumble . . . but this is a limited edition of 5000 sets.  Expect to see Savory boxes on eBay for $500 in a few months.  You’ve been warned.

And, by the way, visit here.

Loren’s thank-you note!

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem’s The Savory Collection Mosaic CD set has been issued after many years of planning. Many people were a part of the team who made it possible. Let’s start with Sonny McGown, who led me to the late Gene Savory, Bill’s son. Jonathan S. Scheuer, long-time board member of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, purchased the collection and donated it to the museum. Frank Rich helped spread the word, as did Ken Burns, and within a few months, the Savory story graced the front page of the NYTimes. Fellow board member and attorney Daryl Libow stepped right in to handle all the myriad legal challenges. Doug Pomeroy rescued all that was salvageable from the discs. Dr. Susan Schmidt-Horning had interviewed and written about Bill and gave us lots of help from the academic/acoustic realms. Garrett Shelton was invaluable at iTunes for the initial releases, as was Ken Druker and the production team he assembled to make all of that happen. Samantha Samuels created first-class promo videos for us, and then Scott Wenzel, to whom the jazz world owes a huge debt for his unflagging production of the Mosaic catalogue (along with the rest of the Mosaic team, read: Michael Cuscuna and Fred Pustay) hopped back aboard to bring this collection to fruition; he had been there at the git-go, joining me and Kevin Cerovich in Malta, Ill., to catalogue and drive the discs to NYC.

The album is graced by essays of some of the finest writers out here, starting with Dan Morgenstern and Ricky Riccardi, Tom Piazza, David Fletcher, Michael Steinman, Vincent Pelote, Anthony Barnett, James Carter, Ethan Iverson, and Kenny Washington.

And none of the music would have been issuable without the cooperation of the artist’s estates, and the dedication of the board and staff of The National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  So it’s been a long haul, well worth the wait; here’s hoping Bill Savory would be pleased.

May your happiness increase!

“YOU FIT INTO THE PICTURE” (1935)

Again, rambling through eBay — very soothing especially if one doesn’t feel compelled to spend money — I found this wonderful artifact:

This was near the end of Annette’s career, so there are no commercial recordings of her performing the song.  However, it was popular enough that three are available to us on that lopsided cosmic jukebox called YouTube.  And the eBay seller took pictures of all the pages — so you can, as they used to say, try this out on your piano.  Here’s an early version (late November 1934) well-played dance music by Don Bestor with Joy Lynne singing:

and page one:

page two:

and another version, this from very early January 1935, featuring Bob Howard, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, first on alto, then on trumpet, Buster Bailey, Clarence Holiday, Elmer James, Cozy Cole (incidentally, those who are delighting in the new Teddy Wilson Mosaic set will find equivalent gems under Howard and Putney Dandridge’s name):

Howard seems to be influenced by another popular pianist-singer.  Who could it be?  But first, more sheet music.

and page four:

then, the Master, in dewy form, with the Blessed Bill Coleman of Paris, Kentucky, alongside Gene Sedric, Charlie Turner, Al Casey, and Harry Dial — one of the best early Waller dates:

and, for the finale:

I don’t covet a time machine, but it is sweet to dream of a time and place where this was the popular music one would hear from one’s radio.

May your happiness increase!

PERFECTION OF THE ART: “CLASSIC BRUNSWICK AND COLUMBIA TEDDY WILSON SESSIONS 1934-1942” (Mosaic Records)

Teddy Wilson was soft-spoken and reticent, so this is a rare interlude, a 1950 radio interview (from WNYC) by Ralph Berton, a good prelude to the recent banquet of Teddy’s recordings on Mosaic Records:

I’ve been waiting for this set every since I heard rumors of it, and it has not disappointed me in the slightest.

But I must start with a small odd anecdote.  Like many, I have a mildly unhealthy attachment to Facebook, and when this set entered the emotionally-charged world of FB dialogue, one jazz fan said that he was waiting to read the reviews before purchasing it.  It was as if he had said, “I hear about this writer Toni Morrison.  I want to read some reviews before buying one of her books.”  Substitute “Brahms” or “Modigliani” or “Connee Boswell” and you get the idea.  Cue rueful laughter.

Readers of this blog know how fervently I support Mosaic Records (and I don’t get copies for free) so I offer correctives to misperceptions of Wilson and, by  extension, the recordings in this box set.

Wilson gets less praise than he deserves, because of unavoidable events in his life and the lives of his contemporaries.  One is the looming dramatic presence of Billie Holiday, without debate one of the finest artists in the music but also someone (like Charlie Parker) wrapped in a mythology that blots out those associated with her.  The recordings in this set do not have Miss Holiday, so some listeners might perceive them as second-string.  True, so far there has been no coffee-table book chronicling a week in the life of, say, Boots Castle.  But the singers here are never inept, and some of them — Helen Ward and Nan Wynn, with brief appearances by Ella and Lena (!) — are memorable.  Removing Lady Day from the equation makes it possible to actually savor the instrumental performances, and they are consistently remarkable.

His greatest public exposure was as a sideman with Benny Goodman, and the Trio and Quartet records are splendid.  But being typecast as the hero’s friend in the movies is not the same as being the hero.  I am sure that Wilson could claim a better salary from 1935 on, but it took some time for him to be understood for his own virtues.  And there was always Fats Waller and Art Tatum — talk about looming presences.

Wilson’s consistency has, perversely, made him a quiet figure in jazz hagiography.  From his introduction to Louis’ 1933 WORLD ON A STRING to his last recordings in 1985, he was recorded so often that there is a feeling of abundance and perhaps over-abundance.  There is no single monumental recording — no WEST END BLUES, no BODY AND SOUL, no SHOE SHINE BOY — to bow down to. (Something of the same fate — almost a punishment for excellence — has befallen Benny Carter, for one.)  Some have reduced Wilson to caricature: a medium-to-uptempo sliding right-hand piano arpeggio; true, that some of his late performances were beautifully-done but cast in bronze, with few surprises.  I wish his detractors might spend an afternoon with a transcribed solo and see how easy it is to reproduce even four bars of it.

