Tag Archives: Charles LaVere

“SINCERELY”: LOUIS ARMSTRONG: THE DECCA SINGLES 1949-1958

its-all-in-the-game-louis

Slowly, slowly, our awareness of Louis Armstrong spreads and deepens.  Of course, someone out there is still saying that everything after POTATO HEAD BLUES was a colossal misstep.  And somewhere, another gently misguided soul is suggesting that “Louis Armstrong was the worst thing that ever happened to traditional jazz,” which is a direct quotation and one that tried my peaceful nature to the breaking point.

But many people understand or have come to understand — to feel — that whatever Louis touched, he made beautiful.  So I write what I believe: that the recordings newly issued by Universal, annotated by our own local hero, Ricky Riccardi, are some of Louis’ greatest.  They are masterpieces of technique, drama, and above all, emotion.  And if I hear whimpers, “But they’re commercial!  The songs are so beneath him,” I will call Security to clear the room.

Here is the official link to the Universal Records issue — 95 songs, available through Apple here for download.  No, they aren’t going to be issued on CD. Downloads, like love, are here to stay — so ask a niece or nephew to assist you. And if the idea of intangible music — sounds without a tangible disc, shellac, vinyl, or plastic, is odd and threatening, think of downloading as new-fangled radio.

However, there are characteristically wise and rewarding liner notes by Mister Riccardi, about fifty thousand words, so knock yourself out here.  I believe that the cost for the whole package is $44.95 and individual tracks are priced at $1.29, which is not prohibitive.  As we have gotten used to cheap food in the last forty or fifty years, we also expect music to be free.  Silliness and selfishness, but that’s another blogpost.  This one is to celebrate Louis.

louis-armstrong-decca-singles

I listened to all ninety-five sides recently, and I am floating.

45-record-case-better

I grew up with some of these recordings —  Louis and Gordon Jenkins, especially — so they are very tender artifacts to me.  I came to Louis slightly later than the time period of this set: I think I bought my first record in 1963, although the experience of buying individual 45 rpm discs in paper sleeves is a part of my childhood.  Department stores had record departments, as did the “five and dime” stores, Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, W.T. Grant, so hanging out there was a real part of my childhood and adolescence.  Of course, I separated myself from my peers early, but that is not something I lament.  In the Sixties and Seventies, Decca collected many of these sides on 12″ lps — SATCHMO IN STYLE, SATCHMO SERENADES, and the like.  This is to say that perhaps ten of the ninety-five sides were new to me, but the music is astonishing throughout.

Several aspects of this set are powerful to me and will be to you.  One is the trumpet playing. Louis’ unrivaled ability to make a “straight” melody come alive — “tonation and phrasing,” he called it — shines through every track.  Listeners who only see brass instruments in the hands of people who have spent the requisite ten thousand hours may not know how difficult what he does, casually, from track to track.  Ask a trumpet player how easy it would be to reproduce four bars of Louis.  I think you will be startled by the answer.  I know people rightly hold up his recordings of the Twenties and Thirties as examples of astonishing grace and power — and they are — but his trumpet playing in 1949-1958 is awe-inspiring, his huge sound captured beautifully by Decca’s engineers.

(And for those who worry about the “jazz quotient,” Louis is so strongly evident throughout that this should be enough — but one also hears from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Billy Kyle, Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Butterfield, Allan Reuss, Charles LaVere . . . )

Another pleasure is the alchemy Louis works on the material.  For those who are appalled by, let us say, YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART or SKOKIAAN, I ask them to take a deep breath and evaluate the lyric and melodic quality of, perhaps, THAT’S WHEN I’LL COME BACK TO YOU before criticizing the “pop” material. And if a record of WINTER WONDERLAND brought people to hear and warm to Louis, then the large reach into popular songs — nothing new — that Jack Kapp and Milt Gabler did is a very good thing.

The final thing that kept revealing itself, over and over, was Louis’ deep innate romanticism, his delight in singing and playing about love — hopeless love, disappointed love, fulfilled love — all the shadings from bleak to ecstatic.  Even those people who admire Louis as I do have not always given him credit as a great poet of love, vocally and instrumentally.  His dramatic sense is peerless on these records.

If you feel as I do, perhaps I am overstating the obvious.  But if you don’t, I ask you to listen to this:

and this, which to me has some of the emotional power of Billie’s Commodore ballads:

and this tender hymn, which I’ve loved for decades:

I know that 2016 has been a dazzling year for reissues and issues of material never heard before — consider several new Mosaic sets and the two volumes of material from the Savory collection — but this music is extraordinary: you can’t afford to miss these dreams.

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

“WITH A SWEET BOUQUET”: VARIATIONS ON A LOVE-THEME

A fairly well-known (now obscure?) pop song from 1951 is the text for my mellow sermon for today:

its-all-in-the-game-tommy-edwards

This ten-inch Decca recording — more than fifty years old now — which I guard tenderly — is the music of my childhood that has never disappointed me.

LOUIS and JENKINS

Another issue:

LOUIS and JENKINS one

And just because the photograph of Louis and Gordon turned up on eBay ( I know nothing about the  photograph below it) here it is once again:

LOUIS and JENKINS two

Since my dear friend Ricky Riccardi is in New Orleans for the 2015 Satchmo Summerfest, I asked his permission and checked with his legal staff and was allowed a one-time exception to create a Riccardi-style posting which, of course, is not up to his standards . . . but he’s about half my age.  More energy.

Let’s begin where it all began — Charles G. Dawes’ MELODY [or sometimes, MELODY IN A].  Dawes is the most unlikely composer I can think of, a Brigadier General who had taught himself piano and composition, a banker who became  Calvin Coolidge’s Vice President, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925.  Dawes lived a long time — 1865-1951, and wrote this piece in 1911.  Here is a 1924 recording with Fritz Kreisler, violin; Carl Lamson, piano:

The opening phrase — a simple ascent and descent — is what we call a hook now, although that phrase wouldn’t have applied in 1911.  It’s in 6/8, and it seems as far as one could get from a danceable pop tune in 1924 and later.  But wait.

