Tag Archives: Cafe Society

EYE CONTACT, AND MORE

At times, I find the world of 2018 terribly destabilizing and cold.  I live in the middle of an insular community, so the percentage of people who will respond to “Good morning,” a smile, and eye contact, is small.

I understand the reasons: I am not of the tribe (and there are many tribes from which one might be excluded); I am not known; I am male; I might very well say something inappropriate after that salutation.  “Don’t talk to strangers!” is still strong.

But I think in this world, full of sharp edges, we might do worse than smile at people we don’t know.

The essential soundtrack is a song that used to be familiar and easy: Chris Tyle says that he used to play it as the first tune on a gig: that shows characteristic good taste.  It is, on the surface, a love song — your love shows through in the way you smile at me — but it is also a song about the possibility of a love that is less specific, more embracing.  That might save us.

There are many versions of SMILES on YouTube — pretty and respectful performances from 1918, with the verse, to more recent ones by swing / New Orleans bands.  But the latter are too speedy for me, as if the bands are trying to show how well and hot they play by increasing the tempo.  As a smile might grow gradually and naturally, this song — to me — needs to be played at a singable tempo, to let the feeling emerge as it would in a real encounter.

I am happy that I can share the version that has stayed with me for thirty-plus years, one of John Hammond’s best but unheralded ideas, of merging “pop” vocalists Eddy Howard and Chick Bullock with superb small bands.

Once it was fashionable to sneer at Chick as dull and overly earnest.  Yes, he can sound like Uncle Charles deciding to sing, but he is much more subtle than that, and his homemade quality is eminently appealing on material like this.  Without doing too much, he sounds as if he believes the lyrics and he believes in the song, and his gentle affectionate conviction is warming.

Here, on December 6, 1940, he was accompanied by Bill Coleman, trumpet; Benny Morton, trombone; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Bud Freeman, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Eddie Gibbs, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Yank Porter, drums.  With the exception of Freeman, so inspired here, this was one version of the band Wilson led at Cafe Society Downtown.  I’ve always listened to this record several times, once for Chick, once for the band, and more. How much music they fit into this 78 through split choruses and obbligati!

I hope this music inspires some readers to smile in general, and to try this radically humane act in the larger world.  The worst thing that can happen is that one might be greeted with an emotionless stare or suspicion, but I’ve found that there are kindred souls in the universe who will — even shyly — make eye contact.  Such connections might be all we have, and they are worth cherishing.

May your happiness increase!

PAPER EPHEMERA FROM THE CONDON EMPIRE: 1947 / 1960; December 5, 1942

This I know.  It’s an inscribed first edition of Eddie Condon’s 1947 autobiography, WE CALLED IT MUSIC. But beyond that.  “It’s warm here now,” Condon writes to Lou in 1947.  Then, thirteen years later, Lou inscribes the book to Woody or Woodie.  I don’t think this is Woody Herman, although the Lou could be Robert Louis McGarity:

$_57
Then, another (facing?) page from the same book:

$_57Some famous names: ME TOO, Bobby Hackett; Bob Wilber; pianist Graham Forbes.  Who was Thomas Golden? Bob Pancrost?

Any detectives out there, ready to leap on these clues?  (What was the weather like in New York City — a plausible guess — on October 20, 1947?)

The pages that follow aren’t at all mysterious: an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert program from December 5, 1942.  But in me they awake such longing. Why can’t I hear this band or these bands?

CONDON CONCERT 12 5 42

I want to be there. (Urban historians will note Thomas – Morton – Hall – Johnny Williams, a combination working under Teddy Wilson’s leadership at Cafe Society. In fact, some private recordings exist with Mel Powell taking Wilson’s place at around this time — not from this concert, though.)

May your happiness increase!

MASTERS OF SOUND, 1943

On the surface, the two performances that follow are very simple, possibly hackneyed: a fast blues with a boogie-woogie underpinning and some Basie riffs at the end, followed by a slow blues.