He was always himself — balancing elegance and passion — and the recordings in this set are so consistently rewarding that they tend to overwhelm the listener who sits down to ingest them in large gulps.  Not for the first time in reviewing a Mosaic box, I have wanted to compel listeners to take the contents as they were offered in 1936: two sides at a time, no more than once a week.  In this way, even an “average” side — say, SING, BABY, SING — emerges as marvelously multi-layered.  I will point out that these sessions were intended to be “popular” and thus ephemeral: records to be listened to on jukeboxes at a nickel a side: current tunes, music to dance to.  I suspect the musicians were paid scale and went home with the idea that they had made some extra money, not that they had made Great Art.  They’ve been proven wrong, but in the nicest ways.

The music impresses and moves me on several levels.  One is that it is operating at a high level of excellence, hugely professional and still charmingly individualistic.  Everyone’s voice is heard: Buster Bailey, Mouse Randolph, Cozy Cole.  There are no dull solos; the swing is wondrous, never mechanical.  The ensemble playing is the easy mastery of people who play in sections night after night and thus know all there is about ensemble dynamics and blending — but who are also feeling the pleasure of loose improvising amidst respected colleagues.  The three-minute concertos are dense with musical information but are easy to listen to, apparently simple until one tries to mimic any part.  The soloists are a cross-section of worthies, a list of them too long to type.  Check the Mosaic discography.

In addition, the singers — who range from merely excellent on up — are charming reminders of a time when “jazz” and “pop music” were comfortable with one another.  Imagine a time when young and old could hear a new recording of a song from a new Bing Crosby movie (let’s say LAUGH AND CALL IT LOVE) and appreciate it, appreciate a Jonah Jones solo — all on the same aesthetic plane.  The most creative improvising was accepted as wonderful dance music, an exalted period where highbrow and lowbrow met, where snobberies were not so deeply ingrained, and certainly the audience was not fragmented and sectarian.

The result is an amiable perfection: I never want to edit a passage on a Wilson record.  Perhaps paradoxically, I also understand why Bird, Dizzy, and Monk — who admired Wilson and his colleagues deeply — felt the need to go in different directions.  What more could one create within this form?  How could one’s swing and improvisation of this type be more perfect?

Eight decades later, these records still sound so buoyant, so hopeful. The news from Europe was grim, and became more so.  But in the face of apocalypse, these musicians swung, sang tenderly, and gave us reason to go on.

I first heard Wilson early in my jazz apprenticeship; he was one of the first musicians, after Louis, to catch my ear.  Blessedly, I saw him in person several times in 1971-4, and I bought the records I could find — the French “Aimez-vous le jazz?” of his 1935-7 solos, the later Columbia two-lp sets of the small groups issued here and in Japan, Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society discs.  When compact discs took over, I bought the Classics and Neatwork, the Masters of Jazz compilations.  However, I can write what I have written before: this Mosaic box offers music that I’ve never heard before, in splendid sound.

I’ve written elsewhere on JAZZ LIVES of my strong feeling that Mosaic Records is a noble enterprise.  Supporting their efforts is that rare double reward: a moral act that offers deep rewards.  So I won’t belabor that point here.  If you insist that everything should be for free online, that view that troubles me, especially if you expect a salary for the work you do.  But I will leave that to others to argue.

I confess that I am writing this review early, rather than waiting until I’ve arrived at the last track of the seventh disc — I have been savoring the earliest sides over and over.  And I have been appreciating Loren Schoenberg’s especially fine liner notes — over and above his unusually high standard! — for their subtleties and research.  And the photographs.  And the splendid transfers.  I haven’t even gotten to the unissued sides at the end of the package: 2018 is still young.

For more information, go here — either to purchase this limited edition while it is still available.  Or, so the people who say, “Well, how many unissued sides are there in this box?  Is it a good value?  I already have a lot of this material already,” can make up their own minds.  Those unaware of the beauty of this music can be amazed.

And those who, like me, look at this music as a series of aesthetic embraces, can prepare themselves for seven compact discs of joy and surprise, music both polished and warm.

May your happiness increase!

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!

TEDDY TAKES TO THE COUNTRY, 1939

Teddy Wilson, 1937, New York, LIFE magazine

For a quarter of a century, perhaps more, Teddy Wilson was unmatched as solo pianist, accompanist, and ensemble inspiration.  Consistently inventive, reliable without being stale, he seems now both traditional and forward-looking, swinging and harmonically inventive, his melodic lines clear and memorable.  And it is our good fortune that he worked and recorded with three of the great star-legends of the period, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey, in addition to recordings under his own name.  To me, his great period begins with his 1933 work with Louis Armstrong and Benny Carter and gradually tapers off by the end of the Verve recordings — although he could still play magnificently.

He had many opportunities to record, not simply because of his splendid improvisations. Because Wilson was personally responsible — a quiet, businesslike man — you could count on him showing up on time, being prepared, being sober — no small collection of virtues.  And he had a champion in John Hammond, who perhaps recognized not only the astonishing musician but a fellow patrician, a courtly intellectual.  Thus, between 1935 and 1942, Hammond helped to get Wilson recorded often as soloist and leader for the ARC labels (Columbia, Vocalion, Okeh, Brunswick) and he was of course recording with Goodman for Victor and on Decca with Putney Dandridge and Bob Howard.

Wilson’s most famous sides are frequently reissued — think of MISS BROWN TO YOU and BODY AND SOUL with Billie and Benny, respectively, but many glorious ones are overlooked.  Mosaic Records, the jazz benefactor, will be issuing a seven-CD set of Wilson’s recordings — leaving aside the ones made with Holiday — under his own name for the ARC family of labels between 1934 and 1942: details below.  “Under his own name” is important here, because a few sideman sessions had to be omitted, some because they appeared on other Mosaic sets (Mildred Bailey, Chu Berry) and others because they don’t fit the premise of the set.

Two are glorious and worth searching out: I know Chick Bullock is scorned by some, but his sessions with Wilson’s band backing him are priceless, as are the sides made with Eddy Howard as the star (consider this personnel: Wilson, Bill Coleman, Bud Freeman, Benny Morton, Ed Hall, Charlie Christian . . . . ).  The Bullock sides are on a Retrieval CD; the Howard ones on Neatwork or Classics.  I’ve also heard the “safety” disc from the Howard session, which has the singer having trouble with WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS.  It may have emerged on the Sony Charlie Christian box set.