In 1940, Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra recorded LET ME DREAM, “adapted” from Dawes — I don’t think the melodic emendations are improvements, and I note that on the Decca label no lyricist is listed.  Bob Eberly sings it pleasantly enough, but the lyricist may have wanted to remain anonymous:

Two years later — perhaps as part of the famous Dorsey rivalry, perhaps in an attempt to find non-ASCAP material — brother Tommy recorded what I consider the first truly beautiful “modern” version, on a Red Seal Victor label which meant it was (loosely) a classical recording:

I don’t know who did the string arrangement, but it is dreamily beautiful even before Tommy enters.  And the trombonists in the audience (along with the rest of us) can marvel at Tommy’s tone and range.

I can’t find other recordings of this beautiful melody, but in 1951 Carl Sigman wrote lyrics for it and changed its name to IT’S ALL IN THE GAME.  Whether he modified the high notes or an arranger did — somewhere — I can’t say.  But this is the composition and performance I grew up with: Louis and Gordon Jenkins. Note: some listeners find the pairing of these two great artists unsatisfying; others make light of Jenkins’ sound, vocal and string arrangements.  I won’t have it.  If you want to write dismissively of this side, please refrain and come back tomorrow.

Incidentally, the personnel here is more than respectable in jazz players per inch, in addition to Louis and Gordon: Charles Giffard [misspelled as Gifford in all reference works: see below], George Thow, Bruce Hudson, trumpet; Eddie Miller, Dent Eckels, tenor saxophone; Charles LaVere, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Phil Stephens, string bass; Nick Fatool, drums . . . plus strings.

What you’ll hear is not just a 1951 pop tune orchestrated for jazz singer, small jazz band, and strings.  It has a compositional density — Jenkins thought orchestrally, his work a beautiful offering of contrasts and similarities — and the listener who is attentive will hear beautiful sounds.  I know: I’ve been listening to this record since perhaps 1959.  I’m never bored with this 3:22 concerto.

I don’t know if the “new” IT’S ALL IN THE GAME has a verse or an elaborate introduction, so I am assuming that this one is Gordon’s creation.  And what an oddly ominous one it is: the first fourteen seconds a variation on the ascending figure with accents from orchestra bells.  It sounds to me as if a funeral is approaching, or (perhaps) a variation on the verse to WHEN DAY IS DONE — both unusual ways to approach a song that is ultimately redemptive.  Sigman’s lyrics are not about death, but a beautiful escape from emotional death: the lovers have had a serious spat and all is / can be repaired — so that the end is a love-ecstasy.  And the singer — in this case Louis — is beautifully asked to play the part of a gentle wise elder, counseling the young lover who is tearfully despondent: “It’s going to be all right.  You just wait.  I know,” which is advice all of us have needed at some time.

The minor mood gets slightly brighter when the strings enter, the top end of the violin section quite high, with beautiful shifting harmonies underneath — the most glorious waltz one could imagine.

Then, about a minute and a quarter in, one hears the jazz ensemble start to underpin the whole beautiful enterprise — the shift to 4 / 4 made clear by the addition of the rhythm section — and the horns and reeds create a simple echoing descending figure to change the key.  But before we can take this in for long, Louis enters at 1:30.  (Notice, please, that the recording is nearly half over before its Star comes on — which suggests that Gordon knew that Louis deserved the most wondrous buildup.)

The vocal is just sublime.  All the people who dismissed Louis as a romantic singer, someone who made nonsense of words, “gravel in his throat,” might do well to listen to this.  The horns play simple figures behind him and the rhythm section of LaVere, Reuss, Stephens, and Fatool — the best imaginable on the West Coast at that date) rock softly and with conviction.  And Louis treats the simple words with the utmost respect.  And close listeners well-versed in the Gospel of Louis will of course notice that Gordon’s figures are evocative of Armstrong licks.  (A liner note writer for a CD issue of this material whose name I am choosing to ignore called this practice “blatant,” not understanding that it was both an in-joke and an expression of the deepest reverence: surrounding Louis with Louis, amen.)

The strings come in when the lyrics describe having “words with him” — interesting that the singer is speaking to an unhappy young woman.  Singers, please pay attention to the rubato within “And your future’s looking dim!” — the phrasing there is worth a whole Jazz Studies degree.  And, happily, after Louis sings “above,” the strings play — written — one of Louis’ most famous scat figures.  I can’t imagine that Louis wasn’t dee-lighted to hear that.

A looser, warmer vocal conclusion follows, ending in “And your heart will fly away,” ending in a scat passage that is like a caress, like someone’s dear hand making the grief go away.

When I hear this recording, I have tears in my eyes, but they are tears of joy. Recovery is possible.

I didn’t know where in this post to place the more famous (how could this be?) recording of the song — by Tommy Edwards in 1958.  It was an immense hit and sold three million copies.  I think it is a descent from the heights, singer and orchestra, but you are welcome to enjoy it.  Quietly, please.  Use your earbuds:

If you want to understand the majesty of Louis and the gracious warm world that Gordon Jenkins created, though, go back to the penultimate version.

I will close with a little anecdote.  In graduate school, one of my professors was Dr. Spencer — a tall woman who had been born in the UK and had retained a crisp manner of speaking.  We were discussing some nineteenth-century love poem, and she said, “There was a hit pop song some years back called IT’S ALL IN THE GAME, and it referred to “the wonderful game that we know as love.” Taking her glasses off and looking at one impish and weary, she said, “Of course, love is a game.  But you must be sure you know the rules of it, and always bring the right equipment.”  Then she said, “I will see you on Thursday.”  I’ve never forgotten that.

