Tag Archives: Charles Peterson

THE TRIUMPHS OF JAMES P. JOHNSON

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Baby Dodds, 1946, by Charles Peterson

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Danny Barker, 1946, by Charles Peterson

When the Student is more dramatically visible than the Teacher, even the most influential mentor and guide might become obscure.  James Price Johnson, pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, has become less prominent to most people, even those who consider themselves well-versed in jazz piano.  He was a mentor and teacher — directly and indirectly — of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum. “No James P., no them,” to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie. But even with memorable compositions and thirty years of recording, he has been recognized less than he deserves.

CAROLINA SHOUT eBay OKeh

 

Fats Waller eclipsed his teacher in the public eye because Waller was a dazzling multi-faceted entertainer and personality, visible in movies, audible on the radio.  Fats had a recording contract with the most prominent record company, Victor, and the support of that label — he created hit records for them — in regular sessions from 1934 to 1943.  Tatum, Basie, and Ellington — although they paid James P. homage in words and music — all appeared to come fully grown from their own private universes.  Basie and Ellington were perceived not only as pianists but as orchestra leaders who created schools of jazz composition and performance; Tatum, in his last years, had remarkable support from Norman Granz — thus he left us a series of memorable recordings.

Many of the players I’ve noted above were extroverts (leaving aside the reticent Basie) and showmanship come naturally to them.  Although the idea of James P., disappointed that his longer “serious” works did not receive recognition, retiring to his Queens home, has been proven wrong by Johnson scholar Scott Brown (whose revised study of James P. will be out in 2017) he did not get the same opportunities as did his colleagues.  James P. did make records, he had club residencies at Cafe Society and the Pied Piper, was heard at an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert and was a regular feature on Rudi Blesh’s THIS IS JAZZ . . . but I can look at a discography of his recordings and think, “Why isn’t there more?”  Physical illness accounts for some of the intermittent nature of his career: he had his first stroke in 1940 and was ill for the last years of his life.

There will never be enough.  But what we have is brilliant.  And the reason for this post is the appearance in my mailbox of the six-disc Mosaic set which collects most of James P.’s impressive recordings between 1921 and 1943.  (Mosaic has also issued James P.’s session with Eddie Condon on the recent Condon box, and older issues offered his irreplaceable work for Blue Note — solo and band — in 1943 / 44, and the 1938 HRS sides as well.)

JAMES P. Mosaic

Scott Brown, who wrote the wise yet terse notes for this set, starts off by pointing to the wide variety of recordings Johnson led or participated in this period.  And even without looking at the discography, I can call to mind sessions where Johnson leads a band (with, among others, Henry “Red” Allen,  J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett — or another all-star group with Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Lionel Hampton on drums, Artie Bernstein, Ed Hall, and Higginbotham); accompanies the finest blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, is part of jivey Clarence Williams dates — including two takes of the patriotic 1941 rouser UNCLE SAMMY, HERE I AM — works beautifully with Bessie Smith, is part of a 1929 group with Jabbo Smith, Garvin Bushell on bassoon, Fats Waller on piano); is a sideman alongside Mezz Mezzrow, Frank Newton, Pete Brown, John Kirby, swings out on double-entendre material with Teddy Bunn and Spencer Williams. There’s a 1931 band date that shows the powerful influence of Cab Calloway . . . and more.  For the delightful roll call of musicians and sides (some never before heard) check the Mosaic site here.

(On that page, you can hear his delicate, haunting solo BLUEBERRY RHYME, his duet with Bessie Smith on her raucous HE’S GOT ME GOING, the imperishable IF DREAMS COME TRUE, his frolicsome RIFFS, and the wonderful band side WHO?)

I fell in love with James P.’s sound, his irresistible rhythms, his wonderful inventiveness when I first heard IF DREAMS COME TRUE on a Columbia lp circa 1967.  And then I tried to get all of his recordings that I could — which in the pre-internet, pre-eBay era, was not easy: a Bessie Smith accompaniment here, a Decca session with Eddie Dougherty, the Blue Notes, the Stinson / Asch sides, and so on.  This Mosaic set is a delightful compilation even for someone who, like me, knows some of this music by heart because of forty-plus years of listening to it.  The analogy I think of is that of an art student who discovers a beloved artist (Rembrandt or Kahlo, Kandinsky or Monet) but can only view a few images on museum postcards or as images on an iPhone — then, the world opens up when the student is able to travel to THE museum where the idol’s works are visible, tangible, life-sized, arranged in chronology or thematically . . . it makes one’s head spin.  And it’s not six compact discs of uptempo stride piano: the aural variety is delicious, James P.’s imagination always refreshing.

The riches here are immense. All six takes of Ida Cox’s ONE HOUR MAMA. From that same session, there is a pearl beyond price: forty-two seconds of Charlie Christian, then Hot Lips Page, backed by James P., working on a passage in the arrangement.  (By the way, there are some Charlie Christian accompaniments in that 1939 session that I had never heard before, and I’d done my best to track down all of the Ida Cox takes.  Guitar fanciers please note.)  The transfers are as good as we are going to hear in this century, and the photographs (several new to me) are delights.

Hearing these recordings in context always brings new insights to the surface. My own epiphany of this first listening-immersion is a small one: the subject is HOW COULD I BE BLUE? (a record I fell in love with decades ago, and it still delights me).  It’s a duo-performance for James  P. and Clarence Williams, with scripted vaudeville dialogue that has James P. as the 1930 version of Shorty George, the fellow who makes love to your wife while you are at work, and the received wisdom has been that James P. is uncomfortable with the dialogue he’s asked to deliver, which has him both the accomplished adulterer and the man who pretends he is doing nothing at all.  Hearing this track again today, and then James P. as the trickster in I FOUND A NEW BABY, which has a different kind of vaudeville routine, it struck me that James P. was doing his part splendidly on the first side, his hesitations and who-me? innocence part of his character.  He had been involved with theatrical productions for much of the preceding decade, and I am sure he knew more than a little about acting.  You’ll have to hear it for yourself.

This, of course, leaves aside the glory of his piano playing.  I don’t think hierarchical comparisons are all that useful (X is better than Y, and let’s forget about Z) but James P.’s melodic improvising, whether glistening or restrained, never seems a series of learned motives.  Nothing is predictable; his dancing rhythms (he is the master of rhythmic play between right and left hands) and his melodic inventiveness always result in the best syncopated dance music.  His sensitivity is unparalleled.  For one example of many, I would direct listeners to the 1931 sides by Rosa Henderson, especially DOGGONE BLUES: where he begins the side jauntily, frolicking as wonderfully as any solo pianist could — not racing the tempo or raising his volume — then moderates his volume and muffles his gleaming sound to provide the most wistful counter-voice to Henderson’s recital of her sorrows.  Another jaunty interlude gives way to the most tender accompaniment.  I would play this for any contemporary pianist and be certain of their admiration.

I am impressed with this set not simply for the riches it contains, but for the possibility it offers us to reconsider one of my beloved jazz heroes.  Of course I would like people to flock to purchase it (in keeping with Mosaic policy, it is a limited edition, and once it’s gone, you might find a copy on eBay for double price) but more than that, I would like listeners to do some energetic reconstruction of the rather constricted canon of jazz piano history, which usually presents “stride piano” as a necessary yet brief stop in the forward motion of the genre or the idiom — as it moves from Joplin to Morton to Hines to Wilson to Tatum to “modernity.”  Stride piano is almost always presented as a type of modernized ragtime, a brief virtuosic aberration with a finite duration and effect. I would like wise listeners to hear James P. Johnson as a pianistic master, his influence reaching far beyond what is usually assumed.

JAMES P. postage stamp

I was happy to see James P. on a postage stamp, but it wasn’t and isn’t enough, as the Mosaic set proves over and over again. I would like James P. Johnson to be recognized as “the dean of jazz pianists”:

jamesp-johnsongravemarker

Listen closely to this new Mosaic box set six compact discs worth of proof that the genius of James P. Johnson lives on vividly.

May your happiness increase!

WHAT HAPPINESS LOOKS LIKE (September 16, 1952)

Untitled-2Bobby Hackett admired Louis Armstrong — the man and his music — throughout his life, and Louis felt the same way about the younger man.  Louis and Bobby were friends, enjoyed each other’s company, and played alongside each other for nearly three decades.  Charles Peterson took photographs of them at the Walt Whitman School in 1942 (see that frankly astonishing offering here) and we have video footage of them at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1970.

The photograph above comes from drummer Walt Gifford’s scrapbook, lent to me by the very generous Duncan Schiedt.  The photographer was Bob Parent, but the photograph is otherwise not annotated.  But the “Childs” menu or drink list that Louis is resting his hand on tells me that this was taken during a Hackett gig at Childs Paramount; Louis’ informal attire suggests that he was visiting rather than playing, and that this happy meeting took place in warm weather.

My research team of Riccardi, Caparone, DeCarlis, and Rothberg, LLC, has noted that Hackett is playing a Besson trumpet with a Bach mouthpiece; The New Yorker has listed Hackett as playing at Childs in September 1952, and Louis was playing with Gordon Jenkins at the Paramount Theatre (immediately above the restaurant) in September, before he left for Europe.  Even better, the Hackett gig began on September 16, 1952, and it has been documented that Louis dropped in to visit and hear.  And smile.

I could show you a picture photograph of the restaurant — at 1501 Broadway (at 43rd Street) beneath the Paramount Theatre, or a 1947 menu that lists as its highest-priced supper item a plate of fried oysters, potatoes, and cole slaw — seventy-five cents. I could point out that Louis’ watch seems to say it is just past 11:30.

But the picture says more about what happiness is than any of that historical detritus, and Louis and Bobby are secure in their brotherly love and respect forever.

Here’s another lovely kind of evidence, music I have known since childhood:

and another version, from 1970:

(More evidence of Louis and Bobby’s deep love can be found here — coming soon!)

Incidentally, Louis was quoted as saying, “I’m the coffee, and Bobby’s the cream,” which I suppose one could take as a racial joke about their outer coverings — but I see it as something deeper, the way two elements combine in a sweet synergy to create something that neither of them would have been, separate.

May your happiness increase!

PHYLLIS GER RECALLS HER FATHER, MORT STULMAKER

Can you identify the players in this 1939 Charles Peterson photograph?

Readers will recognize (from left) Eddie Condon, exhorting; Bobby Hackett and Jimmy Dorsey, keeping an eye on their leader, Zutty Singleton, peering around the corner; Pee Wee Russell, aiming for the clouds.

But the left-handed and bespectacled string bassist in the rear of the ensemble is less familiar.  His name?  Mort or Morty Stulmaker.  Although his jazz career was brief, he played and recorded with the best musicians and vocalists of the time: Bunny Berigan, Red McKenzie, Condon, Joe Marsala, Stan King, Jack Teagarden, Dave Tough, Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman, Brad Gowans, Billy Butterfield, Lee Wiley, Red Nichols . . .

I thought he would be one of the mysterious, shadowy figures of jazz, not only because he was a bassist, but because apparently no dramatic story attached to his life.  I was delighted to meet Phyllis Ger, a jewelry designer who also volunteers at the Louis Armstrong House Museum — and to find out that she was Mort’s only child.

Phyllis and her father, 2012

Here is what Phyllis told me on a pleasant afternoon recently.

My father liked to be called Mort or Morty. His first name was Morton, but the only person he allowed to call him that was his sister. The family name is German, practically always misspelled with an “H” (Stuhlmaker) which would always aggravate my mother but never seemed to bother Dad.

He was born in Albany, New York, in 1906 and had two brothers and one sister. Dad came from a musical family. His mother played piano, his father and two brothers played the violin. There must have been piano lessons because Dad was a trained musician. He started his career playing piano accompanying silent movies when he was in his teens. I don’t know how he made the transition to bass from piano. He was a left-handed bassist which was not that common.

Both sides of my family were from the Albany-Troy, New York area. But, of course, Dad could not make a living as a musician up there, so he moved to New York City. Although I was born in Manhattan, I was two years old when we moved to Albany. Dad would spend weekends at home and travel back to the city during the week to pick up some gigs. After six years of a fabulous time growing up in Albany surrounded by all my cousins, aunts, and uncles, my parents made the decision to move back to NY where we could all be together permanently.

Dad was very unpretentious. He didn’t speak about his life as a musician to me very often. He said it wasn’t a profession that he was that proud of even though he played with some of the greats. He felt that musicians were never given the credit they deserved. But, he never said that there was anything else he had wanted to do; you make a living at something and you stay with it. So, when he married at age 39, he left the life of a traveling musician and became an organ teacher and salesman at Macy’s 34th Street in  New York City. Dad also taught at Aeolian on 57th St. for several years. In addition, he had many private students.