But two sessions led by the elusive Redd Evans “and his Billy Boys” have never been reissued.  JAZZ LIVES to the rescue! — although the sonic quality is flawed.  (The Customer Service Department is out back; form a single line.)

Redd Evans (1912-72) was most famous as a lyricist, whose hits included “Rosie the Riveter,” “There! I’ve Said It Again.” “Let Me Off Uptown,” “No Moon at All,” “Don’t Go to Strangers,” “American Beauty Rose,” “The Frim Fram Sauce,” and “If Love Is Good to Me.”  He was also a singer and he may have been a better-than-competent ocarina player, possibly at one time a member of the Horace Heidt dance orchestra.  But for me, Evans is fascinating because of the rare 1939 recordings with Wilson, and, in one instance, Buster Bailey.

I know that Evans was born in Mississippi, but how deep his “hillbilly” roots went is hard to discern.  On IN THE BAGGAGE COACH AHEAD, where Mother’s coffin is part of the lyric, he sounds seriously influenced by Jerry Colonna. THEY CUT DOWN THE OLD PINE TREE is yet another example of morbidity in swing, a “country” song written by people whose idea of “the country” might well have been a day trip to Long Island, Edward Eliscu and either David or Milt Raskin.  “Brown” could have been a dozen people, so I leave that to you.

I am certain that John Hammond was involved in these recordings, and although their initial affect may seem strange, they are another reason to be grateful to Hammond for his limitless ambitions.  For one thing, even though Wilson’s name is not on the label, Evans calls out to him on one side, and he is unmistakable.  The sessions, also, were made when Wilson had left Goodman to lead his own band, which was an aesthetic success but not a financial one, so they may have been Hammond’s way of helping Wilson make money and re-establish an identity that had been subsumed with Goodman.

Too, Hammond was always looking for ways to merge his jazz stars with more popular artists — perhaps hoping for what we would now call a “crossover” hit that would give him even more freedom to record his improvisers.  Think of the Glenn Hardman date with Lester Young, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones — perhaps a sideways glance at the sides Milt Herth was making for Decca with Willie “the Lion” Smith, Teddy Bunn, and O’Neil Spencer.  Had Hammond known of the 1938 Pinky Tomlin Decca sides, which pair a “countrified” singer with a hot band — one of the issued sides being RED WING?  Pairing Wilson — and other African-American musicians — with Evans would not only be crossing genres but also gently eroding race barriers.  Perhaps the people who enjoyed Western Swing would find this side appealing, as well.

Evans made a few vocal sides with Charlie Barnet in 1945, but his 1939 sides are of most interest here, documented by Tom Lord:

Redd Evans (vcl) acc by tp, ts, g, Buster Bailey (cl) Teddy Wilson (p) unknown (b) J.C. Heard (d).  New York, April 17, 1939.
W24381 They cut down the old pine tree Voc 4836
W24382 Red wing –
W24383-B Carry me back to the lone prairie 4920
W24384-A Red River Valley –

Redd Evans And His Billy Boys : Willis Kelly (tp) Floyd Brady (tb) Reggie Merrill (as) Clark Galehouse (ts) Teddy Wilson (p) Al Casey (g) Al Hall (b) Cozy Cole (d) Redd Evans, “Hot Sweet Potato” (vcl).  New York, August 11, 1939.
25189-1 Milenberg joys (re vcl) Voc 5173
25190-1 In the baggage coach ahead (re vcl) –
25191-1,2 Am I blue ? (re,hsp vcl) (unissued)
25192-1,2 When it’s springtime in the Rockies (hsp vcl) –

I find the personnel above intriguing, because it mixes players from Wilson’s band — the rhythm section and Floyd Brady — with “studio” players: Galehouse shows up on a Quintones session, Merrill on an Alec Wilder date.  Willis Kelly, anyone?

I’ve never seen a copy of MILENBERG / BAGGAGE, but I was delighted to find a worn copy of RED WING / OLD PINE TREE on eBay.  Again, I advise that my method of getting the sounds to you is at best odd, but it will have to do until the Real Thing Comes Along.

Wilson is immediately recognizable — admire his neat modulations out and in to Evans’ vocal key, the way he shines through the ensemble also.  Whoever the ocarina player is, I like his work immensely, and the unidentified trumpeter has certainly listened to Roy Eldridge.  The tune — with its memorably odd lyrics — bears some small melodic resemblance to WHEN YOU AND I WERE  YOUNG, MAGGIE.  Was it written tongue-in-cheek (rather like the story told about SONNY BOY) as a collection of down-home cliches?

RED WING is more familiar — an ancient campfire favorite, with connections to Robert Schumann and Kerry Mills, eventually to Woody Guthrie — and this recording is thirty seconds shorter, but it has the pleasure of a chorus split between Wilson and Buster Bailey, which is no small gift.  I’ll take it on faith that the drummer is J.C. Heard, who was part of Wilson’s orchestra, and the record pleases me, even though the subject is sad indeed, the Native American maiden weeping over her dead lover night after night:

And here are the two other sides from April 1939, in a format that may or may not work for you (if it doesn’t, I invite you to Google “Redd Evans and his Billy Boys” and find them on your own).

https://archive.org/details/78_red-river-valley_redd-evans-and-his-billy-boys-redd-evans_gbia0003699a

https://archive.org/details/78_carry-me-back-to-the-lone-prairie_redd-evans-and-his-billy-boys-redd-evans-robison_gbia0003699b

A few words about the Mosaic set — seven discs, expected at the end of this year.  As always, the Mosaic boxes are often highlighted for the previously unknown and unheard music they contain, which leads some value-minded collectors to sniff, “Only seven unissued sides?  Why, that costs $ – – – a side!”  I can’t tell anyone how to apportion their money, but Mosaic issues, to me, always expose the larger picture: hearing familiar sides in a context not available previously; hearing the chronological development of an artist’s work, as far as it can be documented in visits to the recording studio.  I will say that the set begins with the May 22, 1934 piano solo SOMEBODY LOVES ME and ends with the July 31, 1942 B FLAT SWING, both in two takes.  In between, there are previously unheard band sides, and a 1942 trio date with Al Hall and J.C. Heard that was issued in part — but now we have the whole thing, more than two dozen performances, because Bill Savory was the recording engineer for Columbia.

