Tag Archives: Cassino Simpson

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 19, 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.