My Dad was a very sensitive and compassionate person. He was not good with handling financial matters and left that to my mother. I could never see him actively promoting himself. That was just not his personality. He was devoted to Mom and me. I am an only child (and not spoiled). They were determined not to spoil me. When I asked Mom why she waited until she was 39 to marry, her response was: “I was waiting to meet your father.” And, so, a marriage of 44 years resulted.

Mort and Ruth on their wedding day

I started to do research about my Dad about five years after his death in 1988 at the age of 82. Since I knew so little about his background, I was amazed at the amount of material I discovered. I didn’t know he played bass with Benny Goodman, Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, Bunny Berigan, and many others. When Did did speak sparingly about his background, Bunny’s name came up quite frequently. As part of my discoveries, I was fortunate to get to know Bob Dupuis, author of the first biography about Bunny entitled: BUNNY BERIGAN: ELUSIVE LEGEND OF JAZZ,. From 1998-2001 I attended the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee in Fox Lake, Wisconsin (Bunny’s hometown). This tribute weekend was originally organized by Bunny’s daughter, Joyce and her husband, Ken Hansen. What a thrill it was for me to be a part of that weekend! Sadly, both Joyce and Ken have passed. But, the Jubilee is still taking place each year (May 18th-20th, 2012) under the very capable leadership of Julie Flemming. I will be attending this year after an absence of 11 years. Even though I do not play an instrument, I got Dad’s creative genes in another way. I am a jewelry designer and will be displaying my music-themed pieces at the Jubilee. Please come and join us for a wonderful weekend of jazz.

I knew Dad played with Artie Shaw. I contacted Mr. Shaw who was in his eighties at the time. An assistant to him answered my letter but unfortunately Mr. Shaw had no recollection of my father. I think I may attribute that to the aging process. I also spoke with Joe Dixon when he was presenting a concert at a library on Long Island. I was able to visit with Buddy Koss and his wife for a lovely visit and that was very nostalgic for me. But, sadly, nobody’s left now. Dad was very much respected by other musicians. He played at Hoagy Carmichael’s wedding, who had handpicked the musicians he wanted. Dad was part of the first mixed band to play on 52nd St. with Joe Bushkin, Eddie Condon, Joe Marsala and Red Allen. Dad was quite friendly with Joe. That’s me proudly pointing to my Dad in the photo.

Mort, smartly dressed, in later life

Here’s Mort as a member of the Tempo King band — clearly a Fats Waller-inspired group, oddly enough, recording for Bluebird in 1936 (Waller’s label) with Marty and Joe Marsala, Queenie Ada Rubin, Eddie Condon, Mort, and Stan King:

And with the pride of Fox Lake, Wisconsin, Bunny Berigan, late in 1936 — where you can really hear his strong rhythmic pulse on THIS FOOLISH FEELING:

I’m hoping that some JAZZ LIVES readers have other information to add to our knowledge of Mort Stulmaker: send it here as a comment or if  you’d like to get in touch with Phyllis, email me at swingyoucats@gmail.com. and I will pass it along to her.

May your happiness increase.

RUBY BRAFF, 1980

In my Jazz Youth, I brought along a cassette recorder (or even a reel-to-reel machine) to live jazz events whenever it was possible. 

Occasionally even I knew that recording wouldn’t be allowed, and I also fancied myself a young Charles Peterson (without knowing his work as well as I do not).  Of course, I was never that good a photographer.

But here are five photographs from a Long Island concert sponsored by the International Art of Jazz (held at the Ethical Culture Society in Garden City, New York) on December 7, 1980. 

They capture a happy and nattily-dressed Ruby Braff leading a quartet of Derek Smith, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Bobby Rosengarden, drums.  And the music was delightful.

Everyone who ever heard George Duvivier misses him. 

I have no idea what the gentlemen of the quartet were waiting for: Ruby looks unusually serene; George’s expression suggests an uneasy pause or some deep cogitation.

This may be the lead-in to one of Ruby’s set-pieces, perhaps his puzzlement about why the Gershwin brothers never called him to say, “Thanks for playing our songs.”  He loved to engage the audience in between songs.

“Uncle Ruby, tell us a story!”

I can hear the sound of that cornet now.  Can’t you?

JAZZ LIVES thanks Tom Hustad for his generous stewardship and Rusholme Photographic Services for its technical assistance.

THE PIED PIPER, 1940

Pee Wee Russell, in the center of a group of admiring children at the Little Red School House, New York City, 1940 — photographed by the ever-inventive Charles Peterson:

As is the case with any Peterson photograph, one not only reads the visual information on the surface but intuits a story of a moment or moments captured for those of us not even born in 1940. 

We don’t get to see enough of the children’s faces, but their expressions — ranging from exultant to puzzled — say a great deal about the sounds Charles Ellsworth Russell gave to his listeners. 

I don’t know what to say about the oddly industrial-looking ceiling, and I assume that horizontal stripes were the thing in children’s fashions in 1940.  Pee Wee (whisper it) needs a shave, although he’s wearing a neat striped suit, pocket handketchief properly aligned . . . so we can assume that a morning session with the young students was far too early for him. 

But his expression was exultant: if he was hungover, if he hadn’t been to bed, no matter: he was the Pied Piper leading this young band of boys and girls to jazz.

Thanks to Charles (Russell) and Charles (Peterson) and Don (Peterson) for this precious portrait.

CONDON, PETERSON, LLC.

Eddie and Charles, of course.  Two guitarists: one who played the instrument professionally all his life, the other who gave it up in favor of a camera halfway along.  Friends, and friends of hot jazz and the world it created.

When I visited Eddie’s daughter Maggie — who lives in the Condon family apartment with husband Peter and son Michael — I was struck by the long hallway and by the Charles Peterson photographs hung with care as you walk from the front door into the living room.  And the display was Eddie and Phylllis Condon’s idea. 

Most of the photographs will be familiar to those who love this music; two unusual non-Peterson ones at the end of this posting will surprise even those who know their Condonia.

Eddie, center (at the Third Street oasis) and one Crosby, posing, right.

Pee Wee Russell, ailing, in California, circa 1950.

Cozy Cole, uneasily solicitous, supporting Dave Tough, collapsing, 1939.

Opening night at Third Street, with Weegee and Art Hodes in the audience, Brad Gowans, Wild Bill Davison, Eddie, Tony Parenti, on the stand.  Who has airshots of this WOR broadcast?

More from that famous jam session — Billie Holiday, Max Kaminsky, the yet-unidentified French guest, and Harry Lim.

Welcome, O weary traveller! 

These photographs can be seen with much greater clarity in the book Eddie and Hank O’Neal did together, EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, or in the collection of Charles Peterson’s photographs, SWING ERA NEW YORK . . . but for me it’s terribly moving and atmospheric to have these photographs of photographs that Eddie Condon passed by as he went in and out of his apartment. 

The two artifacts below can’t be seen anywhere else: treasures from an interior room.

When sheet music really meant something — this, I imagine, tied in to the Decca side Eddie and the boys made of Mr. Handy’s song, circa 1950.

Johnny DeVries could do most anything — he designed the famous flyer for the 1942 Fats Waller concert, he composed the lyrics to OH, LOOK AT ME NOW! and WHEREVER THERE’S LOVE . . . and he was a witty, fanciful illustrator.   Hence this affectionate sketch of Phyllis Condon. 

I don’t know what the Chinese characters down the left side mean (are they the Asian version of “Poon Tang” or something Johnny cribbed from a menu?) but I do know what “Poon Tang” means . . . here used with the greatest admiration.

For those of us who love Eddie Condon and the worlds he created, it’s reassuring that Maggie has lovingly maintained this secret place in downtown New York City.

FIFTY-SECOND STREET WEST (Cafe Borrone, Oct. 15, 2010)

Because of the wonderful photographs that Charles Peterson and others took, some of my readers will be able to visualize the bandstand at Jimmy Ryan’s sixty-five years ago — crowded with hot musicians jamming on, say, BUGLE CALL RAG, with every luminary in New York City eagerly improvising at the peak of their powers.

Now imagine that scene with additions.  A wondrous singer — let’s say Connee Boswell, Lee Wiley, or Mildred Bailey is joining in for a few numbers. 

And, if your imagination can hold this, Django Reinhardt and some members of his group are also there, off to the side, having a fine time.  Bob Wills is coming through the door, too. 

Did this happen?  If it did — in New York City, circa 1945 — it hasn’t been documented.  But something very much like it happened last Friday, October 15, 2010, in Cafe Borrone, which sits happily in Menlo Park, California.

Cafe Borrone has — through the generosity and prescience of its owner, Roy Borrone — having Clint Baker’s All-Stars as its Friday night jazz band.  For twenty years of Fridays, mind you.  And the 15th was a twentieth-anniversary party.

And “SFRaeAnn,” who is Rae Ann Berry on her driver’s license, was there to record this occasion.  Clint’s regulars were in attendance, but so were some instrumentally-minded friends.  As was the eloquently hot Gypsy-tinged small group Gaucho, and New York’s own wonder, Tamar Korn.  The musicians (collectively) are Clint Baker, playing everything expertly; Robert Young, saxophone; Leon Oakley, cornet; Katie Cavera, banjo, guitar; Tom Wilson, trombone; Jim Klippert, trombone; Dave Ricketts, guitar; Rob Reich, accordion; Mike Groh, guitar; Ari Munkres, bass, J. Hansen, drums, Riley Baker, drums.

A word about GAUCHO — a group I’ve seen in San Francisco (and I’ve also listened happily to their recordings): many “Gypsy swing” groups that loosely resemble this one specialize in superhero-speedy readings of the Reinhart-Grappelly repertoire.  In such cases, I agree with my friend Anthony Barnett when he proposes a moratorium on such endeavors.  In my case, all I want is not to be pummelled with notes.  But GAUCHO is superbly different.  The overall affect is superficially of music you’d hear on the porch or in the living room, but that feeling is undercut by the instant awareness that no amateur musicians ever, ever sounded this good.  Its two guitarists play and swap roles with grace and a stylish casualness.  Rob Reich makes the accordion an instrument I would happily listen to, as he spins out wandering lines (I was traumatized by an accordion as a child.)  And Ari Munkeres brings together Pops Foster and Paul Chambers very adeptly.  The overall feeling brings together Teddy Bunn and Western swing and a whole host of refreshing improvisations on various subtle, profound models.   

Here’s part of a delightful EXACTLY LIKE YOU, where Tamar and Leon converse:

And a full-fledged YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY — where Tamar’s eyes and facial expressions reveal a great comic actress, singing the twisty lyrics at a rapid clip.  (Not only that: she sings the verse twice!)  This performance becomes a series of witty conversations and overlapping monologues, most fetchingly: 

How about SOME OF THESE DAYS, with an incredible outchorus where instruments and Tamar (the Mills Sister) blend so exuberantly:

Here’s a  delicate, unaffected I’M CONFESSIN’ — a performance where Ari’s arco bass, Leon’s Ziggy Elman – Harry James emoting, Robert’s sweet alto, and more theoretically disparate elements come together to create something terribly moving:

The simplistic philosophy of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING remains true — complain too much and even the dog walks out of the room — but what catches my eye in the first minute of this performance is that an audience member has asked Tamar to dance (unless I am missing the essential subtext).  At what other site do band members dance with the audience?  I ask you!  And don’t miss the vocal duet between Tamar and Jim Klippert, a man who is having just too much fun to keep it to himself:

Tamar sat out PLEASE DON’T TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE (perhaps the jitterbugging had worn her out for the moment?) and Clint took the vocal, with solos from everyone: 

And the evening ended with a romp nothing short of ecstatic on BILL BAILEY (or, as Joe Wilder calls it, THE RETURN OF WILLIAM BAILEY), which should have you grinning for days:

I’m thrilled that this music was created and that the apparently tireless Rae Ann Berry saved it for us and for posterity.  Bless Roy Borrone, all the musicians, and our own devoted videographer, too.

P.S.  And I have it from good authority that GAUCHO’s new CD has Miss Korn and Mister Oakley in attendance — with some songs that Tamar has written lyrics for.  I check the mailbox every day . . . and will let you know when it arrives!

