Tag Archives: Cassino Simpson

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!

YEATS, SKJELBRED, FORRESTER

In W.B. Yeats’s poem “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” a memorial for Lady Gregory’s son who had died in the First World War, these lines appear: Always we’d have the new friend meet the old / And we are hurt if either friend seem cold.”

I’ve been following the quietly explosive creator Ray Skjelbred for some time now, always shaking my head in silent admiration at the dynamic worlds he manifests at the keyboard and elsewhere.

So when I began to have friendly conversations with another man of large imagination, pianist / composer Joel Forrester, I talked with him about “eccentric” pianists I thought he would enjoy.  We shared a love of Joe Sullivan, so I felt comfortable speaking with Joel of Frank Melrose, Alex Hill, Cassino Simpson, Russ Gilman, and a few others.

When this video (captured by RaeAnn Berry on June 24, 2017 at the 27th Annual America’s Classic Jazz Festival in Lacey, Washington) of Ray playing Alex Hill’s composition (most thoroughly inhabited by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines) BEAU KOO JACK, I sent it to Joel to see what he thought.

His reaction was perfect.

Terrific! Utterly surprising!

Here it is:

Blessings on Ray and Joel, on RaeAnn too.  On Alex Hill and Louis and Earl. And on every viewer and listener who’s in the spirit.  And even those who aren’t.

May your happiness increase!

MYSTERIOUS PLEASURES, 1934

SAM NOWLIN Champion label

The world of jazz is full of stars, people who receive and deserve a great deal of attention.  Then there are phantoms — musicians who make a brief appearance and then vanish.  The pianist Sam Nowlin is a resounding example of the second group.  I’d made his acquaintance last week, when I took the wrapping off a Document CD called JAZZ AND BLUES PIANO 1934-1947.  Others on this disc are luminaries: Morton, James P.  Then we move into the realm of the less famous but still wondrous: Cassino Simpson, Tut Soper, Dorothy Donegan, Clarence Profit, Dan Burley, even Euday L. Bowman.

DOCUMENT Nowlin

But the disc begins with two solo performances by Sam Nowlin, called SO WHAT and CHANGE.

Meet the elusive Mister Nowlin:

I amuse myself by imagining the dialogue in the recording studio: “Sam, what was the name of that?”  “It doesn’t have a name.”  “Well, it needs one for us to release it.”  “Call it I DON’T KNOW.”  “We can’t do that.”  “Why?  So what?” “That’s it!”

About CHANGE as a title I have nothing even mildly whimsical to offer.

About Nowlin, I find little or nothing online.  He recorded three sides, in Richmond, Indiana, on October 8, 1934, for the Champion label.  The third selection, RIFF, was not issued.  Even with the vast, often unreliable library that is the internet, he remains mysterious.  I did find a notation that had him as co-composer of BLUE BLAZES, with Sy Oliver, but nothing more.  And my library (Chilton and more) has nothing to offer.  Nowlin has no erroneous Wikipedia page; Harry Dial does not take him to task; John Hammond seems never to have heard him.

In June 2016, this copy of the Champion disc sold at auction for $899.00 plus shipping.  Details here.

Nowlin black label

Does anyone know more about Sam Nowlin?

The important thing, of course, is how well he plays: an individualistic synthesis of what was in the air in 1934 — you can supply your own names — with a floating understated grace.  It’s a pity he didn’t record more.  But I am grateful that Document offered these two sides.  Great music is made by people who don’t end up in encyclopedias and dictionaries of jazz.  Bless the folks at Document Records for making such a delicious mystery available.

May your happiness increase!

TWO TICKETS TO CHICAGO: RAY SKJELBRED at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 27, 2015)

Ray Skjelbred, away from the piano.

Ray Skjelbred, away from the piano.

I tell the Youngbloods, “Yes! Go see Ray Skjelbred play piano and (once in a great while) sing.  It is a magical experience.”

Here are two more beauties from his solo session at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 27, 2015.  Ray loves what we call the tradition — as distinguished from “OKOM,” a term I don’t use — by honoring the Ancestors while being himself all the time.  And he continues to surprise and transform, skirting cliche always.

ROSETTA (for Earl Hines and Henri Woode) with a wondrous brooding beginning:

ELGIN BREAKDOWN (in honor of / in mourning for Cassino Simpson):

I hope to see you at the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest, which will take place over the Thanksgiving weekend — November 23 through 27.  Here’s another piece of the magic Ray (with friends Dawn Lambeth and Marc Caparone) created at that same festival:

May your happiness increase!