I have been fascinated by Wilson since the late Sixties, and one of the thrills of my college-student life was getting his autograph at a suburban shopping center concert.  Of course I sought out the Billie and Mildred sets on Columbia, and then graduated into the deep territory that only Collectors know.  But I do not have all of the issued sides on this Mosaic set, and I have (or had) the Meritt Record Society lps, the three-disc French Columbia Wilson box set, the Masters of Jazz CDs . . . and so on.  So this will be a set to treasure.

And this is true: in today’s mail, I received a traffic ticket from a red-light camera (the county I live in loves such things) that will cost me more than the Wilson set.  And paying that fine will give much less pleasure than listening to Teddy in his prime.

Come to a full stop.  But not for Mosaic Records.

May your happiness increase!

IMPROV CLASSES (May 15, 1938)

“We improvise our way through life,” wrote the seventh-century philosopher Sammut of Malta. And perhaps that’s why jazz is such an enthralling wellspring of inspiration: even on a record that we know by heart, we get to hear musicians maneuver themselves into impossible corners and slither out.  Houdinis of Swing and Stomp.

These two Decca sides are seriously neglected, even though they feature three of the strongest players in the John Kirby Sextet: drummer / vocalist O’Neil Spencer (1909-1944, tuberculosis) and two musicians who coincidentally ended their days as members of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars: pianist Billy Kyle and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Even before Spencer gained some fame with Kirby, he had lifted up many recordings by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and was a valued session player for the Variety and Decca labels, recording with everyone from Jimmie Noone and Willie “the Lion” Smith to Maxine Sullivan, Bob Howard, and a host of forgettable blues singers.  These sides come from the only session Spencer was able to be given leader credit, and I think they are remarkable. Often I think of the Kirby band as expert but polished, with some powerful exceptions: these sides are much looser and to me extremely gratifying.

BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COM HOME? is usually played as a slow drag or medium opportunity to ask the musical question.  Here, the imagined speaker must have been terribly eager or impatient, for the tempo is unlike any other. What a good singer Spencer was, and how nimbly Buster maneuvers those turns at top speed before the splendid drum solo:

LORNA DOONE SHORTBREAD (had someone brought a box of cookies into the studio?) features Buster’s singular tone, swing, and phrase-shapes; Kyle’s sparkling accompaniment and solo, and that rarity, a full chorus for Spencer, who is his own person but sounding much like a hot hybrid of Catlett and Webb:

I like, for a moment, to imagine an alternate Thirties-universe, where O’Neil Spencer was a regular leader of small-group sessions for Decca, singing and rocking the band.  I wouldn’t mind another thirty or forty sides with him out front, instead of (for one example) having to lug Milt Herth through a song.

And something extra: AFTERNOON IN AFRICA by the trio, easy and lyrical, showing that clarinet / piano / drums did not have to imitate Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa:

These three players embody great freedom, courage, and joy: I celebrate them not only as musicians but as models, showing us how to do it.

May your happiness increase!

THE MANY LIVES OF “DINAH LOU”

“DINAH LOU,” music by Rube Bloom and lyrics by Ted Koehler, from the 29th COTTON CLUB PARADE, perhaps would have gotten less attention and affection if it had not been the subject of several memorable recordings.

A footnote: the song was composed several years earlier, and recorded by Red Nichols (leading an expert but little-known post-Pennies Chicago band) at the end of 1932: I hope to share that disc in a future posting.

The first version I encountered was Red Allen’s, from July 19, 1935, with Henry “Red” Allen, J.C. Higginbotham, Albert Nicholas, Cecil Scott, Horace Henderson, Lawrence Lucie, Elmer James, Kaiser Marshall.  Notably, it was the first of four songs recorded at that session — a warm-up, perhaps, for the delightful Frolick that is ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON.  I think you can hear what captivated me years ago: a good song and lots of very satisfying, individualistic melodic improvisation: much art packed into a small package:

On August 1, Chuck Richards sang it with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band — Red was in the band, but sang on the Bloom-Koehler TRUCKIN’.  However, he takes a soaring solo — more in a Louis mode than his usual way — with marvelous interludes from Billy Kyle, J. C. Higginbotham, and Buster Bailey.  Richards was a competent balladeer, but to me the real star here is the band, with a very lovely reed section:

On January 20, 1936, Ivie Anderson sang it with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (three takes, of which two survive).  I don’t know which of these two was recorded first, but I’ve distinguished them by sound and length.  Talk about wonderful instrumental voices — in addition to Ivie, whom no one’s equalled.

2:25:

2:34:

And the most delightful surprise (August 25, 1955): a live performance by Humphrey Lyttelton, trumpet; Bruce Turner, clarinet, alto saxophone; Johnny Parker, piano; Freddy Legon, guitar; Jim Bray, string bass; Stan Greig, drums:

The motive behind this leisurely long satisfying performance may have been nothing more complex than “Let’s stretch out and keep taking solos,” but it works so splendidly: hearing this is like watching two marvelous tennis players volley for hours with the ball always in the air.  It feels very much like a magical return to a late-Thirties Basie aesthetic, with none of the usual patterns of an opening ensemble giving way, after the horn solos, to rhythm section solos.

Will anyone adopt DINAH LOU as a good tune to improvise on in this century?

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES CHARLIE SHAVERS and FRIENDS (April 21, 2017)

When Dan Morgenstern and I had concluded our first series of video interviews, he reminded me that we hadn’t spoken of Charlie Shavers, and I was also eager to do this when we met for a second time.  Charlie was an extraordinary trumpeter, arranger, and singer — someone not celebrated in this century as he deserves.