Postscript: one of the many wonderful things about having this blog is the people who write in — not to criticize, but to add information that is true and little-known.  I bless Michael Sigman, son of lyricist Carl Sigman, for sending me this beautiful information about the song:

The most interesting story-behind-a-song saga in Carl’s career began with a phone call from a publisher. For years Carl had thought about writing a lyric for a tune he remembered from his classical training. “The Dawes Melody,” or “Melody In A Major,” was a classical violin and orchestra piece composed in 1911 by none other than Charles G. Dawes, later Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge.

Dawes composed the piece in a single piano sitting. “It’s just a tune that I got in my head, so I set it down,” he told an interviewer. He played it for a friend, the violinist Francis MacMillan, who liked it enough to show it to a publisher, and Dawes was officially a composer. The tune garnered some popularity when Jascha Heifetz used it for a time as a light concert encore.

Early in 1951, Carl decided to try and write a lyric to the theme, believing that it was in the public domain, as free of complications as an old Mozart melody. He knew the two-octave range would be a problem, but figured he could fool around with the melody, take out the high notes and make it more singable.

By sheer coincidence, Warner Brothers publishing exec Mac Goldman called one day to ask Carl to consider writing a lyric to “The Dawes Melody,” the copyright for which, it turned out, was owned by Warners.

Once Carl recovered from the news that the song was in fact already copyrighted, he rejiggered the tune and realized that a phrase from another song he was working on, a conversational phrase he’d plucked from the vernacular, was perfect for this tune. Once he plugged that title into its proper place, the lyrics to “It’s All In The Game,” to quote Carl, “wrote themselves.”

It’s All In The Game

Many a tear has to fall but it’s all in the game
All in the wonderful game that we know as love

You have words with him and your future’s looking dim
But these things your hearts can rise above

Once in a while he won’t call but it’s all in the game
Soon he’ll be there at your side with a sweet bouquet
And he’ll kiss your lips and caress your waiting fingertips
And your hearts will fly away

Carl also wrote this never-recorded intro, to be sung prior to “Many a tear…”

Where love’s concerned
At times you’ll think your world has overturned
But if he’s yours, and if you’re his
Remember this…

Unfortunately, the Vice President never got to hear the lyric. On the day Carl handed in the finished assignment, Dawes died of a heart attack, prompting Mac Goldman to quip, “Your lyric must have killed him.”

“It’s All In The Game” found its way to prominence in a prototypic version, in waltz time, by Tommy Edwards. That record made the top twenty in late 1951, and the song was quickly covered by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dinah Shore and Sammy Kaye. Seven years later, Edwards, still recording for the MGM label, re-cut the song in the contemporary 4/4 tempo doo-wop mode, and it became one of the biggest hits of the fifties, staying in the top 10 for twelve weeks, six of them at #1.

During the summer of ’58, when “It’s All In The Game” was battling it out for the top spot with another classic, Domenico Modugno’s “Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu),” I was a nine-year old attending Kings Point Country Day Camp. As I changed into my baseball uniform in the locker room every day, I’d burst with pleasure when the radio played our song, and “boo” whenever “Volare” came on.

May your happiness increase!

“JUST IMAGINE: CLASSIC JAZZ AT CLASSIC PIANOS”: REBECCA KILGORE, DAN BARRETT, PAOLO ALDERIGHI

Stampa

I am very happy to announce a new CD by the Rebecca Kilgore Trio (Rebecca, vocal and rhythm guitar; Dan Barrett, trombone, piano, arrangements; Paolo Alderighi, piano) — on Blue Swing Fine Recordings 014.  Recorded at the end of 2013 in Portland, Oregon, it’s called CLASSIC JAZZ AT CLASSIC PIANOS, the latter half of that title referring to the congenial place where the Trio performed and where the disc was masterfully recorded by Randy Porter.  Click here to hear samples.

It’s a delicious session, with Rebecca singing (and playing rhythm guitar on a track or two), Dan on trombone, piano, and providing arrangements, Paolo holding everything together on piano for these selections: OH, LOOK AT ME NOW / DADDY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? / JUST A LITTLE BIT SOUTH OF NORTH CAROLINA / SONG OF THE BLUES / JUST IMAGINE / THIS IS MY LUCKY DAY / ALMOST IN YOUR ARMS / I’M IN A LOWDOWN GROOVE / I’M RHYTHM CRAZY NOW / THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN / CRY ME A RIVER / SERENADE TO SWEDEN / SOFT WINDS / MIS’RY AND THE BLUES.  Connoisseurs of Song will note the wonderfully varied repertoire, with loving connections to Billie Holiday, Sammy Cahn, Jack Teagarden, Charles LaVere, Annette Hanshaw, Jean Goldkette, Joe Bushkin, Frank Sinatra, Lester Young, Anita O’Day, Sophia Loren, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Julie London, Jim Goodwin, Duke Ellington and more, but this isn’t a history lesson.  Rather it is fresh buoyant Music — a rare commodity.

I was doubly privileged to be at the recording session and to be asked to write something for the CD, which also has notes by Dan and Becky. Here’s what I wrote:

More often than not, jazz is asked to blossom forth in inhospitable places: the noisy club where musicians must compete with the bartender’s blender, or the recording studio, a maze of headphones and wires. Imagine a quiet room, shaded as if an Edward Hopper nightscape, with three musicians, two grand pianos, the only other people a recording engineer, himself a musician; another man taking notes. It was no fantasy, for this all happened during two December 2013 sessions in Portland, Oregon, in a back room at CLASSIC PIANOS, where three friends gathered for warm, intimate musical conversations in the name of classic jazz.