UNABRIDGED and UPLIFTING: CARL SONNY LEYLAND and RAY SKJELBRED at MONTEREY (March 9, 2014)

There are occasions when we have two pianos on stage, and two pianists. Perhaps it’s not so unusual these days. But I submit to you that the pairing of Carl Sonny Leyland (on the right side of your screen) and Ray Skjelbred (left) is remarkable for its wit, depth, and playful inventiveness.  It happened on March 9, 2014, at the Jazz Bash at the Bay in Monterey, California, and I present the results here now in all their splendor.  Unabridged, unexpurgated, unedited, and full of life. I apologize that my camera’s wide-angle lens wasn’t sufficiently ample to keep both Masters in the shot, but the sound is I hope compensation for the visual limitations.  (I was seated in the first row and kept swiveling my head back and forth, so my camera followed suit.)

I think it was an absolute honor to be there, and that this is unrivaled music.

NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW:

WININ’ BOY BLUES:

FAN IT / OH, BABY!:

HOW LONG BLUES:

CHINA BOY:

BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES:

OUR MONDAY DATE:

SUGAR:

BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME:

SPECIAL DELIVERY BLUES:

I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU:

Both of these great musicians — strong-minded individualists — reveled in this opportunity to create something larger than themselves, something warmly alive and unforgettable. To echo Carl’s words after the end of NOBODY’S SWEETHEART, “Yeah. Fun.”

May your happiness increase!

EVERY EVENING: RAY SKJELBRED AND THE CUBS at SAN DIEGO (November 29, 2013): RAY SKJELBRED, KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, MIKE DAUGHERTY

Pianist, bandleader, composer, and occasional vocalist Ray Skjelbred is gently but obstinately authentic, a prophet and beacon of deep Chicago jazz — whether it’s tender, gritty, or romping.  He and the Cubs proved this again (they always do) at their November 2013 appearances at the San Diego Jazz Fest.  For this weekend, The Cubs were Kim Cusack, clarinet, vocal; Clint Baker, string bass, tuba, vocal; Katie Cavera, guitar, vocal; Mike Daugherty, drums, vocal.

SIX POINT BLUES:

EVERY EVENING:

A highlight for all of us — heartfelt and quietly fervent — ANY TIME, ANY DAY, ANYWHERE:

Alienation of affections or kidnapping was never so festive as this rendition of SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

HO HUM!:

PIANO MAN:

DARKTOWN STRUTTERS BALL:

That music is good news for us all.  But more good news — larger and more tangible than the computer monitor — is coming: the Cubs are making a California tour in early July 2014, beginning in two weeks. Jeff Hamilton will be on drums, along with the regulars you see above.

Thursday, July 10: Rossmoor Dixieland Jazz Club in Walnut Creek CA. For more information visit here.

Friday, July 11: Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park, California. 7:30 – 10:00 PM. (1010 El Camino Real, dress casual, good food and drink and a sweet atmosphere).

Saturday, July 12: Cline Wine and Jazz Festival in Sonoma, California. The Cubs will play three sets: for details, visit here.

Sunday, July 13: Napa Valley Dixieland Jazz Society. For more information visit: here.

Monday, July 14: Le Colonial in San Francisco, California (20 Cosmo Place). For more information visit here.

The admiring shades of Alex Hill, Sidney Catlett, Lee Wiley, Eddie Condon, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Sippie Wallace, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, Cassino Simpson, Tut Soper, Frank Melrose, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, Jess Stacy, Wellman Braud, Frank Teschemacher, Gene Krupa, and scores of unheralded blues musicians stand behind this band — as the Cubs make their own lovely ways to our ears and hearts.  Panaceas without side-effects.

May your happiness increase!

“BLUE NOTES THAT FRAME THE PASSION”: RAY SKJELBRED’S TRIBAL WISDOM

Pianist / composer / scholar / poet Ray Skjelbred is one of the rare ones.

I don’t say this only because of his deeply rewarding piano playing — soloist, accompanist, bandleader — but because of the understanding that it rests upon.  Ray understands that he is one of long line of creators — members of the tribe of improvising storytellers, some of them no longer on the planet but their energies still vividly alive.