Why stardom seems to come naturally to one artist and not another is mysterious, but I hope that Dan’s wise, affectionate, and first-hand recollections will help people rediscover Mister Shavers:

“Smother me!” Charlie with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and Louis Bellson:

This is why sound film was invented, so that we could see and hear Charlie and Sidney Catlett have a delightful conversation — also John Kirby, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, and Russell Procope (or is it Charlie Holmes?) in 1947:

and late in life with Ben Webster, playing some “dirty blues”:

and the quartet that Dan referred to:

Previous interview segments with Dan can be found here.  And there are more to come.

May your happiness increase!

MISS LIL, FOREMOTHER

I like the universe I was born into, but I imagine alternate ones all the time — the debt I owe to my Big Sister, who introduced me to Golden Age science fiction in my late childhood.  So I imagine one where this woman — pianist, singer, composer, bandleader, natural leader, innovator — was a star of the magnitude she deserved.

Lillian Hardin

Lillian Hardin is ill-served as being perceived primarily as just “the second wife of Louis Armstrong.”  My admiration and love for Louis is beyond the normal measuring tools, but Lil is someone and would have been someone if she’d never devoted her energies to that chubby young man from the South for a decade or so.  She herself didn’t have a substantial ego, which may have accounted for her somewhat shadowy presence in jazz history.  How she would have been celebrated had she not been female is something to consider.

You could ask one of the heroes of this music, Chris Albertson, about Lil, for sure. Here — on Chris’ STOMP OFF blog — is a trove of information, all enlivened by his love for Miss Lil.  (His memories of Lil — including a three-part audio interview — are treasures.)

Rather than write about her in ways admiring or polemical or both, I offer a banquet of her Swing Era Decca recordings, which — I know it’s heresy — stand up next to the Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, and Henry “Red” Allen small groups of the period for swing, charm, melodic inventiveness, and fun.  On these discs, I know our ears go automatically to the horn soloists — but imagine them with a flat rhythm section and inferior tunes.  Lil’s exuberance makes these recordings much more memorable.  Although none of her original compositions had much longevity except for JUST FOR A THRILL, sixteen of the twenty-six are hers, and I’d guess the effective arrangements are hers as well.

Underneath the picture on the YouTube posting are all the titles: further details here: Lillian Armstrong And Her Swing Band : Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Chu Berry (ts) Teddy Cole (p) Huey Long (g) John Frazier (b) Lil Armstrong (vcl).  Chicago, Oct. 27, 1936.  OR LEAVE ME ALONE / MY HI-DE-HO MAN / BROWN GAL / DOIN’ THE SUZIE-Q / JUST FOR A THRILL / IT’S MURDER /

Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Robert Carroll (ts) James Sherman (p) Arnold Adams (g) Wellman Braud (b) George Foster (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl).  New York, April 15, 1937: BORN TO SWING / I’M ON A SIT-DOWN STRIKE FOR RHYTHM / BLUER THAN BLUE / I’M KNOCKIN’ AT THE CABIN DOOR /

Shirley Clay (tp) replaces Joe Thomas, Prince Robinson (ts) replaces Robert Carroll, Manzie Johnson (d) replaces George Foster.  New York, July 23, 1937:
LINDY HOP / WHEN I WENT BACK HOME / LET’S CALL IT LOVE / YOU MEAN SO MUCH TO ME /

Ralph Muzzillo, Johnny McGhee (tp) Al Philburn (tb) Tony Zimmers (cl) Frank Froeba (p) Dave Barbour (g) Haig Stephens (b) Sam Weiss (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl).  New York, Feb. 2, 1938: LET’S GET HAPPY TOGETHER / HAPPY TODAY, SAD TOMORROW / YOU SHALL REAP WHAT YOU SOW / ORIENTAL SWING /

Reunald Jones (tp) J.C. Higginbotham (tb) Buster Bailey (cl) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) O’Neil Spencer (d).  September 9, 1938: SAFELY LOCKED UP IN MY HEART / EVERYTHING’S WRONG, AIN’T NOTHING RIGHT / HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT / KNOCK-KNEED SAL (is the unidentified male voice on the last track Clarence Williams?) /

Jonah Jones (tp) Don Stovall (as) Russell Johns (ts) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) Manzie Johnson (d) Midge Williams, Hilda Rogers (vcl).
New York, March 18, 1940: SIXTH STREET / RIFFIN’ THE BLUES / WHY IS A GOOD MAN SO HARD TO FIND? / MY SECRET FLAME /

I salute Lillian Hardin as a joyous Foremother.  Her virtues should be celebrated on many other days of the year.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS FRIENDS AND HEROES (Part Three: March 3, 2017)

Dan Morgenstern is a remarkable person, lively and kind, and would be so if he had been a veterinarian with only a passing interest in music.  But even better for us: he hung out with [and wrote about] some of the greatest artists we know and still revere.  I continue to feel immensely fortunate that I could visit him, and that he so generously shared some candid loving stories of people who many of us know only as a photograph or a sound emerging from a speaker.

For those of you who have been otherwise occupied, and I understand, I have posted videos where Dan speaks of Tommy Benford, Frank Newton, Al Hall, Mary Lou Williams and her friends, Donald Lambert, Eubie Blake, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Nat Lorber, Buddy Tate, Gene Ramey, Lester Young (twice for Pres).

But before you leap in, a small caveat.  Dan is soft-spoken, and my few comments from behind the camera are louder.  Friends have pointed this out, and I have been penitent, citing inexperience rather than ego and I will balance the audio better on our future encounters.  The first five videos are here.

More friends and heroes.  Eddie Condon (and I had to say a few things, given my reverence for Eddie):

Buster Bailey, Stanley Dance, Coleman Hawkins, cameos by Milt Jackson, Roy Eldridge, Joe Thomas, John S. Wilson, Billy Kyle, Louis, and Dan’s thoughts on writing about artists:

More about Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, with comments about Sir Charles Thompson, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker as well:

Notice in the second interview that Dan took an unpaid gig because “it will be good for the musicians.”  And I am touched by Coleman Hawkins’ generosities (acceptance in to the tribe) to Dan — which Dan has repaid us ten thousandfold.  More to come.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS FRIENDS AND HEROES (Part One: March 3, 2017)

On Friday, March 3, 2017, I had the immense honor of visiting Dan Morgenstern at his home on the Upper West Side of New York City.  I brought my video camera.  Dan and I sat in his living room and he graciously talked about the wonderful people he has encountered.  I am writing this simply, without adjectives, because I truly don’t know how to convey the pleasure of being able to ask this delightful man questions about his friends and heroes.  Our heroes, too.