TEDDY BUNN, GUITAR

It’s that point in the semester when I end up having more informal conversations with students about their aspirations.  Today I was talking to a young man who is taking a jazz course and plays guitar.  Blues guitar, it turns out.  Immediately, I said, “I’m going to give you homework.  Listen to Teddy Bunn!” and he copied down the unfamiliar name.  Over the years, I’ve urged other guitar-playing students to devote themselves to Teddy Bunn’s recorded work.  Today, for the first time, I thought to myself, “Why Teddy Bunn rather than Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt?”

For me, the answer is in Bunn’s emotional accessibility.  To young guitarists raised on flamethrowing displays of technique (usually electrified) Bunn might sound unambitious.  But he has a country-blues depth of feeling: his simple phrases come from someplace that belies his birthplace — Freeport, Long Island, perhaps twenty-five miles from where I am now writing and certainly miles away from the Mississippi Delta.  His blues phrases are plain-spoken, logical, affecting.  But he also has a distinctly urban swing: if you had Teddy Bunn in your rhythm section, you hardly needed anyone else.

And I am always trying to consider what my students might have heard before — and how my frankly antiquarian tastes in music will strike them.  To get to Charlie Christian, they have to get past the “Swing Era” in the person of Benny Goodman, although I suppose some of them could go directly to Jerry Newman’s recordings of Christian, uptown.  And to get to Django, they have to make a detour around Grappelly and the Quintet.

Bunn’s simplicity is deceptive.  It would please me immensely to have one of my self-possessed young players say to himself, “Oh, I can do that,” and try to duplicate a Bunn solo — a simple twelve bars — and then realize that his imitation was lacking something essential — perhaps in its tonal qualities or its rhythmic subtleties.  I imagine that Teddy Bunn might teach someone more about inventiveness and humility than I had been able to in fifteen weeks in a classroom.  (Charles Peterson caught him in action at a 1939 Blue Note session with trumpeter Frank Newton, who is standing in front of Sidney Catlett . . . fast company!)

A place to find out some more about Teddy Bunn is Mike Kremer’s CLASSIC JAZZ GUITAR site, http://classicjazzguitar.com/aboutus/about_us.jsp, the source of the images here.

During his lifetime, everyone knew about Teddy Bunn.  Sammy Price called him for the Decca “race records” sessions of the late Thirties; he was a charter member of the Spirits of Rhythm, also accompanying Ella Logan and Red McKenzie; he sat in with the Ellington band in 1929; Mezzrow and Bechet made good use of his talents, as did Hot Lips Page, Clarence Profit, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, and Spencer Williams.  Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff made him part of their early Blue Note sessions and gave him a four-song solo date of his own.  Later on, he pops up (now playing electric guitar) with Lionel Hampton, Hadda Brooks, and others.  Unfortunately, he didn’t get much attention in the Fifties, and a combination of poor health, early rock ‘n’ roll, and gigs in Hawaii kept him out of the public eye as far as jazz was concerned.  I do recall a late interview (done by Peter Tanner for JAZZ JOURNAL, if memory serves me) where Bunn talked about his older recordings and was thrilled to hear them again.

Here are some samples of the man whose name comes first to my lips when the subject of blues guitar comes into the conversation:

IF YOU SEE ME COMIN’ is from 1938, and shows Teddy Bunn’s talents in three ways — first, as a singer, intense yet understated; second, with some of those same characteristics in his solo (notice how he lets his notes ring, how he doesn’t feel the need to fill up the spaces); third, as a rhythm player.  Who’s the pianist?  There isn’t any — those harmonies and rhythmic pushes you hear are Teddy’s.  The other musicians on this date are the co-leaders Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Tommy Ladnier, trumpet; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.  (The player closest in spirit to Bunn on this record is Ladnier, who has just been chronicled with eloquent thoroughness in Dan Verhettes’ book TRAVELLIN’ BLUES.)

Here’s I GOT RHYTHM, recorded in 1933 by the Spirits of Rhythm, featuring the irreplaceable singer Leo Watson, Douglas and Wilbur Daniels on tipples (which I believe are twelve-string versions of ukuleles), Teddy Bunn — whose solo and trades come after Leo’s vocal episodes — and Virgil Scoggins on “drums,” more likely whiskbrooms on a brown-paper-covered suitcase:

And two reasonably unsatisfying film clips (from the point of view of hearing Teddy Bunn play) although they offer other rare delights.  TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY, comes from the 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS, and is out of synch.  It is mainly given over to Leo Watson (which is not a problem) but it shows us Teddy Bunn on electric guitar.  I’ll even ignore that the clip shows Black musicians as having to be distracted from their onstage crap game to perform their act — on a particularly terrible song:

And a new find — the 1941 equivalent of a Soundie, obviously terribly low-budget, which brings together Jackie Greene, impersonating Eddie Cantor, and the “Five Spirits of Rhythm,” who are here cast as railroad porters in charge of shoe-shines.  Here we don’t see Bunn playing but his electric guitar is quite audible on the soundtrack.  But it’s a reminder of how badly Black performers were treated in films until years later (even with such luminaries as Sam Coslow and Dudley Murphy supervising).  There’s comedy, cheesecake, and a good deal of Greene rolling his eyes.  At least the Spirits get to hold out their hands for their tip at the end:

I don’t want to overstate Teddy Bunn’s place in the history of jazz.  He did most often find himself playing the blues, or playing thirty-two bar songs with a deep blues flavoring.  His solos tended to be variations on simple motifs, and his later playing had lost some of its spark, its inventiveness.  When he took up the electric guitar, his identifiable acoustic sound was blurred, and his solos sound rather familiar.

But in his prime he was a remarkable musician, and I look forward to the day when one of my students (or former students) says that hearing Teddy Bunn was a marvelous — even if not life-changing — experience.

WHO ERASED MILDRED BAILEY?

I have been listening to Mildred Bailey’s singing since the early Seventies, when I found the three-record Columbia set devoted to her recordings from 1929-47.  And she never fails to move me — with her tenderness, her technique, her wit.  But Mildred has very few champions these days.  Even the late Whitney Balliett, whose taste and judgment were unparalleled, wrote that Mildred succeeded neither as a pop singer or a jazz one.  And if you were to ask the most well-informed listener who the greatest women jazz singers are, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would head the list (if not two dozen others ranging from Diana Krall to Shirley Horn to Ella Logan to Marion Harris) . . . but Mildred is forgotten, or all but forgotten.

Why?

It can’t be because of her race.  We finally have come to accept that White folks can swing, can’t we?

Some of her invisibility has to do with her elusiveness.  Billie and Ella have established, defined “personalities,” which ironically might have little relationship to what they sang.  “Billie Holiday” as an iconic figure equals self-destructive heroin addict, short-lived victim, a tortured figure, someone for whom MY MAN or DON’T EXPLAIN was painful autobiography.  Subject of a bad melodramatic movie; a ghost-written “autobiography” and several biographies as well as documentary films.  And the most accessible visual image of Billie is from the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ — careworn, rueful, lovely.  There is the engaging rasp of her voice in te Thirties, the moody cry and croak of her later recordings.

“Ella Fitzgerald” is sunny exuberance, scat-singing, someone making a jazzy version of the American songbook accessible to anyone in the Fifties who owned a record player.  A cheerful endurance, whether alongside Chick Webb, Louis, Basie, or Ellington.  Everyman and woman’s identifiable Jazz Singer, easy to understand. 

Today marketers call this “branding,” boiling down the unique self into a few immediately recognizable qualities — as if people were products to be put in the shopping cart in a hurry.   

Then there is the issue of size. 

In Charles Peterson’s 1939 photographs of Billie that I have posted recently, we see a seriously chubby young woman.  Ella was always a large woman, but no one said anything about it.  Some astute listeners did not worry about a woman singer’s weight.  Think of Wagnerian sopranos.  Think of Kate Smith.  Did anyone care that Connee Boswell could not get off the piano bench?  And men are forgiven a great deal.   

But in pop music, listeners tend to be much more fickle, visually oriented, even shallow.  It is difficult to escape Mildred Bailey’s appearance.  She was fat, and not “fat” in a jolly way — not the way that some Twenties blues singers could use to their advantage: Helen Humes or Edith Wilson singing about their weight as a sexual asset (Miss Wilson’s lyric: “Why should men approach with caution / For this extry-special portion?”).  Aside from laughing at herself during the January 1944 Metropolitan Opera House jam session — while singing “Pick me up / On your knee” in SQUEEZE ME, she and the band are chuckling at the difficulty of such a task — Mildred did not joke about her size, nor did she make it part of “an act.” 

Many listeners want their popular icons to be erotically desirable.  Sex sells; sex appeals.  Eventually, as they age,  singers pass an invisible boundary and become Venerable.  Think of all the cover pictures of singers, male and female, posed as if on magazine covers — Lee Wiley reclining on a couch on one of the Fifties RCA Victors; Julie London smoldering, her long red-blonde hair flowing.  Misses Krall and Tierney Sutton, today.  (I receive many new CDs by young women who consider themselves singers.  They look like models.  They credit a hair stylist, a wardrobe consultant, a make-up artist.  I think, “Can you sing?”)

Consider Mildred’s contemporaries: pretty, svelte, apparently youthful forever: Peggy Lee, Edythe Wright, Helen Ward, even Doris Day.  But Mildred’s photographs make her look matronly, and she is making no effort to woo the viewer. 

Let us even give audiences of the Thirties and Forties the benefit of the doubt.  If you did not live in a big American city, how many opportunities would you have to see Mildred Bailey and to judge her on the basis of her size rather than her art?  Possibly you saw her on the cover of a piece of sheet music or stared at the label of one of her Vocalion 78s, heard her on the radio.  No film footage exists of her.   

There is the nature of Mildred’s art.  Many artists have one approach, whether they are singing EMPTY BED BLUES of SILENT NIGHT.  If she was singing DOWNHEARTED BLUES, she was lowdown and melancholy (while swinging); LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN and GIVE ME TIME brought out different kinds of tenderness.  On CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU and ARTHUR MURRAY TAUGHT ME DANCING IN A HURRY, she was hilarious.  IT’S SO PEACEFUL IN THE COUNTRY was calm and pastoral, THANKS FOR THE MEMORY rueful, knowing.  And IN LOVE IN VAIN is, althought masterfully understated, a heartbreaking performance.  Versatility is bad for branding; it confuses the consumer.   

As a band singer — the first woman to be hired in that role — with Paul Whiteman and her husband Red Norvo, she recorded a good many songs that were forgettable: THREE LITTLE FISHIES, for one.  Perhaps the girlish quality of Mildred’s upper register may have disconcerted some listeners, who would prefer their jazz singers to be plaintive and husky.  But arguing over the definitions of a jazz singer and a pop singer seems a silly business.  Do you like what you hear?  

Although we can feel both fascinated and sympathetic while considering Billie’s difficult life, Ella’s poor childhood, Mildred would have had a hard time making diabetes and obesity intriguing to us. 

I also suspect that those who ignore her Mildred do so not because her voice displeases them, but because she subliminally represents OLD.  I don’t mean OLD in the sense of the past, but in the sense of elderly, of senior citizen.  What bad luck made Mildred identify herself “The Rockin’ Chair Lady?”  Of course, her performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR was superb; she took it as her theme song.  But — when we want our stars to be aerobically bouncy — for Mildred to portray herself as immobilized, unable to get out of her chair, was not a good way to market herself.  (And artists were products even in the Thirties.)     

Alas, poor Mildred.  Were she to apply for a job and be turned down because of her appearance, she could sue, win, and collect a substantial settlement.  But dead artists can’t sue an ignorant public for discrimination. 

Listen to her sing

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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CHARLES PETERSON GOES TO A PARTY (1939)

Want to come to a party?  Duke Ellington, Dave Tough, Hot Lips Page, Billie Holiday, Ivie Anderson, Pee Wee Russell, Johnny Hodges, and Chu Berry will be there.

Unfortunately, I sent out the invitation a little late, because the party ended seventy years ago.  But Charles Peterson was there with his camera.  And it is through his generosity of spirit and his art that we can drop in now.   

In the middle Thirties, someone at LIFE Magazine thought of sending a reporter and cameraman to parties, perhaps in an attempt to offset grim news in Europe and at home, and the phrase “LIFE Goes To A Party” grew familiar — so much so that it became the title of a riffing original by Harry James, played by Benny Goodman at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.  Now, we’d call this phenomenon “cross-marketing,” but the music remains. 

In 1938, Peterson’s photographs of “Swing” musicians and fans had been a hit in LIFE.  A year later, in August, he, publicist Ernie Anderson, and their musician friends arranged a jam session party at the studio of Burris Jenkins, both for fun and to publicize the music.  The photographs never ran, but Don Peterson compiled a number of them for the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.    