He doesn’t strive to copy or to “recreate”; rather, he honors and embodies in ways that words can only hint at.  Call it an enlightened reverence that takes its form in blues-based melodic inventions, and you’ll be close to understanding the essence of what Ray does, feels, and is.

Here are some of his own introspections: “I get ideas by trying to hear the world differently, sometimes even misunderstanding sound on purpose. . . . I like to see things differently, to shape a song, to make it mine. I like to make tempo changes, especially fast to slow, I like to make the notes as round and warm as possible and part of that comes from shading a composition with blue notes that frame the passion. I like to fill in harmonies when the melody feels a little bony to me. . . . I think music is an adventure, a chance to shape sound with your bare hands.”

I’ve admired his playing for some years now — before I knew him as a soloist, I heard him through ensembles on recordings led by other musicians, rather in the way one would hear Hines, Horace Henderson, Joe Sullivan, Frank Melrose, Jess Stacy, Zinky Cohn, Tut Soper, Cassino Simpson, Alex Hill, or a dozen others subversively and happily animating the largest group.

There are several ways to experience this magic — Ray making himself a portal through which the elders can speak, while adding his own personal experiences.  One, of course, is to witness his transformations in person.  To do this, you’d have to know where he is going to be playing — check out the bottom of the page here for his appearances in the near future.

Another way t0 have a portable Skjelbred festival is through his compact discs, recent and otherwise, listed here. I call two new issues to your attention.  One, RAGTIME PIANO, is — beneath its rather plain title — a continued exploration of subversive possibilities, witty and warm.

I remember the first time I began to listen to it — with small surprises popping through the surface like small flowers, catching me off guard, subtler than Monk creating his own version of stride piano but with some of the same effect.  Each track is a small hot sonata, with the surprises resurfacing to make the whole disc a suite of unusual yet comfortable syncopated dance music.

The sixteen solo piano performances offer classics, stretched and reconsidered: SWIPSEY CAKEWALK / SOMETHING DOING / WHOOPEE STOMP / LOUISIANA RAG / MOURNFUL SERENADE / DANCE OF THE WITCH HAZELS / PINEAPPLE RAG / AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING, as well as Ray’s originals — inspired by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Julia Child: SMILING RAG / LEAN AND GRIEFY RAG / DON’T CROWD THE MUSHROOMS / COCHINEAL RAG / LITTLE ELMER’S RAG / THE PICOT RAG / REFLECTIONS RAG / BALLS AND STRIKES FOREVER.

Another deep lesson in how to get the most music possible — and then some — from the piano can be found in Ray’s PIANO PORTRAITS, which demonstrates his range of endearing associations, from the Hot Five and early blues singers to Carl Kress and Eddie Lang, from Jimmie Noone and early Ellington to Bix, Hines, and Charlie Shavers. It’s a filling and fulfilling musical banquet: SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD / FEELING MY WAY / I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA / WEATHER BIRD RAG / SQUEEZE ME / I NEED YOU BY MY SIDE / DINAH / READY FOR THE RIVER / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / CLARK AND RANDOLPH / CANNED MEAT RAG / BLUES FROM “CREOLE RHAPSODY” / BLUES FOR MILLIE LAMMOREUX / FATHER SWING / WHEN I DREAM OF YOU / A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND / MY HEART / MUGGLES / UNDECIDED.  Ray’s prose is as forthright and evocative as his playing, so this CD is worth reading as well as hearing for his recollections of Johnny Wittwer, Joe Sullivan, Burt Bales, Art Hodes, and Earl Hines.

Another way to experience Ray, his mastery of “those pretty notes and jangly octaves,” can be through these video performances.  He has been more than gracious to me, allowing me to capture him in a variety of settings.  I offer one here, BULL FROG BLUES, recorded on November 29, 2013, at the San Diego Thanksgiving Jazz Festival — with his Cubs, that savory band: Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Mike Daugherty, drums:

Wherever Ray goes, whatever the context in which he makes music, it’s always rewarding.

May your happiness increase!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find out more about the book here.

FROM THE HEART, FOR THE HEART: RAY SKJELBRED’S “FIRST THURSDAY BAND” (Dec. 1, 2011)

Feeling low?  Got a parking ticket?  Can’t shake that nasty cold?  Worried about the bills?  Did you burn the toast?

It’s going to be all right.  In fact, it’s already all right. 