Dan offered telling portraits of Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Tony Fruscella, Brew Moore, Lee Wiley, Donald Lambert, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Dick Wilson,Olivia de Havilland, Andy Kirk, Ben Webster, Curly Howard, Bud Powell, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Rushing, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Joe Thomas, Jimmy Rowles, Buster Bailey, Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, and more.

My premise, which Dan had approved of, was that I would ask him about people, “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” in the DOWN BEAT phrase, who didn’t get the attention they deserve.  I thought it best to speak of musicians who have moved on, because if the conversation was about the living (who are also deserving of recognition!) someone’s feelings might be hurt by being left out.

We spent more than four hours together, and the cliche that the “time just flew” is appropriate.  I recorded twelve segments, and present the first three here. Look for the others soon.  If you’ve never heard or seen Dan in person, you will soon delight in his enthusiasm, wit, sharp recollection of details — the kind of telling details that a novelist would envy — and graciousness.  And he was seriously pleased to be able to tell true first-hand stories to you — this audience of people who know who Hot Lips Page is.

and!

and!

We have another afternoon session planned, with a list of  people we did not talk about the first time.  As I say, I have kept my language restrained for fear of gushing, but we are blessed to have such a generous wise unaffected fellow in our midst.  Of course he has great material to share with us, but he is a magnificent storyteller.  And for those who savor such details: Dan is 87.  Amazing, no?

May your happiness increase!

THE UNFAILING LIGHT OF LOUIS

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Thanks to scholar and co-producer Ricky Riccardi, another wonderful set of Louis Armstrong recordings has emerged, complete: the Mercury recordings Louis and the All-Stars made between 1964 and 1966, with the pop hit MAME and the lesser hit SO LONG, DEARIE as the most famous among them.

louis-mame-cover

Ricky has done his usual wonderfully exhaustive job of annotating these digital releases.  Here (from his Louis blog) are the notes as they can be read online. And here is the link to read his notes as a PDF.

The music is available only as a digital download through Apple / iTunes: the complete package is $24.99, each song available at $1.29.  Details here.   And, as I wrote in my post on the the new issue of Louis’ complete Decca singles, if you hate “downloads” for their insubstantiality, I understand.  I too like music in physical packages (my apartment is furnished in Early Music) but we listen to live music and go home without being furious that we can’t take the players with us; in olden days, we listened to the radio, etc.  So if you reject this music because you “hate Apple,” to quote Billie, you’re just foolin’ yourself.

Now, if you are someone who deeply feels Louis, you probably already know about these issues and might already be listening, rapt.  If you are someone new to Louis or one of the people who believes the “beginning of his long decline” happened ninety years ago, I urge you to read on.  First, some facts.

The fifty-three performances are, first, the original contents of the “vinyl” issue: MAME / THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS / SO LONG DEARIE / TIN ROOF BLUES / I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY / WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN / CHEESE CAKE / TYREE’S BLUES / PRETTY LITTLE MISSY / FAITH / SHORT BUT SWEET / BYE ‘N BYE / then followed by alternate takes, rehearsal takes, monaural takes of BYE ‘N BYE / FAITH / DEARIE (7) / MISSY (5) / FAITH (8) / SHORT BUT SWEET (6) / CIRCLE (6) / PARTY (5) / THE THREE OF US (3).  The performances are almost all three minutes long — not harking back to OKeh 78s but to the currency of the times, the 45 rpm single that would be played on AM radio.  The other musicians include Buster Bailey, who had worked with Louis in 1924-5; Eddie Shu; Tyree Glenn; Big Chief Russell Moore; Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Everett Barksdale, and more.

Louis, like other innovators, had a long history of taking “popular” material and creating immortal improvisations, so jazz fans dismayed at seeing unfamiliar titles should not be.  Not all of the songs are deathless — a few are paper-thin — but it almost seems as if the worse the material, the more room Louis has to work magic on it.  For me, the finest performances are of songs I doubt others could have done much with: SHORT BUT SWEET, THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS, FAITH, I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY, THE THREE OF US (never before issued), SO LONG DEARIE, and others to lesser effect.

Here is the issued take of SHORT BUT SWEET:

A quietly warm melodic statement (helped by Tyree Glenn’s vibes and, for once, a rhythm guitar) leads into an equally warm vocal — on a song that resembles eight other classics — calling it “derivative” would be excessive praise.  Although the lyrics consistently disappoint, as if the writers had made a bet how many cliches they could jam into thirty-two bars, Louis is even warmer, with freer phrasing, on the vocal bridge to the end of the chorus.  And then that trumpet bridge!  “Tonation and phrasing,” passion, vibrato, and courage.  It might not leap out at a listener the way the beginning of WEST END BLUES does, but I know I couldn’t get those eight bars out of my head after just one hearing.

If you do not warm to that, may I suggest an immersion?  If it doesn’t get to you after three more playings, we may have little to say to one another.  But you might want to read to the end to discover the depths of my apparently foolish devotion.  And you might keep in your head what Bobby Hackett said to Nat Hentoff (I am paraphrasing here): “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come alive like that?”

I have a serious sentimental attachment to this music, because when this record came out, I was nearly fourteen.  This was my Louis Armstrong.  This was the heartfelt, occasionally comic entertainer I saw regularly on television — performing two songs with the All-Stars, conversing briefly and jocularly with the host, and then the show would move on to the acrobats, the writer plugging a new book, the actress doing the same for her new film.  I thrilled to these moments: Louis emerging from behind the curtain to sing and play MAME, DEARIE, later CABARET and WONDERFUL WORLD.  I lived in suburbia, a mile’s walk from several stores with record departments, and I recall going to Times Square Stores [known to some of us by our adolescent translation of its initials into Tough Shit, Sonny] or Mays or Pergaments, thumbing through the Louis records I knew by heart, and buying this new one in an excited flurry.  (My mother would have looked patient but puzzled; my father would have said, “Don’t you have enough records?” but not argued the point.) I would have disappeared into my bedroom and played it over and over.  I no longer have my mid-Sixties copy, but this recent release has brought all that experience back.