Jenkins was a friend of Peterson’s, a then-famous sports cartoonist for the New York Journal-American and the Hearst newspapers nationwide, and an enthusiastic jazz fan.  The other journalist in these pictures is Hubbell Young, another friend and jazz fan, then an editor on the staff of Readers Digest.  The third civilian is an unidentified French jazz fan, possibly in the diplomatic service.  And (most familiar to jazz fans) there is twenty-year old Harry Lim, record producer, in whose honor the jam session was held.

Let’s start with the photograph at the top of this post.  Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel-jazz singer and guitarist, is at the piano, her white headband gleaming, her back to us.  To her right, in profile, is Duke, working out something on Rosetta’s guitar.  Behind Duke and to his right is Johnny Hodges, his face shadowy, his expression typically stony.  Along the back of the room are people not holding instruments: Hubbell Young and a woman in black; Young pensive, the woman more animated.  In front of them, the French guest drains the last drops from his soda or beer bottle.  In the middle, cornetist Rex Stewart seems to aim his cornet at the back of Harry Lim’s head; behind them, Eddie Condon (without guitar) seems to be grinning at something tenor saxophonist Chu Berry has just played.  The host, Burris Jenkins, holds his hands up in a telling gesture: is it “Too loud, for God’s sake”? or perhaps “I surrender, dear”? or even “All of you — get out of here now!”?  (The people who surround Jenkins remain elusive; they might have been guests, family, or neighbors: when you’re planning a loud party, you always invite the neighbors.)  To Chu’s right are two members of the ensemble named by Phyllis Condon — the Summa Cum Laude orchestra: bassist Clyde Newcombe and trumpeter Max Kaminsky, the shadows from trombonist J.C. Higginbotham’s horn are traced on Max’s face.  Bent backwards with the intensity he always brought to playing is Hot Lips Page; in the middle of the swirling mass of sound is Cozy Cole.   

It would be impossible to know, but I suspect that this ensemble is not embarked on something tidy and delicate, nothing like DON’T BLAME ME.  Rather I hear in my imagination  a Condon IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE, rough and ready. 

Here’s what might be Peterson’s most famous photograph — the cover shot for SWING ERA NEW YORK.   In 1938 and after, there were record dates with a touch of novelty, featuring jazz musicians proficient on more than one instrument, either playing an instrument they weren’t associated with, or switching horns during the date.  One such recording has Bobby Hackett on guitar as well as cornet, Pete Brown on trumpet as well as alto saxophone.  Of course, Benny Carter had been doing all this on his own for years. 

Whether this photograph was Peterson’s idea or it came from the musicians themselves, we can’t tell, but everyone seems delighted to be playing around in this way.  Observant readers will note that it is a close-up of the collective photograph at top, although Peterson has also moved to a different vantage point. 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe has, for the moment, passed her guitar (with a resonator) to Duke Ellington, who is strumming a simple chord (guitarists out there can tell me what it is); both of them are grinning away.  But their hilarity is nothing compared to the rakish smile on the face of Cab Calloway at the piano.  Calloway, at times, considered himself a saxophonist, although members of the Missourians and later Chu Berry did not hold the same opinion — outspoken Chu, in fact, told his boss to put the saxophone back in the case permanently.  I don’t think that Duke and Cab are venturing into some of that “Chinese music” that would become the common language of jazz in just a few years. 

The smiles themselves are intriguing: Sister Rosetta and Cab are on the same exuberant wavelength; they would be looking into one another’s eyes if Cab wasn’t cautiously looking down at the keyboard to see what notes his fingers were hitting.  It was a hot August night, so most of the guests and players are in short sleeves; Ivie Anderson particulary stylish in her tailored suit, with striking buttons; she grins indulgently down at Cab’s chording.  The French guest, whom no one has yet identified, is smiling, but somewhat tentatively, as if he is watching and hearing something in translation.  But my eyes are drawn to cornetist Rex Stewart, who seems to be considering the collective merriment at some distance, even though he is standing close to the piano.  Was he wondering, “What are these fools doing?”  Perhaps he was overhearing a conversation out of Peterson’s camera range.  But his reticence, his near-skepticism, make him the still center of this particular turning world.  And although one’s eyes are intially drawn to the features the flashbulb illuminates: Cab’s grin, his white shirt, Duke’s forehead and cufflinks . . . it is to Rex that I find myself returning.  And to that suit jacket on top of the piano, part of the evening’s larger story. 

In this shot, we see Billie Holiday, perhaps twenty-four, her head cocked slightly, her expression serene and observant, her eyes half-closed.  Behind her, Hubbell Young and the woman in black are either greeting or saying goodbye to another woman wearing a whimsical summer straw hat.  Rex looks nearly malevolent with the effort of blowing; Harry Lim is leaning in closer to get a better look; Condon is dreamily happy but his eyes are only part-focused.  (Was it late in the evening?)  We do know it was hot in the room — the temperature as well as the music — if we look at Lips Page’s sweat-soaked, translucent shirt.  Cozy Cole made a specialty out of lengthy sustained press-roll solos; perhaps he is, shouting with pleasure, in the middle of one here, while the horns punch out encouraging chords.  

Slighty earlier in the evening (Lips still has his vest on).  Around the piani where presumably Dave Bowman is accompanying Lips are Harry Lim, Newcombe, the French guest, and a seriously chubby-looking Miss Holiday, smiling inwardly, her rings and bracelet and manicure evidence (although her dress is unimpressively plain) that she knew photographs were being taken for LIFE.  Those of us who know the iconic pictures Milt Hinton took of Billie at her last recording session — where she seems fiercely thin — will find these surprising.    

J.C. Higginbotham is telling Bud Freeman a story, to which Harry Lim is listening.  Bud is intent, but whether he is concentrating on what Dave Bowman is playing or on Higgy’s story is a mystery.  Eddie Condon, to the right of the piano, drink in hand, is listening deeply (he was deaf in one ear, which may account for his quizzical expression), and Clyde Newcombe is at his ease, off duty.  The man in dark glasses, a lock of hair falling over his forehead, is promoter and publicist Anderson.  The French guest tries to play Max Kaminsky’s trumpet (with what success?) and Max, displaced for the moment, takes a pair of sticks to the snare drum.  The center of this shot is once again Billie, still looking well-fed, happy, smiling at the amateur trumpeter as if he were her child, tenderly.  

From another angle: a perspiring Ellington listens appreciatively to what six brass are doing: from the left, Higgy, Brad Gowans, Juan Tizol, Lips Page, Rex, and Max (great trumpet and cornet players, as Whitney Balliett once wrote, are rarely tall men), and Harry Lim at the rear, looking younger than his twenty years.  I find myself drawn to the sideways glance Max is giving his colleagues, as in “Are we going to take another chorus or not?”

From the evidence of his singing and speaking, Lips Page was a wonderful actor and story-teller.  He never got the opportunity to fully show this side of his talents.  Jerry Newman, I once read, recorded Lips telling a tale of a hair-straightening product gone awry.  Here it’s obvious that he’s doing “the voices” by the curl of his lip, convulsing Ivie and Cab in the foreground, Higgy, Brad, and perhaps Rex close by in the background.

This shot seems as if it might have been posed — as if Peterson had asked the three reed players (Pee Wee having left for work) to stand together.  What sounds they would have made, each one with his immediately identifiable sonority!  The reflected explosion of the flash makes a small sun behind Chu’s head, and is it by accident or on purpose that the three hands are posed on the three horns in exactly the same plane?  (Hodges, incidentally, looks even more like a little boy in his father’s clothing than usual.)  Chu’s horn casts a shadow on his shirtfront.  Beneath Chu is a newspaper, perhaps, advertising CHINESE FIGURE LAMPS.  And it’s possible that the figure almost entirely cut off to the left is pianist Dave Bowman, if the bit of striped shirt is evidence.  You wouldn’t know that Chu had just gone through some painful dental work by this photograph. 

This is another celestial version of “gathering around the piano,” with Duke happily concentrating, Ivie passionately singing something delicate yet forceful — a quiet high note? — Harry Lim thoughtfully observing, the French guest somber in the background, Max and Higgy playing in support.  What amuses me most is Cab, who has of course positioned himself as close as possible to Ivie to drink in her voice . . . but he also instinctually seems to have placed himself to be sharply visible in every shot.   But what fascinates me are the four happy facial expressions seen here: Duke, musing, avuncular, affectionately considering both the piano and Ivie’s voice; Harry Lim, a star student, a good boy, observing, wondering, savoring; Ivie, perhaps reaching for a poignant turn of phrase, her face in a kind of controlled artistic ecstasy — which the light of Peterson’s flash illuminates, as if sanctifying the music pouring out; Cab, grinning hugely, part listening, part onstage.  What painter could do these faces justice?  

I love this photograph for its beauty and implied ideological statement.  Throught his long career, Bud Freeman never got the praise and atention he deserved: the closest thing to a wise, loving assessment of his work was published in Richard Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, after Bud had died.  But Freeman had several strikes against him — he was White and poised (thus going against the stereotype that jazz musicians had to be Black martyred primitives); he played “Dixieland” with Eddie Condon, which gave critics the opportunity to take him less seriously; his style required close listening to be grasped — on a superficial level, it might have sounded just like a series of bubbling scalar figures that could be applied to any composition in any context.  But he was a great ballad player and his style was HIS — no small accomplishment.  Here, he is somewhere in the middle of a phrase or perhaps ready to launch into one — his last improvisatory turn so novel, so refreshing, that the man at the piano — we remember him! — is laughing aloud with joy and surprise.  Sister Rosetta Tharpe is behind this duo, chatting over her beer, and I don’t know the other figures in this photo, except to note that the smile on the face of the man in suspenders is commentary enough on what he’s hearing. 

That celestial brass section again!  But it is very clear who is in charge here — Oran Thaddeus Page, leaning against the wall (I’ve been admiring Jenkins’s faux-three-dimensional wallpaper in every shot) both casual and intensely focused: it takes all one’s energy and strength to play as Lips did!  Rex, a champion trumpet-gladiator, is watching Lips with a cautious-potentially dangerous look in his eyes (“My chance will come in the next chorus and I’ll top what he just played, I will!”)  Higgy and Brad, for the moment content to be out of the way of those trumpets, are offering harmonies.  But it’s Lips the eye returns to: leaning backwards as if perched on the edge of the table with nothing particular to do, but electrically charged with his message, making the impossible, for a moment, look easy.   

This photograph, taken early in the evening (notice that Pee Wee, someone not highlighted in this session, has his suit on) has its own tale: best told by the enthusiastic Ernie Anderson, the man in dark glasses, holding a telephone for Mr. Russell to play into . . . ? 

LIFE Magazine had wanted a jam session.  So Eddie Condon and I cooked one up for them.  Duke Ellington happened to be playing in town so we got him and some of his players and mixed them in with Eddie’s Barefoot Mob.  LIFE sent their great music photographer, Charlie Peterson, who used to play the guitar in Rudy Vallee’s Connecticut Yankees.  We staged the rout in our friend Burris Jenkins’s pad.  He was Hearst’s star cartoonist, a terrific fan of jazz.  His place was the whole top floor of an ancient rookery on the West Side of Manhattan at the beginning of Riverside Drive, with panoramic views of the Hudson River.  This was a little study where the phone was. It was just off the dining room where there was a concert grand Steinway.  Duke was at the keyboard, Cozy Cole was swinging up a storm on his drums . . . and there were about twenty horns around the grand in full cry.  It was just what LIFE wanted and they didn’t want us to stop . . . .But it was eight o’clock.  Pee Wee was due at Nick’s at nine and Nick had promised to fire him for good if he was a minute late.  So I found the phone and called Nick.  I tried to explain but Nick wasn’t having any.  Then Pee Wee started to growl on his subtone clarinet into the telephone.  Nick loved that growl.  Finally Nick relented and gave permission for Pee Wee to miss the first set.  While all this was taking pace, Charlie Peterson came out of the drawing room with his camera to get some more film.  He saw the action and snapped this photo.  That’s Dave Bowman holding his scotch and soda.  He played the piano in the original Summa Cum Laude band and also made some famous sides with Sidney Bechet.  The trumpet is . . . . Lips Page.  And beside him, in the right hand corner, is Brad Gowanswho probably invented the valve trombone.   The party roared on for some hours.  Pee Wee didn’t get fired that night.”  (excerpted from STORYVILLE , 1 December 1990, no. 144) 

Aside from Pee Wee’s intent expression and substantial chin (prefiguring Robert DiNiro years later?) I notice the telephone book, bottom left: they had to look up the phone number of Nick’s to call its gruff owner, Nick Rongetti — making the story more plausible.    