Make yourself to home and listen to this music.  Or — if you’re swiffing around, turn up the volume and feel the deep swinging joy this band creates.

They’re Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band, caught live at the New Orleans Restaurant in Seattle, Washington, on December 1, 2011.  They are Ray Skjelbred, piano / leader; Steve Wright, cornet, clarinet, alto and soprano saxes; Dave Brown, string bass; Mike Daugherty, drums.

And — in the spirit of the season — do you hear what I hear?  I hear a real jazz band.  “What’s that?” I hear someone in the back saying.  Well, that’s an improvising group where all the members love the music and work together towards the same purpose, supporting one another in a gritty joyousness appropriate to the song, picking up each others’ cues, playing witty follow-the-leader so that one hears simultaneously a quartet and four strong-minded individualists taking their own path to get to their own versions of Jazz Paradise.

I also hear echoes of Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Fud Livingston, Guy Kelly, Doc Poston, Earl Hines, Frank Melrose, Wellman Braud, Milton J. Hinton, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty (a relation, perhaps?), George Wettling — all embodied on December 1, 2011, by living creators who have absorbed the tradition and made it their own.  Who cares if people fight cyber-skirnishes in the blogosphere about whether “J**z” is alive or dead?  Call this by whatever polite name you like: it is most certainly alive.

The first song and performance that caught my attention was LOVE ME TONIGHT, which is associated in my mind with Earl Hines and Bing Crosby — one hell of a pair!  It is a lovely song: with lyrics, one of the most insinuating seduction lyrics I know (perhaps more wooing than A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY): a carpe diem pointed towards the bedroom.  But here it’s a bit more lowwdown, suggesting that Chicago jazz was a powerful aphrodisiac as well:

And here’s a lowdown Commodore JADA:

Something unusual from Mister Piano Man — a little solo tribute to someone quite forgotten, Cassino Simpson.  All most of us know of him is that he worked with Tiny Parham and did his own Chicago gigs, before succumbing to mental instability.  After he unsuccessfully tried to kill Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, he was institutionalized and I believe he spent the rest of his life there.  The noble John Steiner took recording equipment to Simpson and recorded him playing piano in 1942: the results, very hard to find even fifty years ago, appeared on a Paramont 10″ lp, which I’ve heard but never seen.  Mister Skjelbred gives us a window into the blues — the Cassino Simpson way:

And something pretty, soulful, as well as funky: Ellington’s BLACK BEAUTY:

Here’s a truly mournful TRAV’LIN ALL ALONE (Ethel Waters – Jimmie Noone – Kenny Davern tempo, not Billie’s ironic bounce):

And a rather obscure tune from 1936 — I associate it only with Henry “Red” Allen, but that’s sufficient pedigree for anyone — NOTHING’S BLUE BUY THE SKY:

Something else from Red (circa 1933), his affirmation that everything is really OK — THE RIVER’S TAKIN’ CARE OF ME:

And the song that could stand as the band’s secondary title, summing up their attitude towards their work and their art, LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY (think of Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, and Jeni LeGon in STORMY WEATHER).  Ray sings the delectable lyrics softly, but you might consider memorizing them — you could do far worse for a mantra to get you through every day:

What exquisite music — delicate and raunchy at the same time!

P.S.  I don’t want to be especially preachy, but I would like all the youthful musicians in the house to watch and listen closely to these clips — for the deep unspoken unity of the quartet, the shifting sound-textures, and numberless virtues.  Mister Skjelbred doesn’t cover the keyboard with runs and arpeggios (unless he wants to); his left hand is integral to his playing; he could be a whole orchestra but doesn’t trample on anyone.  Mister Wright knows everything there is to know about “tonation and phrasing”: not a note is out of place and each one has its own purpose, its own sound.  And, children, there were ways of playing the alto saxophone that Charles Parker did not render obsolete.  Mister Daugherty does so much with so few cymbals — bless him! — he knows what his snare drum and bass drum are for; he swings those wire brushes, and he is always listening.  And Mister Brown, whether plucking or bowing, gets a deep resonant yet flexible sound out of his bass.  Want to know what kind of amplifier he uses?  It’s called LOVE.  And although he can play the guitar beautifully, he doesn’t turn his string bass into one.  There!  I have spoken.  Learn it to the younguns!