And what was there on this Mercury record?  Joy is the simple answer, with a substantial emotional range: the mocking dismissal of DEARIE, the celebration of the imaginary hedonist Auntie Mame on the title song, the blues — familiar and impromptu — the cheerful satire of FAITH, and the love songs that were CIRCLE and SHORT BUT SWEET, the alcohol-free gathering of PARTY, and more.  Each song was its own brief dramatic playlet, with a good deal of Louis’ singing and short but very affecting trumpet interludes.

He was no longer the star of the Vendome Theatre show; he was no longer playing 250 high C’s at the end of CHINATOWN.  But those age-related limitations were, to me, a great good thing.  These trumpet interludes are incredibly subtle and moving because his wisdom. Young, he could dramatically create expansive masterpieces, sometimes on record, sometimes legendary and unrecorded.  And those creations are awe-inspiring displays of virtuosity.

But we hear that this older man, with fifty years’ musical experience behind him, knows so much more about what to play and what not to — so an eight-bar passage on any song is intense, full of emotion.  Every note counts, because it has to.  And if you think this is special pleading on behalf of the elderly, ask any improvising musician to listen deeply to one of these solos.

I am not yet a senior citizen.  But I think a good deal about aging and what the proper responses might be to the calendar, the passage of days measured in the speed I climb stairs or the ease with which I carry groceries.  For decades, I’ve looked to Louis as a spiritual model.  I don’t take Swiss Kriss; I don’t tell prospective life-partners “The horn comes first”; I’m not a Mets fan.  But I think the aging Louis — as icon, as artist — has so much to tell us, no matter how old we are now.

The question we must ask ourselves is large: “Since our time on the planet is finite, what should we do with it, even if we have a long time before the final years approach?”  I think his answer, audible on the Mercury sides, is plain: “Do what you and you alone do well.  Do it will your heart.  And strive to do it better and with greater purity of intent for as long as you can.  That action is you, and it will stop only when you do.”

Whether you subscribe to this philosophical notion or not, this music is seriously uplifting.  Thank you, Louis.

May your happiness increase!

THE CATALYTIC MISTER DANDRIDGE

putney-dandridge-78

We  have so much to thank Fats Waller for.  He could be the subject of a thousand posts, and the joy he spreads won’t ever diminish.  But, like Louis Armstrong, who he was and what he did were perceived immediately as marketable commodities.  In the early Thirties, with the coin-operated automatic phonograph a new and exciting phenomenon, Waller’s popularity was immense.  But he was under contract to Victor Records, so the other labels looked for their own “Fats” to compete for public attention.

Thus, piano-playing entertainers who could put over a song in a jocular way were valuable.  Swinging pop songs of the day — songs often from films — was the thing.  The very talented women Lil Hardin Armstrong and Cleo Brown recorded for Decca, as did Bob Howard.  Willie the Lion Smith did his own recordings for that label.  Tempo King, Stew Pletcher, Adrian Rollini, and Louis “King” Garcia recorded for Bluebird; Taft Jordan for Melotone, Stuff Smith for Vocalion. Henry “Red” Allen, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey existed in their own aesthetic worlds, but it’s clear they ran parallel to the Waller phenomenon, with a substantial bow to Louis.

Photograph courtesy of ON THIS DAY IN JAZZ AGE MUSIC, with thanks to Confetta-Ann Rasmussen.

Photograph courtesy of ON THIS DAY IN JAZZ AGE MUSIC, with thanks to Confetta-Ann Rasmussen.

Our subject for today, though, is Putney Dandridge, who made a series of recordings in 1935-36 for Brunswick Records.  He is well-known to only a few, I believe, and so I am doing something atypical for JAZZ LIVES and reprinting the detailed Wikipedia entry — more detailed than the Blessed John Chilton’s paragraph:

Louis “Putney” Dandridge (January 13, 1902 – February 15, 1946) was an African American bandleader, jazz pianist and vocalist.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Dandridge began performing in 1918 as a pianist in the a revue entitled the Drake and Walker Show. In 1930, he worked for a time as accompanist for tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, including appearances in the important black musical Brown Buddies. In February 1931, Dandridge appeared in the cast of the musical revue Heatin’ Up Harlem, starring Adelaide Hall at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. After touring in Illinois and the Great Lakes region, Dandridge settled in Cleveland, Ohio, forming his own band, which included guitarist Lonnie Johnson. This period lasted until 1934, when he attempted to perform as a solo act. He took his show to New York City, beginning a series of long residences at the Hickory House on 52nd Street and other local clubs. From 1935 to 1936, he recorded numerous sides under his own name, many of which highlighted some major jazz talents of the period, including Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson, Henry “Red” Allen, Buster Bailey, John Kirby, Chu Berry, Cozy Cole and more. Appearing to vanish from the music scene in the late thirties, it is speculated that Dandridge may have been forced to retire due to ill health. Dandridge died in Wall Township, New Jersey at the age of 44.

Here he is, appearing as “the Stage Manager,” in the 1932 film HARLEM IS HEAVEN, starring Bill Robinson and James Baskette.  Putney appears about ten minutes into the film, and you can see him speaking, chewing gum, scatting, at the piano:

Now, I am not making a case for Dandridge as Waller’s equal.  He was a serviceable swing / cocktail pianist at best, and he plays on five of the first six sides of the series.  But something spectacular can come from a liability, and the result of Putney’s piano playing — say that quickly if you dare — was that Teddy Wilson was called in for the remaining sessions.  As a singer, he was an enthusiastic amateur with a wide uncontrolled vibrato, a limited range, and a scat-singing tendency that was, I think, anachronistic even for 1935.  But in the great vaudeville tradition, he knew the songs, he put them  over with verve, and even when his vocals are most difficult to listen to, one focuses on the gem-like accompaniment.