But for those willing to listen deeply, these two familiar recordings are astonishing evidence of the vocalized sounds the great instrumental masters obtained through wood, metal, animal skins and taut strings.  The players worked for Barney Josephson at his Cafe Society Downtown and Uptown in 1943, and recorded these 12″78 sides for Milt Gabler of Commodore Records.  The label credits the Edmond Hall Sextet: Edmond Hall (clarinet), Emmett Berry (trumpet), Vic Dickenson (trombone), Eddie Heywood (piano), Billy Taylor (double bass) and Big Sid Catlett (drums)

DOWNTOWN CAFE BOOGIE and UPTOWN CAFE BLUES are marvelous syntheses of the music of this century — and they seem vivid in ours as well.  In these performances, I hear country blues figures older than records, and Bessie Smith and the singers of the Twenties.  I hear Louis Armstrong and Hot Lips Page, the Sunset Cafe and the Reno Club, the piano figures of Cow Cow Davenport and sleek intensity of Charlie Christian.  And more.  Marvel!

May your happiness increase.

APRIL 23, 1941 at CARNEGIE HALL: CAFE SOCIETY CONCERT (featuring the COUNT BASIE BAND, RED ALLEN’S BAND . . . )

Jam session ecstasies, anyone?  Thanks to jazz scholar Franz Hoffmann, who has just started sharing his incredible treasures on YouTube . . . here are three recordings from an incredible jam session that concluded a Carnegie Hall concert that utilized the talents of musicians playing and singing at Cafe Society.

First, DIGA DIGA DOO by Henry “Red” Allen’s band, with Red, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Ed Hall, clarinet; Ken Kersey, piano; Billy Taylor, bass; Jimmy Hoskins, drums:

How about some BLUES?  And let’s add a few players: Red Allen, Buck Clayton, Charlie Shavers, Bunny Berigan, Henry Levine, Max Kaminsky, trumpet; Will Bradley, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Buster Bailey, Ed Hall, clarinet; Russell Procope, Tab Smith, alto sax; Don Byas, Buddy Tate, tenor sax; Eddie South, violin; Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Stan Facey, Ken Kersey, Count Basie, Calvin Jackson, Buck Washington, Billy Kyle, Art Tatum, piano; Freddie Green, Gene Fields, guitar; Walter Page, John Kirby, Billy Taylor, Doles Dickens, bass; Jo Jones, Specs Powell, Jimmy Hoskins, Ray McKinley, O´Neil Spencer, drums:

I didn’t have enough blues to satisfy me . . . so let the fellows play ONE O’CLOCK JUMP:

I first heard the latter two performances perhaps twenty-five years ago on cassette from another collector . . . they were perilously hush-hush and not to be distributed to others.  Now all can be revealed and shared, to our hearts’ content.  In the interests of accuracy, I have to point out that the visuals provided — the “silent”films — do not match up with the music, and in one case I believe altoist Tab Smith is soloing while tenorist Don Byas is onscreen.  But such things are infinitesmal when compared to the glory of the music . . . even when it seems as though everyone on stage is wailing away at once.

I wonder what treasures Professor Hoffmann has for us in the coming days!  (Even now, there’s the precious audio of Red, Clark Terry, and Ruby Braff playing LOVER, COME BACK TO ME for a Newport Trumpet Workshop . . . )

SPINNING PLENITUDES

A few weeks ago, a young couple came to my apartment to buy a piece of furniture I’d hardly used.  (Now there’s more space for dancing.)  The young woman earnestly asked me about turntables — thinking of being able to play her mother’s beloved 1970 record collection.  I showed her both a modern one (and played her a track from a Marty Grosz Stomp Off record, which absolutely floored her with its bounce and warm sound).

Then I decided to become a true eccentric, a genuine suburban antiquarian and descended even deeper into history by playing her a 78 (Keynote, J.C. Heard, ALL MY LIFE) on another turntable.

I don’t think this was a transformational experience for her (and her boyfriend was pleasantly impassive through the whole thing) but it was clear she had never seen anything like it.

“How do you know where to put that thing [the stylus]?”  “What happens when it comes to the end?”  “Is that sound [the surface noise] part of the thing, the record?”  “Does that have only one song?”  And so on.

I don’t want to rehearse the discussion of iPod and MP3 downloads / compact discs / vinyl records / 78s / live performance — too many acres to plow! — but I did revert to my childhood in two sweetly nostalgic acts this morning.

One, I played a 78 record — LOW DOWN DIRTY SHAME / SOLITUDE (Vocalion 5531, rim chip, V) by Joe Sullivan and his Cafe Society Orchestra.  Lovely.  Two, I stared at the revolving disc and the diminishing circles described by the needle as the music came out of the speaker.

And I thought, not for the first time, of the beautiful paradoxes.