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! — THE FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND (ON DISC and VIDEO)

Imagine a jam session after hours in Chicago, circa 1934 or so (the date, being imagined, is flexible).  Waiting their turn to play are Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Omer Simeon, Boyce Brown, Guy Kelly, Jess Stacy, Earl Hines, Cassino Simpson, Frank Melrose, Joe Sullivan, Wellman Braud, Truck Parham, Zutty Singleton, George Wettling, and others.

No, the late John Steiner didn’t record such a gathering of saints and heroes. 

But a modern evocation of such a gathering is to be found when one of my new-irreplaceable-favorite jazz groups, the FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND, comes to play. 

They are Ray Skjelbred, leader, piano; Steve Wright, reeds, cornet; Dave Brown, string bass, Mike Daugherty, drums.  Everyone in the quartet has been known to sing a chorus or two.  It’s a thrifty, focused, engaging quartet — listeners get more than their money’s worth!

I’ve shared some YouTube videos of the band, performing at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle, Washington — and more are at the bottom of this blogpost. 

But there’s good news tonight, as a famous radio broadcaster used to say.  The First Thursday Jazz Band has just come out with their debut CD — drop evertyhing and pay attention, please! 

It’s an old-fashioned production: recorded on the job (but with a sweetly attentive audience) in good sound, with a variety of songs and approaches — one of those CDs you can listen to the whole way through and come back to again right away. 

If you know anything about Ray Skjelbred, you know that he rocks — and he loves both classic and unusual material.  And people who admire him can argue (in the nicest of ways) if he is a greater soloist than an accompanist.  Like Stacy, Ray is so fine backing up someone else that occasionally I want to listen to the track again just to hear his bubbling down-home fills and figures. 

Ray’s partner in the rhythm section is the quietly propulsive Dave Brown.  String bassists tend to get less respect than they deserve, but rhythm is Dave’s business.  And business sure is swell.  He has a big plush sound (no amps, thank you kindly) but he doesn’t need one.  And his time is neither stodgy nor over-eager: I think of the Blessed Walter Page when I hear Dave play.

Mike Daugherty (the man with the red drum) is a jovial player with fine time and a whole galaxy of sonic effects from his kit.  He doesn’t opt for the usual tricks, but often just stays on his snare with a rich, padding brush carpet, or moves around his set in a way that feels just right.  No showboating, no look-at-me, not ever.

Steve Wright should get triple or quadruple pay, but I don’t think he’d even entertain the notion of asking for it.  A sweet alto player (a style I miss a great deal) with deep but casual lyricism, a clarinet player who can be Russell-tart or Darnell Howard-smooth, and a neat, unflurried Bixian trumpeter — sweetly to the point.

That’s the band — and these fellows are having a good time purling through the repertoire.  Their quiet pleasure comes through from the first note.

The CD is called simple RAY SKJELBRED and the FIRST THURSDAY BAND, and it’s on the Orangapoid label (number 103).  It has a wonderfully diverse repertoire — Don Redman and Chris Smith, Louis and Red McKenzie, old favorites, oddities, and deep blues.  (JAMES ALLEY BLUES, sung guttily by Bob Jackson, is priceless — immediately identifiable as authentic.) 

The songs are YELLOW DOG BLUES / YEARNING AND BLUE / CAVERNISM / SOLID ROCK / TRY GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP / DON’T BLAME ME / LOVER COME BACK TO ME / FAR AWAY BLUES / NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU / SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY / LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART / HUSTLIN’ AND BUSTLIN’ FOR BABY / JAMES ALLEY BLUES / CHERRY / PENNIES FROM HEAVEN / SHAKE THAT JELLY ROLL. 

I wish I could send you to your local record shop and be assured that it would be there — several copies! — but I think those days are gone, gone, gone.  However.  Obviously if you meet Ray at a gig (or the other FT chaps) you can buy a copy for the pittance of $15.  But for most of us, the idea of meeting Ray or the FTJB in person has a certain dreamlike quality.  So for $18, Ray himself will mail you a copy.  He promises!  The details go like this.  Ray Skjelbred can be found at 19526 40th PL. NE., Lake Forest Park, Washington 98155.  If you need more information or want to make a quantity order of a hundred copies, feel free to let me know and I will tell Ray immediately.  Here’s what the cover looks like.

Now.  I promised some new YouTube clips (I regret that they aren’t mine, but they are still lovely) recorded at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant on June 2, 2011.