Swing dancers take note!  Ivie’s anklet gleams; she and Cab are having themselves a time.  Condon is happily watching their feet from the left; Bud Freeman’s grin threatens to split his face in two on the right.  Brad, Rex, Max, and Lips are playing their parts; Juan Tizol, nattily dressed and looking just like Tommy Dorsey, is smiling.  Again, the tiny details make this even more delightful: Condon’s exuberantly striped socks; Cab and Ivie’s white shoes; the rippling material of her dress.  What step are they executing?  I hope some adept reader can tell us.  But the great musicians (including Louis and Dizzy) were champion dancers.    

And we come full circle: Sister Rosetta’s face nearly Asiatic; Duke’s delighted eyes fixed on her mouth; Lips thoughtfully admiring what he sees and hears; Cab, for once, rapt, his face not aimed at the camera.  

Two postscripts.  One concerns Dave Tough, then drummer in the Summa Cum Laude band and someone inextricably drawn to alcohol and terribly sensitive to its effects.  There’s a famously blurry Peterson photograph of a reeling, shaky Tough, his shirt drenched to near-transparency, his hand being held by Cozy Cole, who looks none too steady himself.  I would assume that Tough played early on, got helplessly drunk, and had to be sent home, leaving Cozy the sole percussionist.

And that suit jacket?  Condon, in his SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (assembled and edited by Hank O’Neal, one of jazz’s living benefactors) told the story that it was terribly hot in Jenkins’s apartment, as the photographs prove.  Ellington took his jacket off and hung it over the back of a chair, perhaps forgetting that in the pocket was money for the band’s pay.  When the jam session was over, the envelope was gone.  Music hath charms, but its redemptive powers might have limits.

As I’ve written before, how lucky we are that Charles Peterson was there, and that Don Peterson has not only preserved these photographs but has collected archival material to explain them: we owe him many thanks!  Now, if you will, close your eyes and imagine the music.

CHARLES PETERSON’S GENEROUS ART, 1942

The photographs Charles Peterson took offer magic windows into places and emotions we would otherwise never experience.  Here’s what he captured on a truly magical afternoon in 1942, shared with us through the generosity of his son, Don.

It’s a jam session — hardly unusual for Peterson — but this is no ordinary gathering.

This jam session didn’t take place at some smoky Fifty-Second Street club or a hotel ballroom, but at the Walt Whitman School where Don was a fifth-grade student.  Whitman was an extremely forward-looking school, whose students got to see foreign films, adventurous art, and more.  So when Charles Peterson suggested that some of his musician friends might come down and play for the kids, none of the administrators raised a worried eyebrow.

Peterson, I assume, had more than one motive — staging a jam session with the finest musicians he knew would bring pleasure to everyone, and the photographs that resulted might very well be charming enough (Hot Jazz in the Schoolroom; Hot Jazz Goes to School) that a major magazine would want to buy them.  Hot jazz, good publicity for the musicians, possibly a paying gig for the photographer.  Considering that Eddie Condon and friends — including Joe Sullivan and Pee Wee Russell, depicted below — were also playing odd daytime gigs in Lord and Taylor’s for the holiday shoppers, any way to let people know about the gospel of Hot would have been welcome.

I’m sure that Peterson asked his friend Eddie to get the musicians together.  And it’s a tribute to how much these men would have looked forward to playing alongside one another that they woke up early for a non-paying gig, no drinks and nothing to smoke in sight.  For the kiddies!

To begin: Max Kaminsky, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Zutty Singleton, perhaps a group Condon had assembled for nighttime work at Nick’s in Greenwich Village:

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The band first: Sullivan is poised to launch a powerful right-hand chord, perhaps one of his ringing, thunderous octaves; Zutty is bent attentively over the cymbal, his face both serious and contented.  Pee Wee is, for once, not caught in brave-explorer anguish.  Kaminsky is watching Gowans, who is intent, and Condon is gleefully vocalizing (exhorting, encouraging) and grinning.  In fact, Condon looks even more gleeful than usual: his face looks cherubic, transported, the same age as the students!

Don pointed out — with amusement — the little boy on the left who is, for the moment, sorry that he has pushed his way into the front row, and is now holding his hands over his ears against the volume.

But there’s more here.  The settling is so atypical — to find these musicians in a large, well-ornamented room (note the plaster decorations on the wall) — is so far from the usual “night club” world of smoke and darkness, that it lends this photo a Magritte aura, as if two worlds have been superimposed on one another, peacefully but oddly.  The effect is intensified when we see those boys and girls, their school clothes all quite neat, except for one little boy in the rear who seems to have gotten the seat of his trousers dirty from his shoes.  Even from the rear, they look so beautifully-tended, as if they should be singing Christmas carols rather than hearing this band explore SOMEDAY SWEETHEART.

One other photographic digression.  I don’t know the speed of Peterson’s exposure, but think it might have been longer than we are accustomed to in this century.  So did he often opt to photograph the musicians when they were holding whole notes (or “footballs”) behind a soloist, expecting that they would be holding still?  I wonder.

Now to the full band.  If you asked Bobby Hackett if he would like to play his horn alongside his idol, he wouldn’t have had to think about his answer.  And when Louis had a choice (say, at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival tribute to him which had what seemed like a dozen trumpeters ready to accompany him), he only wanted “little Bobby Hackett,” who found those “pretty notes,” every time.

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This famous shot has sometimes been cropped because of its imperfections, such as the soft focus on Gowans and Hackett, and the lighting making Louis’s very sharp suit look just this side of garish.  But the overall effect suggests that Louis is divine or at least from another planet, and has brought his own luminescence with him — a jazz god who has decided to play at being a mortal for an afternoon.  And the viewer’s eye is inextricably drawn to the glowing bell of Louis’s horn — from whence all good things came.

(It is possible that the group shot below was taken before the close-up, but I trust my readers will not object excessively.)

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Can you imagine the sound coming from that now-crowded bandstand?  Its embodiment is on the face of the smiling little girl, whose profile we see at the right.

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I would draw your attention to four faces in this photograph.  Louis is hitting a high note or making a point with all the sincere dramatic eloquence he could command.  Head thrown back with emotion, his neck full of energy, his hand on his heart.  And he’s delightedly making the music, with the music, and wholly IN the music.  Look at how lovingly and happily Zutty’s face echoes Louis’s — they went all the way back and had been the best of friends two decades earlier.  Hackett might be taking a breath, but it looks as if he’s ready to laugh with pure joy — as if he can’t contain himself.  And here we see the grown-ups.  Because this was a program for the boys and girls, the adults had to stay off to the side, but I delight in the woman who is to the extreme left, her grin perilously broad, having the time of her life.  (And the older woman who is standing behind her is almost as transported.)

In the late Bob Hilbert’s biography of  Pee Wee Russell, I found this: “Another special date was a benefit at the “progressive” Walt Whitman School in New York in which the guest of honor was Louis Armstrong.  Louis jammed with the Condon band, but the trumpeter drew the line at singing the blues because, as he explained, the only ones he could remember were dirty and not fit for the kids.  For more than an hour, the band thrilled the students and an overflow crowd of adults as well” (141).

Maybe Louis reached back to 1936 and sang PENNIES FROM HEAVEN for the kids, with its optimistic message, or reminded them that “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you!”

This photograph, not irrelevantly, reaches forward to Nina Leen’s shots of Louis at the Eddie Condon Floor Show, telling the story of THE THREE BEARS to the children, and the famous shot of Louis in Corona, on the porch, with two little boys, one of whom is paying homage to his friend and idol with a plastic toy trumpet.  Maybe some jazz musicians are hard-pressed to be ideal parents, but Louis deserved a troop of children of his own.  Alas.

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Speaking of children: during a break between numbers, we find Pee Wee as kindly uncle (his usual nature), perhaps responding to the little girl at the bottom right who is smiling).  Louis is holding court, telling a story — look at Hackett’s face!  Condon is watching everything.

But my attention is always drawn to the little girl in the front row who has turned her head and is clearly saying something defensive or offensive to the child near her.  Those of us who recall elementary school or have taught it know that expression well.  It’s trouble, and whether it’s “Sally stepped on my dress!” or “Make Timmy stop pulling my hair!”  It doesn’t bode well.  But chaos threatens only when the music isn’t playing.  Music hath charms, we know . . .

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Harmony reigns over the land.  That same little girl is now transfixed by the sound of Louis’s horn, its bell less than two feet from her face.  She doesn’t need to clap her hands over her ears.  If she could have gotten closer, she would have, for she knows what she’s hearing!

None of the musicians in this photograph are alive (Max Kaminsky left us in 1994) and most of those boys and girls would be in their eighties now . . . but if any of them see these photographs, I would give a great deal to hear their memories of that afternoon.

As I’ve written, part of the essential charm of these photographs is that Peterson took his camera to places most of us never got to visit.  I wasn’t born in 1942, and if you count up the people in this room, perhaps fifty mortals were able to have this experience.  And it seems to me that the Walt Whitman School is no longer in existence.  So these photos are gifts to us, welcoming us into worlds now long gone.  But Peterson’s gift was also in what he saw and captured for us.  These are living examples of Peterson’s most generous art.

CHARLES PETERSON: HACKETT and RUSSELL

image0000007A_007To have the man you consider one of the greatest photographic artists capture your heroes at work and play . . . what could be better?

I am happy to present three of Charles Peterson’s on-the-spot portrait studies of Bobby Hackett and Pee Wee Russell in their native habitat.  Hackett met Russell when Bobby was quite young, and, much later, credited Pee Wee with “teaching him how to drink,” not the best lesson. 

But if you listen to their playing — captured on records for more than twenty-five years — they were busy teaching each other more salutary things.  Standing next to Russell on a bandstand would have been a joyously emboldening experience: “Here, kid, close your eyes and jump off.  Nothing to be afraid of!”  Pee Wee’s willingness to get himself into apparently impossible corners was always inspiring.  “What could possibly go wrong?”  And, for Russell, having Hackett nearby, that sound, those lovely melodies, that sensitivity to the harmonies, would have been soul-enhancing: “Listen to the beautiful chorus the kid just played!” 

The portrait above was taken at one of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s, January 19, 1941, and it presents another Ideal Moment in Time and Space that Peterson captured.  It’s possible that Brad Gowans (playing his “valide,” a combination slide / valve trombone of his own manufacture). Bobby, and Pee Wee are doing nothing more adventurous than holding whole notes behind someone else’s solo: they seem remarkably easy, effortless.  But that would have been enough for me. 

They all look so young.  And — adopting the slang of the period — spiffy.  Pee Wee’s crisp suit, folded pocket handkerchief; Brad’s bowtie; their hair, neatly slicked back.  Of course, the combination of Pee Wee’s height and the low ceiling — as well as the angle of Peterson’s shot — makes the three men seem too big for the room.  Which, in terms of their talent, was always true.

As always with Peterson’s work, I find the details I didn’t catch immediately are as enthralling as the big picture.  There’s another musician on the stand — a drummer I can’t immediately identify.  Is it Zutty Singleton?  He is hidden behind Gowans, both the man and the instrument, and less than half his face is visible.  But from what we can see, he is taking it all in, delighted. 

This photograph, with Eddie Condon’s taciturn caption, “TRIO,” appears in the irreplaceable EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, assembled and edited by Hank O’Neal — one of the many things we have to thank Mr. O’Neal for.

The next view comes from a rehearsal for a Commodore Records date a few years earlier — I believe in the rather claustrophoblic Brunswick studios.   (It seems that every studio of that time except for Victor’s Camden church and Columbia’s Liederkrantz Hall stifled both the sound and the musicians.  That so much stirring jazz was captured in such circumstances makes me agree with Norman Field who said, “Can you imagine what those guys sounded like live?”).  The recognizable figures are again Bobby and Pee Wee, with Bud Freeman to the right.  The man I didn’t recognize until Don Peterson identified him, second from left, is jazz enthusiast and amateur drummer Harry Ely.  This is a rehearsal rather than a jam session, so it’s possible that the three men are trying out chords for a background,  Russell and Freeman are intent, but Hackett is at his ease.  His shirt-sleeve is neatly rolled up (revealing his boyish, thin arm), he holds the horn casually.  Musicians dressed beautifully for recording sessions even when no photographers were present — their habit and custom! — thus the neckties and suspenders, the fresh white shirts. 