When the needle is lowered into the first groove, listeners enter into that musical world — new or familiar.  All experience lies before us, all possibility!  (Jack Purvis might explode in the last chorus.)  But we are always conscious of the finite limits of that world.  Listening to a live performance, we can tell when the band is near the end — although there always might be two more choruses!  A record, a disc lying on the platter, is visually bounded — its beginning and end marked out for us to see.

So as the needle follows its path, I feel the joy of hearing what’s there, perhaps the anticipatory sensation of “I can’t wait for the good part that I know is coming,” yet there’s the sad awareness of knowing the end is near.  Another sixteen bars, another thirty seconds, perhaps another two inches of black grooves.  “Oh, no, it’s going to be over!”

Everything comes to an end, we know.

But with records we have the wonderful opportunity to pick up the needle from its mindless elliptical orbits in the run-off groove and have the experience again.  Imagine being able to eat another meal in the same restaurant without monotony, without satiety.  It’s not the first kiss repeated, of course.  But second and third kisses are seriously pleasurable, too.

For those who cannot play a record today, I offer a video simulacrum — I think of it as a natural antidepressant, with no side effects:

BARNEY JOSEPHSON, CAFE SOCIETY, and MORE

It’s a long time since I got so wrapped up in a book that I didn’t want to stop reading it — but CAFE SOCIETY: THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE (Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009) is just that book.

Who was Barney Josephson (1902-88)?  If he hadn’t worked very hard to make his dreams become reality, we would only know him as a successful businessman: his specialty, stylish shoes. 

Happily for us, Barney had thoughts beyond Cuban or French heels: a yearning to run a nightclub in New York City, a keen sensitivity to talent, a hatred of social injustice.  And CAFE SOCIETY is the book his life and accomplishments deserve.  It could have been dull, academic, or third-hand.  But it’s a lively memoir of Barney’s life, taken from the tape recordings he made — he was a born raconteur — subtly annotated and expanded by his widow Terry Trilling-Josephson.  

CAFE SOCIETY (like the Downtown and Uptown nightclubs that had that name) is energetic, memorable, full of memorable anecdote and gossip.  Josephson was someone who had good instincts about what artists — musicians, comedians, or actors — whose work had substance.  He said he viewed himself as a “saloon impresario”: “I love it when people say that because I’m not more than that.  It’s the way I view myself.  In this business if you’re an ‘impresario,’ I say that with quotation marks around the word, you have a feeling.  You hear something, and you say, ‘This is it!’  You go ahead and you do it.  You don’t analyze.  You have to follow your hunches.”

Josephson had the good fortune to have John Hammond as his guide, instigator, and occasional arm-twister.  When Barney wanted to start a New York night club with music, it was Hammond who urged him to hire the three boogie-woogie pianists, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, the blues singer Big Joe Turner, and Billie Holiday. 

Cafe Society is remarkable for the improvisers who played there: Teddy Wilson with a band including Joe Thomas, Emmett Berry, or Bill Coleman; Benny Morton; Ed Hall or Jimmy Hamilton; Sidney Catlett.  Frank Newton with Sonny White, Kenneth Hollon, Tab Smith, Eddie Dougherty, Johnny Williams.  Ed Hall with Mouse Randolph and Henderson Chambers.  Ellis Larkins with Bill Coleman and Al Hall. 

Later on, at the Cookery, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams.  Josephson brought back Helen Humes and Alberta Hunter for successful late-life “comebacks.”  And it wasn’t simply jazz and popular songs: think of the Revuers (with Judy Holiday and Adolph Green), of Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel, of the now-forgotten Jimmy Savo, all given encouragement and room to develop by Josephson.   

But this isn’t purely a list of who-sang-what and how they were received, a collection of press clippings and schedules.  Josephson was a first-class storyteller with a remarkable memory, and the stories he remembered are priceless.  Nowhere else would I have learned that Emmett Berry, when trying to get someone to take a drink, would ask, “Will you have a drink of Doctor Berry’s rootin’ tootin’ oil?”  For me, that’s worth the price of the book.  Wonderful photographs, too. 

And the stories!

Billie Holiday, at first not knowing what to do with the lyrics of STRANGE FRUIT when they were handed to her, and showing her displeasure in the most effective non-verbal way when an audience annoyed her.

Zero Mostel, always onstage, making life difficult for the man trying to fit him for clothing.

Barney’s firing of Carol Channing and his missing a chance to hire Pearl Bailey.

Tallulah Bankhead complaining — at high volume — about what she’d encountered in the ladies’ room.