I have no record of John Hammond’s involving himself in these sessions. I believe the Brunswick supervisor for these dates was Harry Gray.  Perhaps Wilson acted as contractor and went to the Rhythm Club the night before a date and said, “Are you free at noon tomorrow?  It’s fifty dollars?” and selected the best musicians he could from the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Willie Bryant, Chick Webb, Stuff Smith, Goodman, Ellington, Henderson, Calloway, Redman.

It intrigues me that often the splendid playing on these discs is done by musicians who were less in the public eye, thus giving us opportunities to hear people who played beautifully and were not given the opportunities that the stars were.  The players include Roy Eldridge, Henry “Red” Allen, Doc Cheatham, Shirley Clay, Richard Clarke, Bobby Stark, Wallace Jones, Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, Johnny Russell, Tommy Mace, Teddy McRae, Charles Frazier, Joe Marsala, Carmen Mastren, Arnold Adams, Nappy Lamare, Clarence Holiday, Lawrence Lucie, Dave Barbour, John Trueheart, Eddie Condon, Allan Reuss, John Kirby, Grachan Moncur, Mack Walker, Wilson Myers, Ernest Hill, Artie Bernstein, Bill Beason, Walter Johnson, Cozy Cole, Slick Jones, Sidney Catlett.  When Wilson was out of town with the Goodman orchestra, Clyde Hart, Ram Ramirez, or James Sherman took his place.  I’d suggest that students of Thirties rhythmic practice have a two-semester intensive study seminar in front of them in these discs.  Without fanfare, these were racially mixed sessions.

Here’s a sample — goofy, exuberant, and delightfully swinging.  Don’t take your eyes off the screen, for the great jazz scholar Franz Hoffmann has inserted a (silent) clip of Putney performing in 1933 from the film SCANDAL, and he looks exactly as he sounds:

I wrote before that Dandridge is little-known, and that might be true, but his SKELETON IN THE CLOSET was part of the soundtrack for a video game, BIOSHOCK 2, so it pleases me to imagine some Youngblood listening to the complete Putney through his earbuds on his way to school.  Stranger things have happened.

The Dandridge anthology I knew in the Seventies was three records on the Rarities label; there are two CDs on the Chronological Classics series, and (the best — sound by John R.T. Davies) is a two-CD set on the Timeless label, issued in 1995.  YouTube — or “Orchard Enterprises” — has made all 44 sides available here.  I don’t recommend listening to all of them in a row, because Putney’s vocal approach might pall — but they are  priceless reminders of a time when great songs and great musicians were in the air in a way that would be unusual today.  Here’s the YouTube collection.  (Please, I can’t vouch for its correctness, and if it doesn’t play in your country I can’t fix it . . . but consider the price of admission).

Thanks to Marc Caparone, the great Inspirer.

May your happiness increase!

LESTER YOUNG’S JOY (“Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records: Mosaic MD-8 263)

Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.”  Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us.  Give us some despair, and we turn the pages.  It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.  Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.

Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.

And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.

The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief.  And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to.  Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.

Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester.  Intent, but not at ease.  Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.

Lester-Young-standing-changing-reed

But there is the music, lest we forget.  It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.

A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Recordsits cover depicted below.  Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.

LESTER BASIE Mosaic

Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?

Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon.  (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.)  So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy.  He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone?  Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt.  (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)

Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him.  The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues.  The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance.  And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID.  The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts.  But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.

Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs.  Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.”  Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible?  Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity.  And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.

But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making.  If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.

I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional.  We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car.  To do so would be at best disrespectful.

I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work.  Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined.  The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.

The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.

Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst!  Michael!  Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.

When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did.  It still does, a living embodiment of joy.

And the joy is still profound.  I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week.  I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaten we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.

But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm.  He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on.  He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic.  Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.

And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential.  Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle.  Dickie Wells.  The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet.  The Aladdins.  TI-PI-TIN.  I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole.  A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.

The joy is not only Lester.  There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.

I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here.  I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music.  And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this.  And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.

Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels.  I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.

For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs.  There are 173 tracks.  The cost is $136.00 plus shipping.  There are only 5000 sets being produced.  They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one.  (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)

Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us.  We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds.  And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.

May your happiness increase!

IN THE MAIN STREAM: HOWARD ALDEN, EHUD ASHERIE, FRANK TATE, PETE SIERS, RANDY REINHART, DAN BLOCK, BILL ALLRED at CLEVELAND (September 10, 2015)

Long-playing high fidelity turned into song by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler:

as-long-as-i-live-cotton-club-parade-24th-ed-1

and performed here at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party (formerly known as the Allegheny Jazz Party) on September 10, 2015, by Howard Alden, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass; Ehud Asherie, piano; Pete Siers, drums; Dan Block, tenor saxophone; Bill Allred, trombone; Randy Reinhart, cornet.

“Mainstream” was the term invented by jazz critic Stanley Dance to describe this easy, uncluttered, floating kind of improvisation — a music that had carefully dismantled all the boundaries created by sectarian listeners and journalists to take a wide-ranging approach to jazz without ruling anything out if it drank deeply of melody, swing, and harmony.  Hank Mobley and Buster Bailey could talk about reeds; Tommy Benford and Art Blakey could discuss calfskin versus plastic.  You get the idea: a sweet world that no longer saw “Dixieland” and “bebop” as hostile antitheses.

Music of this free-breathing variety happens all the time in the places I frequent, but one of the most comfortable places for it is the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, which will happen again this September 15-18, 2016.  Get in the Main Stream.

May your happiness increase!

LIGHT UP!

I come from the past century — where smoking was accepted in restaurants and jazz clubs.  And I remember coming home from the latter with my clothing redolent of tobacco . . . so I don’t miss it.

But I would gladly take my clothes to the laundry room immediately for a chance to be in either of these places: the first, a vanished New York City; the second, a more recent San Francisco.

ADRIAN ROLLINI matchbookI have to look the next time I am in the area — to see which bank or pharmacy has replaced Jack Dempsey’s.

TURK MURPHY matchbook

The most pleasing part of that second matchbook is that I know people who have played at McGoon’s.

And here’s the theme song of such smoky pleasures . . . more or less:

This is the record label — I think Buster’s only recorded vocal:

LIGHT UP“Let’s all get mellow,” as the song says.

May your happiness increase!