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Here, again, the photograph can’t convey the sound these men made.  And if you were new to the art and had been handed the photograph, it would just seem reasonably antique: three men in archaic dress with instruments to their lips, a metal folding chair, its paint worn off in spots, in front.  But look at Ely’s face!   Head down, a mild smile, eyes closed to block off any visual distraction — although he never got to make a record, he is IN the music, serene and thrilled.

Finally, a photograph from one of the “Friday Club” sessions at the Park Lane Hotel, circa 1939, with an unusual lineup.

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Of course, that’s Eddie Condon on the left, Hackett, Zutty Singleton at the drums, Jimmy Dorsey on alto sax, left-handed Mort Stuhlmaker at the bass, and the intrepid Mr. Russell on the far right.  Condon is exhorting as well as strumming, and everyone else is floating along (Dorsey watching Condon to see what will happen next). 

Pee Wee has struck out for the Territory, jazz’s Huckleberry Finn, and where he’s going is not only uncharted and exciting but the journey requires every bit of emotional and physical effort.  I can hear a Russell wail soaring above the other horns.  And — perhaps as a prefiguring? — Russell’s face, almost cavernous with the effort, is an unearthly echo-in-advance of the famously skeletal man in the hospital bed in 1951, when Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong came to comfort and solace him. 

After Russell’s death, Hackett wrote of his friend, “Pee Wee and I were very close friends for many years and what little musical knowledge I may have I owe plenty to him.  He was truly a great artist and a very honorable man.  His music will live forever, along with his wonderful spirit.  I’m sure we all miss him, but thank God he was here.”

I feel much the same way about Charles Peterson, who saw, recorded, and preserved marvels for us.

MISS HOLIDAY, SOLD

 BILLIE

Billie Holiday archive, Christie’s (New York), $30,000

In June 1939, Marilyn “Marly” Moore, an aspiring teenage singer living in California, wrote to the jazz singer Billie Holiday for advice; 70 years on, a group of 30 letters that Holiday wrote to Moore from Harlem formed part of a June 24 sale.

“This life is a little tricky,” wrote Holiday in one letter, “but you being a white and if you got something to offer you might not have it so bad,” though she warned Moore against coming to New York unless she had money and was able to take care of herself. “New York…is a tough spot if you ain’t got the jack. Ha Ha.”

Holiday’s big break came when the impresario John Hammond heard her perform in a Harlem club in 1933 and arranged for her to make a number of well-known recordings with the Benny Goodman Band. Holiday told Moore, “John Hammond and Benny Goodman is the right people for you. John discovered me and he fine and a Blue Blood…If he likes your work he will make you a big person.” Then she added, “I know what it is to long to be a Big Star.”

In another letter, she reported on a concert she gave at the Modern Art Theater, remarking, “those society people knowck me out because they aint supposed to like swing.”

When Moore sent Holiday a demonstration recording, she wrote back, “My mother played your record for John Hammond and he told her you didn’t keep good time,” but then in more encouraging mode, Holiday wrote, “but I am sure you will make the grade.” Elsewhere she urged Marilyn to “practice up on your timing; that is the main thing in music and with your face and voice you will be a killer.”

This was the largest group of Holiday letters yet to come onto the market.

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I read this story with mixed emotions. 

The photograph of Billie, happy, youthful, healthy, well-fed, is thrilling.  Her grin is contagious, and the woman depicted here isn’t the gaunt Madonna of suffering we see in her last images.  And to see her amidst what is obviously an Eddie Condon jam session, with Bud Freeman, Hot Lips Page, and Zutty Singleton, is another pleasure.  (The debate over whether the location — a New York hotel ballroom — is the St. Regis or the Park Lane might rage on forever.  And is it a Charles Peterson photograph?) 

Any reason to celebrate Lady Day is fine.  And the letters are obviously a treasure.  But their fate is less cheery.  They weren’t made available to any of Holiday’s biographers, as far as I know.  Will they be made available to scholars in this century? 

I also know the law: the words on the page belong to Holiday’s estate; the letters belong to Moore and her descendants (one of whom is the estimable guitarist Joe Cohn, because Marilyn Moore was married to Al Cohn).  But I wonder if Billie ever earned $30,000 a year.  That figure says a great deal about the way artists are deprived in life, and someone else makes money from their fame after they are dead.

Thanks to Will Friedwald for uncovering this: see http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/200909/auction-2.phtml.

PROFESSOR DAPOGNY TRIUMPHS AGAIN

For me, one of the many rare pleasures of Jazz at Chautauqua has been the opportunity to savor the playing of Professor James Dapogny*, known as Jim to his intimates. 

He is an unforced orchestral pianist — which means he hasn’t learned the Official Wallerisms from a book.  Rather, his romping style summons up Joe Sullivan and Frank Melrose, Earl Hines, Jelly Roll Morton, and James P. Johnson.  And a close listener will notice that his chords are voiced imaginatively, his often advanced harmonies show that his listening doesn’t stop at 1935, and his left hand is a romping marvel.  Often he is part of wondrous rhythm section with Marty Grosz, Arnie Kinsella, and Vince Giordano — able to move mountains in the most engaging way — but Dapogny can rock the place all on his own.  And he has.  But I take particular pleasure in watching and listening to him as a band pianist — giving soloists and the ensemble just the right push with ringing chords and tremolos, rocking bass lines, without ever demanding that we pay attention to him instead of them.  He’s done this on records for some time now as leader of his own Chicago Jazz Band.  In addition, if that was not enough, he’s also responsible for the standard published edition of Jelly Roll Morton’s piano music and scholarly work that resulted in performances of the one-act opera created by Johnson and Langston Hughes (now there’s a collaboration!) called DE ORGANIZER. 

Dapogny is also a wonderful arranger; his versions of classic and obscure jazz songs have their own ebullient rock, no matter what the material or the tempo.  Two years ago at Jazz at Chautauqua, he and Marty Grosz co-led a set, alternating arrangements and songs.  The piece de resistance, as far as I was concerned, was their joint version of an otherwise unknown Fats Waller song, CAUGHT — Marty’s arrangement envisioned the composition as a bump-and-grind growl; Jim’s lifted the tempo into a jaunty rock.  The performance stretched out to ten minutes, and it was a marvel. 

At this year’s Chatauqua, Dapogny and Grosz again shared the stage: Marty began with a heartfelt tribute to singer Red McKenzie, featuring his HOT WINDS — a noble, nimble, and perhaps nubile quartet of Scott Robinson, Dan Block, Vince Giordano, and himself.  Then Dapogny took over, adding Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Barrett, Andy Stein, and Arnie Kinsella, creating electrifying and life-affirming music.  It was, he said with a grin, fine material to begin with — every song written by a pianist!  All praise should go to the masterful professionals you will see below: each one of them reading charts he’d never seen before. 

They began with James P. Johnson’s version — in his own way — of Schubert’s An die Musik — a paean to the joyous powers that notes and tones have, AIN’T CHA GOT MUSIC?.  The churchy verse gives way to serious swinging (there’s a wonderful Thirties record of this by Henry “Red” Allen) with Marty preaching the sermon. 

Then, a mournful but rocking composition by Alex Hill, one of jazz’s nearly-forgotten heroes, dead before he had reached his middle thirties, DELTA BOUND.  I had never heard the verse — and could listen to that trio of Kellso (muted), Barrett (muted), and Block (commenting sweetly) all day.  In his brilliant solo, Dan Barrett summons up a whole Harlem trombone tradition, with a series of comments that reminded me so much of the Master, Vic Dickenson.  Andy Stein’s melody statement, front and back (on baritone) reminded me that Ellington had recorded this — with space for Harry Carney, of course.

I didn’t know that the next selection had been written by pianist J. Russell Robinson, who had links to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band; I associated it with Edythe Wright and Tommy Dorsey’s Clambake Seven: SWING, MR. CHARLIE!  For this performance, Scott Robinson steps in — and instead of a vocal chorus, the band returns to the verse, in true Thirties style.  Although Scott stands in front of Marty during the latter’s chorus, you can see the action, reflected in the shiny side of the grand piano — an accidental bonus.  Then, there are glorious horn solos and a celestially rocking ensemble that suggests a Sunday afternoon jam session at Jimmy Ryan’s, circa 1942.  Charles Peterson would have loved this band!  I find myself watching these videos over and over, each time finding something new to appreciate.

*”Professor,” in Dapogny’s case, refers to his genuinely illustrious academic career in the Department of Music at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.  But, by a twist of linguistic fate, that was the title given to the New Orleans pianists who played rags and blues in the bordellos: Dapogny’s music would have impressed these low-down pioneers as well: he’s surely got music, as the lyrics say.

CHARLES PETERSON’S VISION

This is the second part of what I hope will be a long series on the jazz photography of Charles Peterson, who mystically saw the essence of jazz.  00000005

Here’s Peterson the documentary photographer — his casual, offhanded shot of a quartet led by Sidney Bechet, who is characteristically both in command and absolutely at the service of the music he is creating, the experience ecstatic and powerful.  What I find fascinating are the expressions on the faces of his sidemen: Cliff Jackson (whom I remember seeing in later photographs as white-haired) looks up at the Master to see where the currents of music are going; Eddie Dougherty, a wonderful and little-known Brooklyn-born drummer, seems anxious, although he may have only been caught in mid-comment, and Wellman Braud is quietly gleeful, rocking in rhythm.  They seem small objects drawn into Bechet’s vortex.  The photo suggests that any cohesive jazz group forms itself into a unit, but each musician retains his or her essential personality, and in this picture we see the quiet tension between the Selves and the Community.  And this photo brings up another of Peterson’s unintended gifts to us: how many people ever were fortunate enough to be at the Mimo Club in Harlem to hear this quartet, much less at this moment on February 16, 1942?  But — with a substantial record collection, some memory and imagination — we can invent the music that this band is creating. 

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This is a new split-second capture from a famous jazz session and photo shoot: the Commodore Records session of April 20, 1939, where Billie Holiday recorded STRANGE FRUIT, YESTERDAYS, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, and FINE AND MELLOW.  The musicians are bassist Johnny Williams, trumpeter Frank Newton, altoist Stanley Payne, and tenorist Kenneth Hollon.  Billie is holding a long-noted syllable; is it the “Yes” in YESTERDAYS?  And she is very young, very beautiful, also giving herself up to the music, her hands folded, her eyes almost-shut, Peterson’s lighting capturing her mouth, chin, and throat.  What distinguishes this portrait from others at this session is Billie’s lovely and obviously-treasured fur coat.  I find it ironic, seventy years after the session, that there is such a gap between Billie in her fur — which she deserved more than anyone — and the material she sings with such deep emotion.  One song, most famous, describes lynchings in the South; another describes a “fine and mellow” lover who doesn’t treat his woman well; a third and fourth describe bygone happinesses, all gone now, and the blues one sings when one’s lover has left.  And Billie sang these four songs as if her heart would break . . . wearing that fur coat.  Later in the session, of course, she got warm and took it off.  And no doubt the irony didn’t occur to her and she would have laughed it off if someone pointed it out, “Lady, you look too good to be singing those blues!”00000010

Hard at work is all I can say.  The caption states that this is the Summa Cum Laude band — led in part by Bud Freeman, arrangements by valve-trombonist Brad Gowans — performing at Nick’s in December 1938.  The band must be negotiating some serious ensemble passage, for they all look so intent.  Bassist Clyde Newcome stares out into space, as does Pee Wee Russell; Gowans and Freeman, especially Brad, are watching the band warily, or perhaps Brad is reading the music off the stand in the center.  I would guess that the drummer is Al Sidell, but I would hope that it is Stan King* — drummers shuttled in and out of this band.  The rather somber effect of this picture suggests to me that the band is playing one of its medleys of current hits (you can hear them on the airshots in 1939-40 from Chicago’s Panther Room at the Hotel Sherman . . . grown men of this artistic stature playing SIERRA SUE, but what can I say?)  Serious business indeed.  (In his later comment, Mike Burgevin points out that I left out Max Kaminsky.  How did I do this?)  *Don Peterson confirmed that the drummer is indeed Stan King — one of jazz’s entirely forgotten men. 