Teddy Wilson’s drinking problem, late in his career.

The dramatic entanglements of Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell.

The amorous hopes of Joe Louis for Lena Horne.

Big Joe Turner and the magic bean.

Mildred Bailey’s religious beliefs.

 And there is a deep, serious undercurrent throughout: the difficulty of having an establishment where neither the bands nor the audiences were segregated, and the looming shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  (Leon Josephson, Barney’s brother, was a particular target, which cast a shadow over Barney’s endeavors.)

Ultimately, the book is delightful for its stories (and the wonderful photographs) and the way Terry Trilling-Josephson has woven recollection and research together.  And the book is — on every page — the embodiment of Barney’s achievements and of the deep love he and Terry shared.  Not to be missed!

MILDRED BAILEY by JULIA KEEFE

Mildred Rinker Bailey

“The Rocking Chair Lady”

February 16, 1900 – December 12, 1951

Mildred Rinker was born one hundred and ten years ago today in Tekoa, Washington.  Her mother, Josephine Lee Rinker, was an enrolled member of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe.  Mildred’s early childhood was spent on the family’s tribal allotment near DeSmet, Idaho, where she spent many happy hours riding her pony, Buck.

The Rinker family moved to Spokane’s North Central neighborhood when Mildred was thirteen, and she graduated from St. Joseph’s School. Mildred and her younger brother Al spent many happy hours singing and playing piano under the instruction of their mother, an excellent pianist who could play both classical and ragtime music.

Mildred’s musical talent inspired both her brother Al and one of his band mates, a singing drummer named Bing Crosby, who once said, “I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life.  I learned a lot from her.  She made records which are still vocal classics, and she taught me much about singing and interpreting popular songs.”

Shortly after her mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1917, Mildred moved to Seattle and found work singing from sheet music at a local music store.  Her career path led her throughout the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where she joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and became the first full-time female big band singer in America.  Mildred Bailey’s groundbreaking achievement opened the door of opportunity for later jazz greats including Billie Holiday, Helen Ward, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Mildred Bailey’s earliest recordings were made in 1929, and she recorded nearly three hundred songs over the years, several of which became best-sellers.  Mildred had her own radio show in the 1940s, and was voted either first or second most popular female jazz vocalist in the first three annual Esquire Magazine jazz polls. The most famous artists from the swing era recorded and performed with Mildred, including Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, Coleman Hawkins, the Dorsey brothers, and Artie Shaw.

In 1944, Time magazine reviewed her show at the Café Society in New York and called her “just about the greatest songbird in the U.S.”  Mildred and her husband, pioneer xylophone and vibes great Red Norvo were known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing” during this phase of her career.

Mildred Bailey died on December 21, 1951 in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she lived on a farm with her beloved dachshunds, Spotty and Susan.  In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of stamps honoring legendary jazz and blues singers, including “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey.  One jazz historian said of Mildred, “She had a magic. So many people down the line, so many singers, benefited from her, owe debts to her – and they don’t even know it.”

Thank you, Mildred, for the trail you blazed and the beautiful songs you left behind.  You demonstrated that a little girl from an Idaho Indian reservation can dream big dreams, and make those dreams come true.  We’ll never forget you. Thanks for the memory!

Julia Keefe, Nez Perce tribal member

www.juliakeefe.com

(For those of you who haven’t heard of Julia Keefe, I promise that you will.  She’s more than an articulate Mildred Bailey fan; more than a diligent researcher — who provided these pictures of a seventeen-year old Mildred about to leave Spokane for the big time (the pictures came from Mildred’s niece, Julia Rinker Miller, whose father was Al Rinker) . . . she’s also a 20-year old jazz singer with a future.   She reveres Mildred and sings some of her songs, but Julia is wise enough to know that imitation is both impossible and no one’s idea of flattery.  More from and about her in future!)  And Julia went to the same Spokane high school, Gonzaga Prep, as that fellow Crosby . . . it’s a small world after all. 

WRITE NOW!

images

The American novelist William Maxwell (1908-2000), who wrote searchingly and lovingly about his Illinois childhood, told an interviewer late in life that if people didn’t write down what they remembered, so many beautiful things would vanish forever. 

Maxwell was right, and I am reminded of this now more than ever before.