Becky, Dan, and Paolo believe that music, created on the spot, can bring joy in the moment and renew us in the future. They gave each of the songs they had chosen its own life, reflective or ebullient: the poignancy of DADDY, the bounce of CAROLINA, the swagger of RHYTHM CRAZY, the romance of COINS, the melancholy of MIS’RY AND THE BLUES. Many of the songs have associations with Annette Hanshaw, Anita O’Day, Jack Teagarden, Julie London, Billie Holiday, Ellington, Charlie Christian, Trummy Young, Sophia Loren, Joe Bushkin, Lee Wiley, Fletcher Henderson. But these sessions were no “tribute,” no “repertory” re-creation, for the musicians brought their own personalities to this project, adding new melodies to the ones we know.

When Becky sings, we hear a gently compelling honesty. Yes, we admire the way she glides from note to note, the creamy naturalness of her voice, the way her smallest melodic embellishments enhance the song, her infallible swing. But what sets her apart is her quiet determination to share the song’s emotional message candidly, fully. Becky doesn’t overstate or dramatize. She doesn’t place herself in front of the material, but she opens the song for us, so that we feel what its creators hoped for.

Hearing Dan, I think, “That is how any creative player should sound: forthright, assured, subtle, inventive.” Like a great musical conversationalist, he always knows the right epigram to add at the right time. I can guess what some other musicians might play in their next phrase, but Dan’s imagination is larger and more rewarding than we expect. His reading of a melody is a joy; his improvisations are witty, pungent. The trombone can be a buffoon or a bully; in his hands it can be divinely inspired, even when Dan’s aural messages are earthy indeed.

Becky and Dan could float or soar all by themselves, and they’ve proved that many times in concert and on recordings since they first met in 1994. CRY ME A RIVER on this disc, majestic and mournful, is proof. But recently they have called in an Italian sorcerer, Paolo Alderighi, who generously spreads rich sound-weavings, Garneresque threads glittering – lovely orchestral tapestries, neither formulaic nor overemphatic. His solos gleam and chime.

In duet, Dan and Paolo are a model of creative conversation in jazz – empathic, intuitive, concise yet fervent. And when they sat down at the two pianos to accompany Becky for MIS’RY AND THE BLUES their contrasting textures were a delight. Completely original, too – neither Evans and Brookmeyer nor Ferrante and Teicher, but splendidly themselves.

What we call The Great American Songbook sometimes weaves helplessly towards songs that, if their lyrics were actual speech, would be legal documentation of domestic abuse, self-inflicted destruction. Over time, Becky has turned away from these famous masochistic outcries. But this disc shows her playing bravely in the dark, getting in a lowdown groove, calling out to an absent lover, creating rueful and vengeful tears. This isn’t a major life-shift in all things Kilgore, but a willingness to expand her repertoire into classic songs based on real life-experiences. She is having a good time being so sad for a few minutes: like Basie, she keeps the blues at bay by playing them. Or it might be her own particular jazz homeopathy practice, where dark cures dark.

These sessions produced lasting music, the rare kind that emerges from a devotion to the art. What a gift to us all!

JUST IMAGINE is now available here.  You can also purchase copies directly from Becky, Dan, or Paolo at their gigs — the most personal way to do it.  I’ve seen them with Sharpies after a session, so going home with an autographed copy is a real possibility.

I understand that JAZZ LIVES readers sometimes skip the text and look for the tasty music video. In this case, the sound that Randy Porter recorded of Rebecca’s floating voice was so lovely that it would do everyone a disservice to post one of my session videos.  But I think I will be forgiven if I post Dan and Paolo’s memorably dark and lovely SERENADE TO SWEDEN as a musical appetizer.  Thanks to Randy, it sounds even more glorious on the CD:

Intimate, refreshing, and warm music.

May your happiness increase! 

THE POET, GRIPPED BY PURE LOVE, EARNESTLY STATES THAT HE WOULD RATHER HAVE THE COMPANY OF THE BELOVED THAN ANY OTHER PERSON, EVEN ONE OF GREATER WEALTH AND FAME, AND THESE WORDS ARE ACCOMPANIED BY A PLEASING AIR

What follows is the Official JAZZ LIVES Love Song.  It captures my feelings exactly and deeply, and the music that accompanies it is perfectly delightful.

The song is I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU — composed by Harry Akst, Lew Brown, and Elsa Maxwell for a night club “revue” for the Casino de Paree.  (I have read that the New York club Studio 54 occupied the same space, decades later.)

My guess about the composition of this song is that Akst created the melody, Brown the lyrics, and that they called on Ms. Maxwell for the details of Society that would make it authentic.  (I can invent the dialogue for their meeting, and I am sure you can also.)  I’ve not seen the film nor a copy of the sheet music, but the song was recorded in Chicago by Charles LaVere and his Chicagoans, and we have the performance I love through a series of nearly miraculous kindnesses.

The jazz connoisseur Helen Oakley Dance arranged for this racially mixed band — not yet accepted as the norm — to record for the nearly-dead OKeh label, and the records were not issued at the time.  (Thanks to hal Smith for this detail.)

Some thirty years later, Columbia Records was cleaning house and someone decided to dispose of a number of unlabeled one-sided vinyl test pressings.  Helene Chmura, blessed be her name, asked collector Dan Mahony if he wanted them before they were thrown away; he agreed, and among them were the seven sides from the LaVere sessions of March 11 and April 5, 1935 — this performance comes from the latter.  I read that these were “test-only” performances, which means that they were the Thirties equivalent of audition “demo” recordings.  Given the circumstances, we are so lucky — beyond lucky — to have them.  (Mahony passed them on to the fine UK collector and gentleman Bert Whyatt; the discs now are held by Charles LaVere’s son Stephen.)