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This photo lets me imagine a time before I was born when James P. Johnson could wear his pin-stripe suit and play the piano, which is what he was meant to do.  It was taken in 1946, on a “Jazz on the River” cruise organized by Rudi Blesh and Art Hodes to go up and down the Hudson River.  From left, there’s the hand of an unidentified bassist, James P., Baby Dodds, Marty Marsala on trumpet (with the appropriate handkerchief) and guitarist Danny Barker — some of the same crew who turned up on the THIS IS JAZZ radio broadcasts.   But my secret pleasure in this photograph comes from the pretty woman whose head seems (although much smaller) in the same plane as James P.’s.  She is tidily dressed; her cardigan, pulled together at the collar, reveals a neat floral blouse beneath; we sense that she wears a neat wool skirt.  Her eyeglasses gleam in Peterson’s flashbulb; her hair is demure; her modest lipstick is in place.  Her hands are decorously in her lap.  Yet it’s clear — although she is prim, restrained, the last person to whoop and knock over her highball — that she is deeply pleased by what she hears.  As much as Bechet or James P., she is in the grip of the music, wanting it to go on forever. 

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Berenice Abbott told Hank O’Neal that most of photography was having the patience to wait for the right moment.  I’ll end this series with a superbly right moment — with only two musicians, Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett, playing at the “Friday Club” jam sessions held at the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan — this one on February 17, 1939.  Hackett here is much as I remember him, up close, in 1972: a small, slender man, neatly dressed, dark eyebrows, thin wrists with black hair on them.  Here he is all of 24, and so small that while standing he is only inches taller than Condon, sitting.  The expression on his face might be a smile or it might be that he is working hard to bring off a particular nuanced phrase.  But our attention is drawn to Condon, also young and healthy.  Condon called Hackett “The Impostor,” because — with his peculiarly ornate wit, he said “Nobody can be that good.”  The teasing compliment almost slips away, but you get the point.  What is more important in this picture — more than Condon’s neat attire — is his grin, his head turned in delight and pleasure and admiration towards Hackett, who is clearly playing something marvelous, inimitable, lovely.  Condon is astonished by what he’s hearing, but he’s expected no less from Bobby.  This photograph captures the joy (and the labor) of this music better than any prose. 

Thank you, Charles Peterson!

P.S.  It didn’t surprise me that Peterson’s offspring were particularly talented in music, film, and writing.  His daughter, Karen Yochim, a successful country-and-western songwriter, lives in Louisiana, has written extensively about Cajun culture for newspapers and magazines — and is branching out as a crime novelist.  Peterson’s granddaughter Schascle “Twinkle” Yochim (her name is Cajun, pronounced “Suh-Shell”) is a professional singer with several CDs, concentrating on soul, rock, and to a limited extent, country-and-western. She’s also a songwriter, with songs accepted in feature films currently in production.  

After a career in the Navy, Peterson’s son, Don, worked for the Navy Department in Washington, DC, doing motion picture & television scriptwriting.  Don also wrote scripts for many film and television productions.  He retired in 1986 and now concentrates on marketing his father’s photographic legacy, most lavishly accessible in the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.

CHARLES PETERSON, JAZZ VISIONARY

Jazz owes a great deal to people who never take a chorus: Milt Gabler and Lucille Armstrong, Norman Granz and Helen Oakley Dance.  And Charles Peterson. 

Long before I knew anything about Charles Peterson, I admired the photography and artistic sensibility.  Because photographs get reprinted without attribution, I had seen much of his work without knowing it was his.  That is, until the fine book SWING ERA NEW YORK: THE JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES PETERSON (Temple University Press, 1994) appeared, with priceless shots by Peterson and commentary by W. Royal Stokes.  (The book is now officially out of print, but copies are available from the usual online sources.)  

Between 1935 and 1951, his camera and flashbulbs ready, Peterson went to jazz clubs, parties, concerts, and recording sessions.  That in itself would be enough, but he also approached his subjects in subtle, ingenious ways.  He avoided the formulaic full-frontal studio portraits or the equally hackneyed poses that jazz musicians are forced into.  He saw what other photographers didn’t. 

Granted, he had wonderful visual material to work with.  Many jazz musicians are unconsciously expressive, even dramatic, when they play, sing, or listen; many of them have eloquently unusual faces.

But who was Charles Peterson?

His son, Don, who takes such good care of his father’s invaluable prints and negatives, told me about his father’s fascinating life.  And, not incidentally, the photographs that follow are reproduced with Don’s permission. 

Charles Peterson wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, just off Fifty-Second Street.  Rather, he was born to Swedish wheat farmers in Minnesota on January 3, 1900.  On a trip to New Orleans while he was still in high school, he bought himself a banjo in a pawnshop.  Musically self-taught, he spent his college years playing local dance halls and summer resort hotels.  By 1926, he was such an accomplished jazz player on guitar and banjo that he was part of a band with a residency at the Dacotah Hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The band was so good that its stars were raided for big bands as far away as Chicago — bands whose leaders were alumni of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

Peterson had what they called “pluck” in those days, and drove his Mercer Raceabout to New York City to interview for job in publishing.  But once there he followed his love of music, and he met Pee Wee Russell and many of Russell’s Chicago colleagues and friends — including one Eddie Condon.  He and Pee Wee shared a room and Peterson worked with first-string hot jazz players including Wingy Manone.  But hot jazz didn’t pay well, and Peterson found steady employment with Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees, a successful but much more staid group.  Married and with a son, Peterson looked for a steady job instead of one-nighters on the road.  With the money he had saved from Vallee, where he had been earning $300 a week in the Depression, Peterson took a year off to study photography at the Clarence White School — on the recommendation of Edward Steichen (Peterson had met Steichen when Steichen was photographing the Connecticut Yankees for Vanity Fair. 

Peterson’s knowledge of the music business and his friendship with musicians were invaluable, and he was at the right place and moment in history — not simply because he took rooms above the Onyx Club.  He began with portraits and publicity shots, then moved to capturing jazz players and singers in action — Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and dozens of others in big bands and small, jam sessions and apartment get-togethers.  His photographs were prominently featured in multi-page spreads in LIFE and other glossy magazinesDon remembers that while he was a fifth-grader at the progressive Walt Whitman School, his father assembled a jazz band to play for the students and their families in an informal concert that began at 1 PM and went on into the evening.  The participants?  Only Louis Armstrong, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton — all Peterson’s friends. 

During the Second World War, Peterson’s jazz photography came to a halt, and after the war, although he photographed Ella Fitzgerald and Terry Gibbs, Buck Clayton, Joe Bushkin, the Red Norvo Trio, and his friends at Eddie Condon’s club, his career gradually came to a close in 1951.  Peterson wasn’t fond of modern jazz and had moved, with his wife, to a small farm in Pennsylvania.  He had many interests outside music and photography, and devoted himself to them — from farming to literature to metalwork and boats — until his death in 1976.   

Here are photographs by Charles Peterson that have not been published anywhere else — the first of several installments.

The first one isn’t a classic photo, but we need to the man himself — in the best company.  Peterson sometimes liked to include himself in the shot, so he would set up his camera, arrange the photograph, and ask a competent anonymous amateur to press the button.  He did just that on December 29, 1940, capturing himself and Pee Wee Russell at a private party in what I assume is a New York City apartment.  It is a candid snapshot: I imagine Peterson saying to someone, “Hey, take a picture of Pee Wee and myself,” and the person holding the camera has waited a beat too long.  Pee Wee’s amused expression is beginning to freeze; surely he would rather have lit the cigarette in his hand.  Peterson himself is caught in the middle of saying something perhaps under his breath, which I imagine as “Press the button already.”  A professional photographer wouldn’t have made this a trio of Peterson, Rinso, and Russell, either.  But we see Peterson in his natural surroundings, someone who could have been taken for a handsome, sharply-dressed character actor in a current film.  

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The next photograph moves both Peterson and readers away from boxes of crackers and detergent to a much more emotionallycharged space: the recording studio used by the newly-hatched Blue Note record label for the Port of Harlem Seven session on June 8, 1939.  Peterson was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of recording sessions — his friends were playing and everyone hoped that a Peterson photograph might be published in a major magazine.  (One of his most famous photographs is of drummer Zuty Singleton at a 1938 session for the Hot Record Society, featuring Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, and Freddie Green!) 

Peterson captured the whole Port of Harlem Seven — including Frank Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Williams, Teddy Bunn — in action, but he chose in this shot to concentrate on Sidney Bechet, who would eventually give up the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, and Sidney Catlett.   

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 In this photograph, it is June, and although musicians typically kept their suits and hats on while recording, Catlett has come prepared to exert himself, dressed for hot work in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt that seems more country than town, with suspenders that pull his suit trousers up beyond what we might think of as comfortable.  If there was any doubt as to why he was called “Big Sid,” this photo should act as silent testimony to breadth as well as height: his shoulders, the solidity of his upper arms, even though the fingers of his right hand are holding the drumstick gracefully and delicately, the suggestions of Native American bone structure in his face. 

Catlett’s mouth is part-open, and unlike the first photograph, where it seems that Peterson is inadvertently caught speaking, here Catlett is clearly exhorting, cheering Bechet on.  “Yeaaaaaahhh,” he says, quietly intent.  Bechet’s eyes are half-closed; his necktie seems a montage of mock-neon letters; he holds the clarinet at a distinct angle.  His arm, or perhaps the clarinet, casts a dark shadow across the canvas that is his white dress shirt.  (The angle itself is suggestive: Bechet said that he gave up the clarinet because the vibrations hurt his dental work.  Does this picture capture him in pain, working hard to play that most difficult of single-reed instruments?) 

What Peterson understood, even in the restrictive confines of the recording studio, where the photographer has no control over what his subjects are doing — this is obviously the very opposite of a “posed” shot — was the possibilities of shadow and light.  Figuring out what the camera and the flashbulb would make bright, half-bright, dim, or black, determined much more about the total effect of the shot. 

Look closely at Catlett’s three cymbals — from the left, a Chinese cymbal, then in right foreground a ride cymbal, and apparently submerged beneath it, the top of his hi-hat: three pieces of  round metal, all except the Chinese tapering down from a center cap to their edge.  Without noticing it at first, the viewer takes in the different visual textures of the three: the Chinese cymbal, its surface not flat but rather a series of small convexities, appearing dark and light, “like gold to airy thinness beat”; the top of the ride bymbal, although not grooved, reflecting light much like the grooves of a 78 rpm record; the hi-hat, darkly hidden beneath it.  The viewer senses the shadowing of Catlett’s face, highlighting the texture of his skin, the solidity of his skull, and the dark shadow on the studio wall.  

Peterson’s photographs have resonant depth, unlike our modern digital snapshots of groups of people that make their subjects look like cardboard figures flattened against the wall.  Nothing is blurred, even though these two men are in motion; one imagines the exultant, gutty sounds they make.   00000002

Many photographs of trumpet players catch them straight-on, their faces wracked with the effort of hitting a high note.  Foreshortening makes them look tiny behind the bell of their horn.  This June 1939 photograph, taken from the side, catches Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom as he takes a breath between multi-noted phrases.  Taking in air, he appears to be smiling, and it’s a good possibility he is.  To his right, tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson is clapping his hands, an arranged routine — the band marking time rhythmically as Eldridge, in the best Louis manner, hits some high ones at the climax of a hot number.  The bassist, who may be Ted Sturgis, is concentrating, as is the guitarist.  Jackson’s section-mate in the reeds is also keeping time enthusiastically.  Peterson has framed his shot so that Eldridge and his horn are central, an upturned capital letter L, with all the light focused on that silvery mute, where all the energy was focused.  Luckily for us, this band broadcast on the radio, and airshots were issued thirty-five years later . . . . so one could play these exuberant performance while burying oneself in this photograph — the nearest thing possible to going back in time.        

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In 1945, Sidney Bechet formed a quintet for an extended run at “Boston’s Hot-spot of Rhythm,” the Savoy Cafe.  This photograph captures the band when Bunk Johnson was the trumpeter; bassist Pops Foster stayed throughout the run.  Bunk had a hard time keeping up with Bechet, who seemed to have limitless energy and stamina.  Bechet also shared the front line with the rather introverted Peter Bocage; finally, the only trumpeter who could stand alongside Sidney and not be swept away was the 18-year old Johnny Windhurst, whose golden tone and youthful verve come through on airshots of the band’s “Jazz Nocturne” broadcasts. 

In this photograph, it’s hard to imagine the tempo that the band is playing, but we feel the unstated contest of wills.  Bechet is fierce: his head and eyes revealing the effort.  Pops Foster is smiling at what Sidney is playing; one side of his shirt collar is trying to break free.  Bunk is sitting down, his horn pointed downward, its shadow a dark arrow.  His face is serious, even pained.  Were his teeth bothering him?  Was he feeling the strain of trying to equal Bechet?  Was he only playing a quiet countermelody?  It’s impossible to tell, but the picture is a study in masterful power: Bechet has it, Pops Foster is riding in its wake, and Bunk looks nearly exhausted, defeated by it. 