Let’s begin with a ruminative PENNIES FROM HEAVEN that has all sorts of bonuses — Ray plays the verse in fine Crosby fashion, and Steve solos on clarinet and cornet:

Something in memory of Frank Melrose and George Wettling (with Tesch and Bud in the dim background), the WAILING BLUES:

Want to be some place where they huggy and kissy nice?  How about NAGASAKI?

And two highly reason-able songs, with connections to Red McKenzie, Wingy Mannone, Jack Teagarden, Fats Waller — the first being NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU (vocalizing by Mike Daugherty):

And that eternal plaint, WHAT’S THE REASON (I’M NOT PLEASIN’ YOU)?

ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON might have been just another Thirties cowboy song if Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham hadn’t been handed it in the Vocalion studios.  “Take another one, Higgy!”  I think also of the version with vocal by Al Bowlly to which Bob Hoskins emoted in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.  Vocal by Mike, doubling by Steve:

And THE SONG IS ENDED:

But that last song title (with apologies to Mr. Berlin) isn’t accurate.  There are more videos from this evening on YouTube, and — that new CD! 

Be the first one in your neighborhood to be walking around with a wide grin — and when someone says, “Why the hell are YOU so happy?” you can say, “Have you heard the new CD by The First Thursday Jazz Band?”  And — if you’re a really charitable spreader-of-the-good-word, you can share your headphones / iPod, or even invite them into your car for a few minutes of The Real Thing.

ALISA’S PARTY: JEFF HAMILTON and CLINT BAKER (May 18, 2010)

Veteran radio broadcaster and jazz lover Alisa Clancy teaches a jazz course called JAZZ FROM THE HILL at San Mateo Community College that ends with a music party — as a reward for the students, perhaps, so they now know how much they know!  Alisa is the Operations Director at KCSM (91.1 FM) and host of “A Morning Cup Of Jazz,” four hours of well-chosen jazz every weekday morning to soothe the nerves of people caught in traffic. 

This year (as in the past) the tireless Rae Ann Berry brought her camera.  I was far away when the party was in full swing, but now we can see and hear the delightful duets between Jeff Hamilton and Clint Baker.  (There are still more on YouTube — visit “SFRaeAnn” to lose yourself in a day’s worth of hot jazz.)

Most people know Jeff Hamilton as a wonderfully swinging drummer (there are two J.H.’s who play the drums: this one’s my favorite) but he’s also a splendid pianist.  He has two CDs out under his own name where he’s featured, beautifully, on that instrument — combining classical training with a great down-home rock.  He can rhapsodize or dig into the deep blues of people like Tut Soper and Cassino Simpson. 

And my audience (and Rae Ann’s) knows Clint as a polymorphous jazz multi-tasker, which is to say he plays many instruments very very well.  Here he emphasizes his cornet playing (with a splendidly evocative assortment of mutes), sits in on the drums, and plays an unusual and rare clarinet as well.  (It’s an Albert system one with an upturned bell — I believe it once belonged to West Coast legend Tom Sharpsteen.)  Clint does it all with great expertise and the kind of nonchalance that makes it seem easy.  Which it isn’t.  I thought of Jim Goodwin; I thought of Sidney Catlett; of the great New Orleans clarinet tradition. 

Here’s a medium-tempo MEMORIES OF YOU (with the rarely-heard verse) as Clint plays quietly effective, simple drums alongside him (on the simplest drum set one could imagine):

The well-worn SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, played as if it hadn’t gotten its paint rubbed off over the years:

ISLE OF CAPRI, complete with verse and a tango interlude.  Why should Wingy Manone have had all the fun?  I’d call the rideout chorus here “hot Chicago jazz,” even though the session took place in San Mateo, California:

A soulful reading of MY IDEAL:

ROSETTA, energetically:

And (to close things off on the right note) a rendition of SQUEEZE ME which made me think of its origins as THE BOY IN THE BOAT, a naughty anatomical ditty.

What I recall of the lyrics is something like this: “Oh, the boy, the boy in the boat.  He don’t wear no hat or no coat.  He don’t have no house.  He don’t have no shoes.  He don’t care nothing ’bout those weary blues.”  Full text and subtext gratefully accepted, even though this is a family blog. 

Jeff’s idiosyncratic mixture of Hines, Sullivan, and Hamilton is truly wonderful:

Thanks, Alisa, for throwing this little bash — how very gracious of you!