One of the Beloved’s friends has endured the deaths of her parents, both in their early nineties, in the past year.  I met her parents twice.  They had been political activists in the Thirties; the husband, a writer, had worked with Langston Hughes.  When they heard that I was immersed in the jazz of their era, they — in turn — became happily animated.  They had been to Cafe Society; they had heard Billie Holiday and Fats Waller frequently; they had particularly loved a pianist who played on Fifty-Second Street but couldn’t immediately call his name to mind.  (He was Clarence Profit.)  They had been at the 1941 Count Basie recording session when Paul Robeson tried to sing Richard Wright’s blues in praise of Joe Louis, KING JOE.

Each of these comments seemed to me like a doorway into the miraculous past: people stting in the same room had been there.  They had seen my heroes; they might have magical narratives to share. 

Of course, they no longer remembered any details.  Robeson had had a hard time; the clubs on Fifty-Second Street had been a  great pleasure; they beamed as we exchanged the magic names.  I had come too late.  And they took their stories with them.

I urge my readers to ask questions of the Elders of the Tribe.  The Elders don’t have to be musicians; they can be someone’s aunt, who owned a candy store where Ellington would buy cigarettes.  Or we ourselves can be the Elders, contributing our own memories before they — and we — vanish.  I never saw Clarence Profit, but I did see Bobby Hackett indicating to the band the tempo he wanted for the next number by clicking his tuning slide back and forth in time.  Having written that down, I have hopes that it has a less evanescent existence. 

What do you remember?

REMEMBERING JOE THOMAS

The trumpeter Joseph Eli Thomas — fabled but truly little-known — is almost always confused with his higher-profile namesake, who played tenor sax and sang in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. 

But a quick scan of the people our Joe Thomas played with should suggest that his colleagues thought very highly of him.  How about Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Guarneri, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Catlett, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Emmett Berry, Cozy Cole, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Claude Hopkins,  Buddy Tate, Pee Wee Russell, Tony Scott, Buck Clayton, Woody Herman, Trummy Young, Rudy Powell, Eddie Condon, Benny Carter, Jo Jones, Benny Morton, Al Hall . . . . ?  Clearly a man well-respected.  But he is an obscure figure today. 

He can be seen as a member of Art Kane’s famous 1958 Harlem street assemblage.  Shirtsleeved and hatless, he stands with Maxine Sullivan and Jimmy Rushing to one side, with Stuff Smith on the other.  Fast company, although the sun must have been bothering him, for he looks worried. 

In another world, Thomas would have had little reason to worry, but he came up in jazz when hot trumpeters seemed to spring out from every bush.  To his left, Red Allen and Rex Stewart; to the right, Bill Coleman, Emmett Berry, Bobby Hackett.  Rounding the corner, Buck Clayton, Cootie Williams, Benny Carter, Frank Newton.   So the competition was fierce.  And Thomas often had the bad fortune to be overshadowed: in Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS band — the one that recorded extensively for Victor and Vocalion — his section-mate was a fireball named Eldridge.  In Fats Waller’s big band, Thomas played section trumpet and the prize solos in Fats’ Rhythm went to Herman Autrey or Bugs Hamilton.  And then there was a colossus named Armstrong, apparently blocking out the sun.  John Hammond was busy championing other players, all worthy, and never got around to pushing Joe Thomas into the limelight.  Although he recorded prolifically as a sideman, he never had a record date under his own name after 1946. 

But Thomas got himself heard now and again: his solos shine on Decca recordings (alongside Chu Berry) under Lil Armstrong’s name, and on a famous Big Joe Turner date for the same label that featured Art Tatum and Ed Hall.  On the much more obscure Black and White label, he recorded alongside Tatum and Barney Bigard; for Jamboree, he was captured side-by-side with Don Byas, Dave Tough, and Ted Nash. 

Later in his career, the British jazz scholar Albert McCarthy featured him on a Vic Dickenson session (Vic, like Tatum, seems to have admired Joe’s quiet majesty), and he popped up on sessions in the Fifties and Sixties in the best company.  Whitney Balliett celebrated him in an essay, and the drummer Mike Burgevin used him on gigs whenever he could.

Thomas’s most important champion has to have been the Javanese jazz enthusiast and record producer Harry Lim, whose biography should be written — producing jam sessions and heading one of the finest record labels ever — Keynote — then shepherding another label, Famous Door, through perhaps a dozen issues in the Seventies.  I gather that his day job was as head of the jazz record section in the Manhattan Sam Goody store: probably I saw him, but was too young and uninformed to make the connection. 