Before I write more, you should hear the music.  The video below was created by the exceedingly talented Chris Tyle (cornet, clarinet, drums, vocal, jazz scholar, bandleader, archivist, writer . . . . ) as a special commission for JAZZ LIVES.  Alec Wilder would have called the song “notey,” and deplored the repeated notes; I am amused by the way the lines spin out to accommodate the lengthy lyrics . . . but it goes right to my heart.

The musicians are Charles LaVere, vocal (and possibly trumpet); Johnny Mendell and Marty Marsala, trumpets; Joe Marsala, clarinet / alto; Joe Masek, tenor; Boyce Brown, alto; Preston Jackson, trombone; Jess Stacy, piano; Joe Young, guitar; Israel Crosby, bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.  That’s some band.

I find the lyrics particularly charming.  Of course the notion that “I like you a lot” is a familiar refrain in love songs.  “I like pie, I like cake, I like you best of all,” another.  “It all depends on you” and “I wanna go where you go — then I’ll be happy,” other variations.  But this song, where the singer says “I prefer your company to that of famous members of the upper class who would offer me unique experiences so far beyond the ordinary,” is offering a special kind of love-bouquet.  And it is witty and sweet that the singer doesn’t say, “Mrs. Astor wanted to sleep with me but I told her NO because I like you better.”  No, the lyrics advance a series of whimsical rhetorical possibilities — which must have been especially striking in the Depression: IF Mrs. Vanderbilt invited me to dine . . . and I think we are expected to know that this is a dream rather than a real invitation, and that the singer and the Beloved do operate in the world of the shared hot dog at Coney Island.

But love often is charmingly hyperbolic, and the singer insists, “My preference for you, my fidelity to you, is not a simple matter of preferring you more than your real peers.  I’d rather be with you than with anyone else, no matter how rare and glittering the experience anyone else could offer.”  That, to me, makes it a deep and authentic — even while whimsical — offer of love.

And the music!  It might be too much for some when I say I love every note of this performance, but it’s true — from the repeated vamp capped with a Zutty accent (sounds like his pal Sidney) into Boyce’s melody statement, so sweet yet never sentimental, with that rhythm section, Stacy bubbling, beneath.  Marty Marsala takes the bridge in an impassioned way, with the saxophones playing a written figure to emphasize his statement; a break from Boyce leads into an even more beautiful exposition of the melody.  (If anyone doubts that Boyce was a remarkable player, soulful and precise, let the skeptic listen to that chorus a few times.  It stands alongside the best alto playing I know.)

This — eighty seconds — is a fully satisfying musical offering.  But there’s more.  After an interlude concluded by Zutty and a two-note phrase from Preston Jackson, Charles LaVere begins to sing.  (Is it Marsala or  Mandell echoing and improvising around and under him?)  His diction is refined; he is offering us the story in the clearest way.  But the vibrato-laden way in which he ends phrases is both intense and heartfelt; his reading of “be” in the song’s title is so touching.  We know he cares!  On a second or third listening, we can honor Jess Stacy, stealing the show yet again.  Tenorist Joe Masek brings out his best early-Thirties Hawkins, and one of the musicians (or a studio onlooker) lets out a fervent yell of approval at 2:37.  I agree with the anonymous emoter.  And the final eight bars are a full-band ensemble, both tender and rocking, driven on by embellishments from Preston Jackson and Zutty’s cymbal.

It’s the combination — witty lyrics without a hint of satire, delivered with the utmost feeling over a hot jazz background — that does it for me.

(In this century, James Dapogny urged Marty Grosz to record the song — which he did, splendidly, on an Arbors CD called MARTY GROSZ AND HIS HOT COMBINATION.)

I send this to performance and video to my Beloved, who has already heard and felt the song.

I encourage you to send it to your Beloved.

If you don’t have a Beloved at the moment and would like one, play this over and over until the music and the lyrics are brilliantly resonant in your head, then hum and sing it under your breath as you go through your day.  It will, I am sure, attract the love of your life to you.

May your happiness increase.

BOYCE BROWN, METAPHYSICIAN

Dave Dexter, Jr., wrote in THE JAZZ STORY (1964):

The morning after my first interview with Brown, in 1939 in Chicago, his father arrived at Down Beat‘s old Dearborn Street offices with a glossy 8 x 10 photograph of an alto saxophone, lying in its case without a mouthpiece and flanked on both sides by lighted candles.  Boyce had typed on the attractive folder in which the macabre photograph was mounted:

AGNES                         LYING IN STATE                         1928-1939

And on the inside of the folder to the left, he had pasted this mimeographed requiem and signed it with his first name only:

HER VOICE now is mute. 

While life was breathed into Her, She revealed to me in audible measures many of my faults, and delicately intimate moods found expression through Her being;

Though She was wholly mine, I was never Her master — quite.  Having fully enjoyed the completeness of her unquestioning service, it is with no great sense of sorrow that I lay Her away;

As into the beautiful silence that precedes the touch of the Great Master.

(In Dexter’s interview, Boyce told him of his disappointment with his playing on an unreleased 1935 Charles LaVere session: “They were not good performances.  I failed to communicate with Agnes, but it was my fault, not hers.”)

PIECES OF OUR PAST (August 2011)

Wordsworth was correct when he wrote that in “getting and spending” we “lay waste our powers.”  I live not too far from a large shopping mall, and visit it only when other ways to buy something necessary are worse.  But certain kinds of “getting” and “spending” aren’t so bad: when the purchases uplift the spirits and don’t cost much.  Exhibits below.  First, sheet music from a Vallejo, California antique shop.

I was motivated to buy this 1926 laff-riot because of the title and the line drawing — I sympathize with that fellow, even though I haven’t worn a three-piece suit in years.  However, instead of being a comic ditty about table manners, it is more literal — X does all the work but Y, who doesn’t, gets all the credit.  And it must have been a smash in vaudeville, for the inside front cover contains 24 knock-em-dead versions of the chorus.  I will spare you.  And if the name “Larry Shay” looks familiar, he was in part responsible for WHEN YOU’RE SMILING.