CELEBRATING “MISS LIL” on RIVERWALK (March 4, 2010 – )

During the week of March 4, 2010, the “Riverwalk” jazz program — featuring Jim Cullum’s Jazz Band and perhaps a guest or two — will be honoring Lillian Hardin Armstrong, someone who deserves attention even when it’s not Women’s History Month. 

Lillian Hardin Armstrong was known as “Miss Lil” to her fellow musicians in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.  On 1945 record labels, she was heralded as “Lil ‘Brown Gal’ Armstrong” — not an offensive racial reference, but a reminder of one of her hit tunes.  But most people know her as one of the earliest (and perhaps most successful) women in jazz and as Louis Armstrong’s second wife and co-composer. 

It’s easy to dismiss Lil Hardin Armstrong as an improviser.  In early recordings, one hears her piano as competent at best: a steady but hardly swinging approach to the music.  Correct and emphatic but not terribly inventive.  And it is ungracious but inevitable to imagine how much more the Hot Five might have swung had Teddy Weatherford or Cassino Simpson or Earl Hines been the pianist. 

But she was one of those musicians we cherish because she improved — by the Thirties, her Decca recordings (now almost impossible to find) show an ebullient vocal personality.  Her compositions were cheerful swing material, and at least one of them — JUST FOR A THRILL — is wonderfully moving.  She knew enough to surround herself with the best players of the period, Chu Berry and Joe Thomas among them.  And she had learned a good deal about playing swing piano — if you compare her recordings from 1926 and a decade later, it’s clear that she had travelled a long distance, not only in concept, but in Hot execution.

But we celebrate her for more personal reasons.  Many married men roll their eyes when they discuss the power that their wives hold in the household and beyond.  “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” Rumpole of the Bailey calls his Hilda.  “The Power Behind The Throne,” says another.  “I’ve got to call home and get my marching orders,” said one of my professors in college, years ago — with some vestige of affectionate resignation.

And Louis Armstrong’s bandmates called him “Hennie,” short for “hen-pecked.”  So Miss Lil, by her own account, was a woman who would say, “Do it this way or I won’t stick around a moment longer.”  She told Louis that she wasn’t going to stay married to a second-trumpet player, and that he had better play first, lead the band. 

But her way — she was ambitious for her husband in ways that he wasn’t — benefitted both Louis and the course of the music.  He would have been more than content to play a supportive role to his musical father, Joe Oliver, for a long time.  But Lil saw what was happening: that Joe was keeping Louis down so that Joe wouldn’t be outshone by the younger man.  She directed Louis’s career until he was a star.  So we owe her thanks for being so — overbearing.  And Louis, late in life, although he was ungenerous about her skills as a pianist and improviser, thanked his pushy wife for aiming him in the directions his talent said he should go.

So when the Riverwalk series (given over to the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and illustrious guest stars) devotes a program to Miss Lil, with the subtitle, “Behind Every Great Man,” it has real validity.  And fine jazz.  The program wil air the week of March 4, 2010 — and, as an extra bonus, the Riverwalk people have included audio clips of Lillian Hardin Armstrong telling her own story. 

Here’s the link where you can find out more AND hear Lil herself reminisce: http://www.riverwalkjazz.org/jazznotes/behind_every_man/

And I’m sure that the Cullum band will do justice to STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE (which I’ve heard was originally a pretty waltz by Lil before Louis changed the tempo) as well as JUST FOR A THRILL and other delights.   

P.S.  If you want to learn more about Miss Lil after you’ve heard the Riverwalk tribute, be sure to visit Chris Albertson’s blog — not only did he record her with a great romping Chicago double-sized band, but he’s also published long sections of her typed autobiography, fascinating stuff.  The first section is http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2009/09/louis-lil-and-little-gangster.html; others follow.

MR. LEYLAND CONSENTS!

Thanks to Tom Warner, generous videographer, you and I can revel in the solo piano of Carl Sonny Leyland.  Here he is here levitating ‘DEED I DO at the 2009 West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento, California. 

Mr. Leyland would not be insulted, I am sure, if I mention the now-departed pianists his rollicking playing reminded me of: how about Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Cassino Simpson, Pete Johnson, Bob Zurke — listen to him and he provides a ticket to a wondrous piano party.  Hooray!  And I’ve added his website — www.carlsonnyleyland.com. — to my blogroll.  Visit early and often.