Lim loved Thomas’s playing and featured him extensively on sessions between 1944 and 1946.  Regrettably those sessions were reissued in haphazard fashion in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies — vinyl anthologies on the Emarcy and Trip labels — then in a wonderful box set first appearing in Japan, then briefly in the US, then disappearing for good.  A number of compilations drawn from that set — featuring Hawkins, Eldridge, Norvo, and Young — made it to CD but seem to have gone out of circulation.  And wise collectors aren’t putting them up on eBay.  Thomas also appears on a few sessions for the HRS (Hot Record Society) label, and those sessions have been collected in a Mosaic box set, which I believe is still available — although the Keynotes show him off far better. 

What made Thomas so special?  His tone was luminous but dark, rich — not shallow and glossy or brassy.  His notes sang; he placed his notes a shade behind the beat, giving the impression of having all the time in the world at a fast tempo.  Like Jack Teagarden, he wasn’t an improviser who started afresh with every new solo.  Thomas had his favorite patterns and gestures, but he didn’t repeat himself.  Listening to him when he was on-form was beautifully satisfying: he sounded like a man who had edited out all the extraneous notes in his head before beginning to play.  His spaces meant something, and a Thomas solo continued to resonate in one’s head for a long time.  I can still hear his opening notes of a solo he took on CRAZY RHYTHM on a New York gig in 1974. 

What made his style so memorable wasn’t simply his tone — a marvel in itself — or his pacing, steady but never sluggish.  It was his dual nature: he loved upward-surging arpeggios that spelled out the chord in a gleaming way, easy but urgent.  Occasionally he hit the same note a few times in a delicate, chiming way (much more Beiderbecke than Sweets Edison) — and then, while those notes rang in the air, he would play something at one-quarter volume, which had the shape of a beautiful half-muttered epigram, something enclosed in parentheses, which you had to strain to hear.  That balance between declarations and intimacy shaped many a memorable solo. 

And when Thomas was simply appearing to play the melody, he worked wonders.  I don’t know where a listener would find the Teddy Wilson V-Disc session that produced only two titles (and one alternate take) with a stripped-down version of Wilson’s Cafe Society band in 1943: Thomas, Ed Hall, Wilson, and Sidney Catlett.  I mean them no disrespect, but Benny Morton and Johnny Williams may have wanted to go home and get some sleep.  The two titles recorded were RUSSIAN LULLABY and HOW HIGH THE MOON — the latter of interest because it is one of the first jazz recordings of that song (including a fairly straight 1940 reading by a Fred Rich studio band with Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge as guest stars!) that I know of.  But RUSSIAN LULLABY is extra-special, taken at a slow tempo, enabling Thomas to illuminate the melody from within, as if it were a grieving anthem. 

Alas, there are no CD compilations devoted to Thomas; someone eager to hear him on record might chase down the Keynotes in a variety of forms.  One session finds him alongside Eldridge and Emmett Berry, and it’s fascinating to see how easily Thomas’s wait-and-see manner makes his colleagues seem a bit too eager, even impetuous.  His playing alongside Teagarden and Hawkins on a session led by drummer George Wettling couldn’t be better, especially on HOME and YOU BROUGHT A NEW KIND OF LOVE TO ME. 

But he came to prominence, at least as far as the record studio executives were concerned, most often in the years of the first record ban, during World War Two.  After that, he emerged now and then in a variety of Mainstream revivals — he played at Central Plaza on an elusive “Dr. Jazz” broadcast; he was a member of an Eddie Condon troupe in the Forties that did a concert in Washington, D.C.  

I was lucky enough to hear him a few times in the early Seventies, primarily because of the enthusiastic generosity of Mike Burgevin, a classic jazz drummer whose heroes were Catlett, Tough, and Wettling — someone who also sang now and again, his model (wisely) being early-and-middle period Crosby. 

For a time, Mike took care of the jazz at a club named Brew’s — slightly east of the Empire State Building — that had a little room with tables and chairs, a minute bandstand, a decent upright piano.  His sessions usually featured himself and the quietly persuasive stride pianist Jimmy Andrews (or Dill Jones), perhaps Al Hall on bass, and a noted horn player.  It could be Ruby Braff or Kenny Davern, but often it was Max Kaminsky, Herb Hall, Herman Autrey, or Joe Thomas.  (One week, blessedly, Vic Dickenson played three or four nights with a shifting rhythm section: glorious music and a rare opportunity to observe him on his own.) 