A much more seriously valuable song: I can hear Billie singing it or Ed Hall playing it.  The most touching part of this sheet music is the inscription of ownership on top — I don’t know if it’s entirely visible, but this copy was the property of WOODY’S DANCE DEMONS.  I looked them up on Google and didn’t find anything, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t play well in 1929 or 1930.

This song is deeply unimaginative, but I thought that if the Benson Orchestra had played it and its composer had written OKLAHOMA INDIAN JAZZ, it might have some merit.  We live in hope.

I wouldn’t call this a memorable Berlin tune (I suspect it was meant as a frisky dance number) but it does contain the lines, “Let me mingle with a peppy jingle / That the jazz bands love to play,” which is certainly hip for 1922.

I heard Rosy McHargue sing this on a Stomp Off recording (he must have been in his middle eighties) and thought it was hilarious.  Also, isn’t that the most thoroughly anthropomorphized dog face you’ve ever seen?  Now for several artifacts that are more fragile, heavier, and harder to pack — but no less irresistible.

Although I can’t imagine Eddie Condon with a novel in front of him, he admired John Steinbeck and was very proud that they were friends.  Steinbeck loved the music that Eddie and the boys created, with only one caveat: he kept asking Eddie to take up the banjo again, an offer Eddie steadfastly pushed aside.  This 12″ 78 cost more than fifty cents when it was new, and the band is flawless.

Also (not pictured, but you can imagine):

another Commodore 12″ of OH, KATHARINA and BASIN STREET BLUES; a Blue Note Jazzmen 12″ of WHO’S SORRY NOW (no question mark) and BALLIN’ THE JACK.  Moving into the microgroove era, I proudly snapped up a Collectors’ Classics lp of the Red Allen Vocalions 1934-5 (with the exultant ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON), Ray Skjelbred’s first solo session for Berkeley Rhythm Records, from 1973-4 (signed by the artist), and the JUMP compilation of (Charles) LaVere’s Chicago Loopers, with Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti, Nick Fatool, and other stalwarts.

BLUES FOR BOYCE

Boyce Brown (1910-1959) is a tantalizing, elusive figure.  Although he played hot jazz with the great Chicagoans, he was not one of them — hard-living and hard-drinking.  The picture above shows him in 1956, surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Eddie Condon, and George Wettling, at his final recording session.

Scott Yanow calls Boyce “eccentric,” “outlandish,” “an erratic individual,” although those characterizations sound ungenerous.  I think of the famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s THE FAMILY REUNION, “In a world of fugitives, it is those that turn away that appear to run away.”

In the case of Boyce Brown, it is difficult to know if he chose to turn away from the world of musicians and gigs for the world of the spirit, or if the earthly world scorned him.  All we know are the facts of his short life.  He became a professional musician at 17 and recorded with some of the greatest Hot players — but his path was an unusual one outside the clubs and recording studios.

Boyce loved marijuana and what it could do, but it didn’t contribute to his death.  He didn’t die of tuberculosis or freeze on a Harlem doorstep, but prejudice and sorrow seem to have shortened his life.  He is certainly underrated and not well-known or well-remembered.  I agree with Jim Denham (of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST) who thinks that Boyce should be both remembered and celebrated.  And although I’ve never met Jeff Crompton (of HELLO THERE, UNIVERSE) I and other jazz fans are indebted to him for his generosities.  (You can find the blogs written by Jim and Jeff on my blogroll.)

What facts I have collected seem at first an assortment of weird personality traits, but viewed lovingly, they are the markings of a rare bird.

Boyce was someone who “saw” musical notes as colors.  He nearly died at birth; the midwife saved him by reshaping his unformed skull.  His parents encouraged him to take up the saxophone in hopes that it would strengthen his weak chest.  When he played, he had a habit of stretching his neck out like a bird — causing him to be rejected at an audition for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

Eddie Condon said Boyce was “a slow reader,” Condon-speak for partial blindness.  Boyce lived with his mother, wrote poetry, listened to Delius.  Condon’s SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ contains Boyce’s whimsical poem about ROYAL-T (slang for the best marijuana), hilarious and tenderly decorated by Boyce himself — a Hot illuminated manuscript.

He named his alto saxophone Agnes, and thought deeply about her personality and moods; if a recording disappointed him, he blamed himself for not being in harmony with his instrument.  All of this might seem freakish on first perusal, but other musicians have spoken of their synesthesia (Marian McPartland, whom no one considers an eccentric, told Whitney Balliett that the key of D was daffodil yellow), and Ben Webster, hardly an introvert, called his saxophone Betsy or Ol’ Betsy.

But before we get caught up in the debris of habit and personal history, let us — as Al Smith used to say — look at the record.  Or listen.  Two, in fact, from 1939: CHINA BOY and JAZZ ME BLUES:

Boyce sounds like himself.  Those rolling, tumbling figures are the playing of a man on a mission, someone with a message for us in the eight or sixteen bars allotted him.

The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing his volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker.  I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat.  More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis and Frank Teschemacher.  Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”

(Boyce’s descendants in this century might be Michael McQuaid and John “Butch” Smith — players who know that the alto saxophone needs a great deal of punch to keep it from sounding like a polite older relative.)

Here is a link to Jeff Crompton’s excellent, generous survey of Boyce’s life — where he shares with us a rare disc, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, where Boyce and Wild Bill Davison are the front line:

http://jeffcrompton.blogspot.com/2010/05/brother-matthew.html

The Boyce Brown discography is brief — his recordings could fit on three compact discs — but it is choice.  His better-known associates surely valued the reticent altoist.

I apologize for the onslaught of data, but in trying to explain something about Boyce Brown, the details of his recording sessions are valuable when we have so little else.  As far as I can tell, no one interviewed him during his playing career, and the press coverage he received at the end of his life emphasized (however gently) his uniqueness: the lady preacher with an alto saxophone.

Boyce was first recorded as a member of a working band, Paul Mares And His Friars Society Orchestra (a John Hammond idea?) : Paul Mares (tp) Santo Pecora (tb) Omer Simeon (cl) Boyce Brown (as) Jess Stacy (p) Marvin Saxbe (g) Pat Pattison (b) George Wettling (d).  One session, the results unissued in the 78 era, took place on January 7, 1935.  (The music came out on Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society # 6, twenty years or so after Boyce’s death.)  The same four songs were re-recorded on January 26, and were issued on two OKeh 78s that I imagine were quite hard to find even in 1935: NAGASAKI, REINCARNATION, MAPLE LEAF RAG, THE LAND OF DREAMS (the last based on BASIN STREET BLUES).  These four (and a MAPLE LEAF RAG from the first date) have been issued on the 2-CD Retrieval set of the complete New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  Theoretically all eight titles have been issued on “Chicago 1935,” a CD on the Gannet label, but I’ve never seen it.  REINCARNATION, possibly a composition of Boyce’s, was named for one of his spiritual beliefs — unusual but not unknown in 1935 Chicago.

On March 11, 1935, Boyce returned to the studios with Charles LaVere And His Chicagoans : Johnny Mendell, Marty Marsala (tp) Jabbo Smith (tp,vcl) Preston Jackson (tb) Joe Marsala (cl,ts-1) Boyce Brown (as) Bud Taylor (ts-2) Charles LaVere (p,vcl) Joe Young (g) Leonard Bibbs (b) Zutty Singleton (d) The Chicagoans (vcl) for BOOGABOO BLUES and UBANGI MAN, neither title issued on 78. On April 5, the LaVere band tried again, without Jabbo Smith;  Joe Masek (ts) Israel Crosby (b) replaced Bud Taylor, Leonard Bibbs.  They recorded I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU, SMILES, ALL TOO WELL, and BOOGABOO BLUES.  Again the sides were not released on 78, but several lp issues exist — one of the strangest issues a later dub (a copy given to me by Ralph O’Callaghan) — a 16 rpm 7″ record labeled “Black Diamond.”  On the other side was a 1933 Reuben Reeves session.

Four years later, on October 11, 1939, Boyce was recorded again, and these sides had wider distribution; he was a member of Jimmy MacPartland’s band: Jimmy McPartland (cnt) Bud Jacobson (cl) Boyce (as) Floyd Bean (p) Dick McPartland (g) Jim Lannigan (b) Hank Isaacs (d).  These sides have been made possible by the Friend of Jazz George Avakian and Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft and George Avakian, and they appeared in the Decca CHICAGO JAZZ album:JAZZ ME BLUES, CHINA BOY, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, and SUGAR.

Hank O’Neal tells me that Boyce joined in on the private sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house in the late Thirties, and that one track from these sessions was issued on a 1965 collection called MORE INFORMAL SESSIONS AT SQUIRREL’s, a recording worth searching for.  Hank also recalls that Squirrel, thirty years later, characterized Boyce as gifted but troubled.

Boyce’s most hard-to-find session (also in Chicago, February 12, 1940) was as a member of THE COLLECTOR’S ITEM CATS, which featured the then also little-known Wild Bill Davison, cornet; Boyce; Mel Henke (a pianist who gained later fame on the West Coast); Walter Ross on bass; Joe Kahn on drums.  Two sides, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, came out on Collector’s Item 102: a 78 issue — shared with us by Jeff Crompton.

Boyce also worked in the “ideal” band co-led by cornetist Pete Daily and pianist-composer Frank Melrose.  A good deal of their privately recorded music has been released on the Delmark CD BLUESIANA.  (The thought of Boyce and Kansas City Frank on gigs — creative individuals who did not fit the stereotypical idea of the hard-drinking Chicago jazz musician — is intriguing, and it makes me regret, not for the first time, that few fans at that time carried stenographer’s notebooks to interview these men.)

The late Bob Thiele spent some time in Chicago (where he recorded a band with clarinetist Bud Jacobson and Frank Melrose, something to bless Thiele for).  An unissued 1945 session for Bud Jacobson and His Hot Club Orchestra includes Bill Stapleton (cnt) Jacobson (cl,ts) Boyce (as) Mel Grant (p) Dick McPartland (g) Pat Pattison (b) Lew Finnerty (d), playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE, WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING, INDIANA, and HOT CLUB BLUES.  Does anyone know who or where the Signature masters are held, and have any of my readers ever heard this music?

Also in 1945, the jazz scholar / collector / recordist John Steiner held a series of concerts at the Uptown Playhouse Theater in Chicago.  His Jimmy Noone Memorial Concert (in August) featured Darnell Howard (clarinet), Boyce, Baby Dodds (drums), Gideon Honoré (piano), Jack Goss (guitar), Tut Soper (second piano), and Pat Pattison (bass).   On another occasion, Steiner sponsored a “jamboree” resulting in forty-five minutes of recordings of Lee Collins, Boyce, Darnell Howard, Volly DeFaut, pianists Gideon Honoré, Tut Soper, Jack Gardner, Mel Henke, and Chet Roble, among others.  and drummer Jim Barnes were among the contributors.  But in April 1946, a fire destroyed the Playhouse, and Steiner lost 150 unissued sides by Jack Gardner and groups, 20 sides by groups led by Boyce, a few by Frank Melrose, and location recordings by Honoré, Zinky Cohn, Punch Miller, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Jimmy Yancey.  (A sorrowing moment of silence is appropriate here.)  This information comes from the fascinating website devoted to S D (Steiner-Davis) Records: http://www.hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/sd.html.