The sessions were even noted in The New Yorker.  I remember noting that these players — people I had heard only on record — seemed to be gigging about ten minutes away from Penn Station.  When Joe Thomas’s name came up in print, I was nearly-incredulous.  Could this be our Joe Thomas, the trumpeter who was nearly luminescent on his choruses on SHE DIDN’T SAY YES?  I think I prevailed on my friend Stu Zimny to come into the city and see whether this was miracle or mirage, and I remember one brilliant set — Joe, Waller-altoist Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, and Burgevin — that featured Rudy on WHERE OR WHEN and there was a closing CRAZY RHYTHM for the whole band.  Of course I had my cassette recorder, but where these tapes are I cannot say.  Joe’s chorus, however, is fresh in my mind’s ear.  

We struck up a friendship with Mike Burgevin, who was thrilled to find college-age kids who were deeply immersed in the music he loved, and he told us that Joe and he would be leading a quartet for an outdoors concert in a park at the very southern end of Manhattan.  I remember that Stu and I brought a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder, the better to capture Joe’s golden sound, and set it up in the shade, near a tree.  This provoked the only conversation I remember having with him.  Understandably, perhaps, the sight of young strangers with a big tape recorder made him nervous, and he kept on telling us that we shouldn’t do this, because “the union man” could come by.  Perhaps impatiently, we assured him that Local 802 representatuves didn’t seem to be hiding in the bushes, and that we would take the blame if anyone came around.  He could pretend that he had no knowledge of our criminalities.  It was a less memorable occasion: the quartet was filled out with someone of moderate abilities on a small electric keyboard, the bassist played an over-amplified Fender.  Joe fought his way upstream, but it was difficult.  In retrospect, I feel guilty: was he worrying about the union man all the time he was playing?  I hope not. 

He also got a chance to shine twice at the 1972 Newport in New York concerts, once at an affair devoted to Eddie Condon and his music.  It was a characteristically uneven evening.  The sound engineer at Carnegie Hall amplified the piano so that it sounded other-worldly, and Thomas (perhaps playing the role of a more modest Hot Lips Page) was brought on, along with J.C. Higginbotham, for a closing version of IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  Of that occasion, I remember a stunning Bobby Hackett chorus and break, but Thomas didn’t get the space to do what we knew he could.  He also was a member of Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS big band — its rhythm section featuring Teddy Wilson, Bernard Addison, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones (!) and Thomas took a wonderful solo on a very fast rendition of SLEEP.

I don’t know what kept him out of the limelight after that, whether it was ill health or tiredness?  Was it that more showily assertive trumpeters (and there were plenty) got the gigs?  Whatever the reasons, he seems to have faded away. 

Ironically, Mike Burgevin had issued three vinyl recordings on his own Jezebel label that featured Herman Autrey, Jack Fine, Rudy Powell, and Doc Cheatham . . . which, in a way, led to Cheatham’s rediscovery and second or third period of intense (and well-deserved) fame.  Had circumstances been different, perhaps it would have been Joe Thomas playing alongside Nicholas Payton, and that is to take nothing away from Cheatham.

I had begun to write a post about Joe Thomas very shortly after beginning this blog, but shelved it because so little of his work is now available on CD.  But the impetus to celebrate him came in the past few days when the Beloved and I had the great good luck to hear Duke Heitger on a brief New York City tour.  I have admired Duke’s work for a number of years, and think of him as one of those players who honors the tradition — subtly yet passionately — without imitating anyone.  But on a few occasions this last week, Duke would get off a beautiful phrase that hung, shimmering in the air, for a second, and I would think, “Who does that remind me of?”  And the answer, when it came, startled me: the last time I had heard something quite so lovely was in listening to Joe Thomas in his prime.  Duke is too much his own man to have copied those Keynotes, but it’s an honor (at least in my estimation) to come close to some of Thomas’s quiet majesty. 

One other person who thought Joe Thomas was worthy of notice was the esteemed photographer William P. Gottlieb.  In this shot, taken at the Greenwich Village club “The Pied Piper,” sometime between 1946 and 1946, Thomas is third from the left, the only African-American.  To his left is Harry Lim:

Joe Thomas 1

Here he is playing alongside pianist Jimmy Jones, at the same club:

Joe Thomas 2

Ultimately, Thomas got a number of opportunities to record and to perform, so that a few people still remember him, but it’s sad that his work is so difficult to find.  He deserves so much more.