Boyce’s last session was a decade later.  His absence from the recording studios might have been in part the result of changing fashions in music; what had been sought-after Hot Jazz was soon pushed aside with the popularity of bop, but I imagine that Boyce became more reclusive.  All this is supposition, but he seems to have been unfitted with the survival skills jazz musicians require: call up a club owner, create an opportunity to record.  One thinks of the nearly-blind Art Tatum and the completely blind George Shearing and Jeff Healey, but they might have been recognized as stronger personalities with more audaciously commanding technique than Boyce’s subtle ways.

Boyce seems always to have been contemplating the eternal rather than the quotidian, and he was baptized a Catholic in 1952.  The LIFE magazine story notes that a club owner “objected to” Boyce’s habit of for blessing himself before beginning to play.  I can only imagine that scene, and JAZZ LIVES readers might write the dialogue — the club owner astounded and irate, Boyce gently explaining that this was what he did before he played.  I have written of other musicians (Frank Newton as my prime example) who loved the music without reservation but recoiled from the business of music, and Boyce seems to be one of that tender breed.  Putting his beliefs into action, Boyce entered the Servite monastery as a friar in 1953 — devoting himself to chastity, poverty, and the contemplation of spiritual ideals and sorrows.

When Boyce went into a New York recording studio on April 2-3, 1956, he was no longer “Boyce Brown” but “Brother Matthew,” a monk, someone who wanted his royalties from the sale of the recording to go to missions in Africa.  The session was the idea of a record company executive, and certainly it had journalistic potential as good copy in that era of “comeback” stories, reuniting a monk who still could play Hot with his internationally famous colleagues.  Boyce was showcased with the Eddie Condon band of the time, and a LIFE photograph shows him gingerly accepting a drink from Wild Bill Davison, peering tentatively into the glass — whether from blindness or caution, one cannot say.

Since Condon was under contract to Columbia Records (thanks again to Avakian) he may not have played guitar on the sessions — guitar credit goes to Paul Smith, Eddie’s brother-in-law, but Condon “conducted,” which is what he did so well.  This group was Wild Bill Davison (cnt) Cutty Cutshall (tb) Pee Wee Russell (cl) Boyce (as) Ernie Caceres (bar) Gene Schroeder (p) Bob Casey (b) George Wettling (d) Eddie Condon (cond), and they recorded OUT OF NOWHERE, I NEVER KNEW, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, MY BLUE HEAVEN, LINGER AWHILE, BLUES FOR BOYCE, SISTER KATE, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN.

Those who collect Fifties television kinescopes may have seen Boyce on the Garry Moore Show (Moore loved hot jazz) or I’VE GOT A SECRET.  I can’t envision Brother Matthew being comfortable on show as a genial oddity — the jazz-musician-monk — but perhaps he did it because it would bring good publicity and contributions to the Order.

This link contains the LIFE story (pages 173-6) on that final session: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SE8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA173&lpg=PA173&dq=Boyce+brown+alto+sax&source=bl&ots=_QEpuuHPor&sig=TbeyWW0CUzC6-OjG8fS09vtg03k&hl=en&ei=eP9ATvOOHM-whAfYxP2xCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFsQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=Boyce%20brown%20alto%20sax&f=false.

Note: the link above opens most easily if one is willing to copy it whole and paste it into a new browser; then you will be able to peruse 1953 weekly pictorial journalism, including ads for durable house paint and Blue Cross hospital insurance.

After the session, Boyce went back into the monastery to devote himself to things of the spirit; pictures show him playing music with the other monks and making sandwiches in the kitchen.  He remained there until his death three years later.  Jim Denham believes that the Servites wouldn’t give Boyce final confirmation as a priest and he died of a heart attack shortly after that bitter disappointment in the monastery outside Granville, Wisconsin.

George Avakian told the late Richard M. Sudhalter in Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, “Looking back, I think he’s just as interesting now as I thought he was then.  The things he did, people are doing that kind of thing much more now.  But at that time nobody was: the element of surprise was a big factor. People hearing him for the first time were just flabbergasted.  I know I was. Where did this guy get this odd way of playing?  Where did it come from?  I guess there was a rather mysterious quality in all that.  Part of what makes it so interesting.”

Interesting, but tragic as well.  In a society that prides itself on cherishing the appearance of individualism, it is sad that Boyce Brown — surely an individualist with something beautiful on his mind — became marginalized as freakish, not only because he looked different, but because of his piety.  And although the jazz world prides itself on music and behaviors that go against the grain; it didn’t always do so effectively in this instance.  Thoreau’s different drummer didn’t get the gig.

But perhaps Boyce was fortunate that he had a monastery to retreat to, and spiritual things to which he could devote himself.  I think ruefully that had he been born fifty years later, he might have borne the weight of the popular-psychological tags we now take for granted.  Would we have classified him as a depressive, as differently abled, as someone suffering from social phobia, someone exhibiting Asperger’s, a victim of low self-esteem?  Birdlike and half-blind, he seems to me a creative spirit who turned away from this coarse world of fleshly realities to contemplate larger things, someone who wanted to do good for those who could not help themselves.

This post would not have been possible without the information from and gracious help of Jim Denham, Jeff Crompton, Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, Tom Kelly, Hank O’Neal, Hal Smith, David J. Weiner, and Aunt Ida Melrose.  I have remembered (perhaps hazily) information I read long ago in Dave Dexter, Jr.’s THE JAZZ STORY, and a February 1999 profile in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG, whose author I cannot trace.   If any JAZZ LIVES readers have more information or links to people who knew or knew of Boyce, I would be delighted to read their comments or to incorporate them into a future post.  Boyce Brown deserves more than partial oblivion.