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This photograph, taken at a Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday afternoon jam session on November 9, 1941, is the emotional opposite of the struggle bwetween Bechet and Bunk.  There is no struggle for mastery between trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Al Morgan.  Rather, the bell of Vic’s horn is close to Morgan’s ear.  Through that length of metal tubing, Vic is telling Morgan something important and gratifying.  What’s the secret?  Is it a characteristically deep meditation on the nature of the blues, or is it exactly why all the boys treated Sister Kate so nice?  We’ll never know, but Morgan hears it, and his smile shows that he gets it, too. 

And Peterson got it: the joy and the stress of the soloist trying to have his or her say, and the urging, happy community of jazz players bound together in common for expression and exultation.  When SWING ERA NEW YORK appeared, the best assessment of Peterson’s work came from another photographer-musician: bassist Milt Hinton, who wrote, “I saw it, lived it, Charles Peterson captured it.  His visual imagery of the swing era in New York is authentic, intimate, and filled with emotion.”

More photographs to come — including Billie Holiday, Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and some surprises. 

FATS WALLER AT CARNEGIE HALL, 1942 (and 1944)

Adventures in jazz discography follow.

Because my friend Agustin Perez (proprietor of the wonderful blog “Mule Walk & Jazz Talk,” often devoted to stride piano) asked me for some information, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Fats Waller’s uneven Carnegie Hall concert of 1942.  And my very hip readers are on the same wavelength, because two people searching for “Fats Waller,” “Carnegie Hall,” “lost acetates,” found this blog.

So — as a brief respite from grading student essays — let me share my ruminations on this subject and a related one — the 1944 Memorial Concert.

fats-jpegIf ever anyone deserved his own concert, it would have been Fats — for his compositions, his joyous playing and singing, his ability to become an entire orchestra at the piano, to say nothing of the way he could drive a band.  And the 1942 Carnegie Hall concert (an idea of Ernie Anderson’s) would have been splendid except for Fats’s nervousness and the resulting over-imbibing.

Eddie Condon recalled that the second half of the concert was nearly disastrous, with Fats unable to free himself from “Summertime.”  (Condon’s recollections come from his WE CALLED IT MUSIC, and the later EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, and there are some comments — and photographs by Charles Peterson — in the book of Peterson’s photographs, SWING ERA NEW YORK.  Several of them show Fats getting dressed and are thus scarily irreplaceable.)

I don’t think that I need recordings of Fats imprisoned in “Summertime,” but two tantalizing pieces of recorded evidence do remain, both impressive.

One is a duet for Fats and Lips Page, an unbeatable idea, playing the blues both slow and fast.  I never think of Fats as a compelling blues player, but he is in splendid form alongside Lips, and the duet ends too soon . . . about an hour too soon for my taste.  It was originally issued on a French bootleg lp (Palm Club) and an American one (Radiola) and most recently was dropped into the French Neatwork CD of Lips Page alternate takes, probably out of print.

The other comes from the closing jam session, and is predictably HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, with Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman, PeeWee Russell, Condon, John Kirby, and Gene Krupa — issued circa 1974 on the very first Jazz Archives lp (one of the many labels invented by Jerry Valburn), CHICAGO STYLE.  This suggests that Valburn, who had resources beyond my imagination and a phenomenal jazz collection — his Ellington collection is now in the Library of Congress — had managed to acquire the acetates of the concert.  From whom, from whence, I cannot say.

What interests me even more is both Waller and Valburn-related: music recorded at the 1944 Waller Memorial Concert.  One track, a rather lopsided LADY BE GOOD by the “Mezz Mezzrow Sextet,” turned up on a Valburn collection devoted to Ben Webster.  Ben is there for sure, alongside a piping Mezz and an unidentified tenor player, possibly Gene Sedric, a pianist who paddles away in the background rather mechanically, Sidney Catlett doing the best he could, and a trombonist mis-identified as Dicky Wells who clearly is Trummy Young.

Others who appeared at the concert were James P. Johnson, Art Hodes, and Frank Newton — and, as readers of this blog know, the possibility of hearing some otherwise unknown Newton would make my year.  Valburn also issued two songs from the concert performed by a Teddy Wilson sextet — HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, again, and a blues called GET THE MOP, on a Lips Page anthology full of errors, famously.  First, the record was called “Play the Blues in B,” which few musicians would think of doing — those blues were audibly in the most common key of Bb; Lips didn’t play with the Wilson group (Emmett Berry, Benny Morton, Ed Hall, Wilson, Al Hall, and Catlett), and the final track on the recording had Paul Quinichette identified as Lester Young even though Lips hailed his tenor player by name.   Such things might not seem important to those beyond the pale, but they received a good deal of attention from the faithful.  Valburn also issued an AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ by the whole Basie band — including the real Lester — on a Lester compilation on his “Everybody’s” label.

Where’s the rest of this music?  Could we hear it now?  Please?

WHEN DREAMS COME TRUE

Please note that my title isn’t “If . . . . ”

The ideal jazz club experience, if you were to take fabled movies as a guide, is an exuberantly chaotic spectacle.  One trumpet player vanquishes another by playing higher and louder; two drummers pound away in grinning synchronicity; musicians magically get together in thunderous ensembles.  Everyone knows what the song is and what key they are playing in; musical routines miraculously coalesce without rehearsal.  Inevitably the audience is on its feet, cheering.  Long live the new king of jazz!  Everybody join in!  (Consider, if you will, “Second Chorus,” “The Glenn Miller Story,” or “The Five Pennies,” and other deliciously unreal episodes.)

I doubt that many of these fanciful scenes ever happened away from the soundstage.  Even if they did, hey aren’t my idea of pleasure.  Everything is too loud, and the movies assume that everyone in the crowd is hip, attentive, listeners unified into an appreciative community.  I wonder if this audience ever existed, although in Charles Peterson’s glorious photographs of 52nd Street jam sessions, no one is texting or even reading a newspaper.

For me, the ideal scenario is quieter: a small audience, paying attention, in a quiet club — quiet enough so that I can hear the music.  And the improvising shouldn’t be self-consciously exhibitionistic, one player trying to outdo another.  My dream, rarely realized, needs an intuitive connection between players and audience.  It happened often in the sessions Michael Burgevin led at Brew’s, featuring Joe Thomas, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, Jimmy Andrews, Kenny Davern, Dill Jones, Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Marshall Brown, Wayne Wright, and others.

Last night (Sunday, December 7) was frigid and the winds were unkind — perfect weather fo staying indoors.  But I made my way to the Ear Inn to hear the EarRegulars.  Because Jon-Erik and Jackie Kellso are off somewhere around the Mexican Riviera, the Regulars were led by the brilliantly soulful guitarist Matt Munisteri.  He arrived first, his hands cold, looking harried but greeting me pleasantly.

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Next in the door was the fine, surprising tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, whose playing I had appreciated greatly on the only other occasion I had heard him — also at the Ear.  Bassist Lee Hudson and trombonist Harvey Tibbs completed this quartet. Matt, Harvey, and Lee have all played together at the Ear and I would imagine other places, so they know and respect each other.

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Michael, about whom I wrote some weeks ago, fit in immediately.  By his playing, I would guess that he isn’t one of those deeply archival types who thinks, when someone mentions a song title, “Oh, yes, Billie recorded that with Bunny and Artie in 1936.  In two takes.”  But when either Matt or Harvey called Walter Donaldson’s IT’S BEEN SO LONG as their first tune, I could hear Michael listening intently for the first few measures, perhaps to remind himself.  Then he, like Lester, leaped in.  His jazz radar is exquisite.  Someone said of Milt Gabler, the Saint of Commodore Records, that he “had ears like an elephant.”  Michael deserves the same accolade: he is a peerless ensemble player, finding countermelodies, call-and-response, and harmony parts while everything was moving along at a brisk tempo.

cork-1108-ear-inn120708006Harvey Tibbs, resplendent as always in white shirt, was in execptional form as well: several songs began with trombone-guitar duets, beautiful vignettes.  Like Michael, Harvey can fit himself into any ensemble, galloping or loitering.  He has a wonderful musical intelligence, which he displayed on James P. Johnson’s OLD FASHIONED LOVE, which had a truly churchy ambiance to start — helped immeasurably by Matt’s delicate single-note lines, music for a troubadour under his Beloved’s balcony.  Lee Hudson kept lively, limber time, saving himself for an intense solo on WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS in the second set.

A lively JUST YOU, JUST ME followed James P.’s paean to the more seemly days of yore; here, Blake exploded into his solo, sounding at times like a supercharged Lester Young with modern sensibilities.  Michael’s tone is often consciously dry instead of pretty, and he approaches his lines in a sideways fashion (his phrases begin and end in surprising places).  A phrase might have an audacious shape — a Slinky tumbling down an irregular staircase — but each one landed without mishap.  I could hear the whole history of jazz tenor in his work — not only Lester, but Lucky Thompson and Al Cohn, Sonny Rollins as well.  He and Harvey took off on a song I didn’t expect — JAZZ ME BLUES — their version harking back not to Bix but to Glenn Hardman or to some imagined jam session in the afterlife, with Bird sitting amidst the Dixielanders at Copley Square.  Although Tom Delaney’s Twenties classic is full of breaks, Blake bobbed and weaved in the ensembles.  A moody WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE? followed — suggesting that the four players were really considering that question on the tiny square of floor they claim as the Ear’s bandstand.  Finally, in deference to inescapable holiday music, someone called for a Bird-and-Diz version of WHITE CHRISTMAS, and it joyously closed the set.

A long pause for the quartet’s dinner ensued, but a noble visitor, his tenor saxophone at his side, joined them: none other than Dan Block.  The two players had a good time, playing their solos while standing at the bar, one listening deeply to the other, or forming a loose circle.

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Harvey, perhaps, called for the Basie classic 9:20 SPECIAL to begin the second set, then they all became optimistic (the only way to face the economic news) with WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, then, in honor of the gales outside, a trotting GONE WITH THE WIND.  They ended with a jubilant IF DREAMS COME TRUE, where Blake got so caught up in the vehemence of his double-time phrases that he was almost kneeling on the floor as he soloed.

It was an extraordinary night of music.  Perhaps it would have seemed insufficiently dramatic for the movies, but my jazz dreams came true for a few hours.

P.S.  The delghtful jazz singer Barbara Rosene was also in the audience.  Her new Stomp Off CD, “It Was Only A Sun Shower,” is perhaps her finest recording to date.  A new one is in the works, devoted to naughty double-entendre songs from the Twenties, where the He-Man (whether Handy or Military) always stands at attention, can trim any girl’s garden and make her coffee boiling hot.  What delights await us!

WITH DISPATCH AND VIGOR (Thursday Night at Chautauqua)

Seven months ago, when I edged into blogging and sat down to write my first post, I was immensely pleased that I could tell people that Jazz at Chautauqua would be held, once again, in September.  It came to pass!  And last Thursday night, we heard four sets of informal, joyous jazz.  The setting was as close to ideal as anyone could want: a well-lit room full of cheerfully listening people, with the musicians set up, informally, on the same level.  No stage, no suits; buffet food and a well-stocked bar.  Outside this room in the Athenaeum Hotel was a wooden porch with comfortable chairs, from where you could see an expansive lake.  And the staff at the hotel was happily always at the ready.  (Here they resemble a barbershop quartet, although they never burst into song.)

Things began in a sly, understated way when the “faux frenchmen” took up positions at one end of the room.  They are an earnest, supple quartet of players from Cincinnati who model themselves after the Quintette of the Hot Club of France.  Yes, the quartet follows Django and Stephane in their love of beautiful melodies and hot rhythm, but they aren’t committed to reproducing cherished records note-for-note, a good thing.  After an ambling “Bye Bye Blackbird,” they eased into a sidling, slow-drag “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and romping versions of “I Saw Stars” and “Limehouse Blues.”  Jazz party promoters here and abroad should take note: they’re a fine group.

The second set made me think I had died and gone to Heaven — no, strike that — to Jimmy Ryan’s, circa 1942, for one of Milt Gabler’s Sunday afternoon jam sessions photographed by Charles Peterson.  Led by Marty Grosz, guitar, vocals, and raillery, the band included Randy Reinhart, Duke Heitger, and Bob Havens on the brass, Dan Block and Bobby Gordon on reeds, Jim Dapogny on piano, and Arnie Kinsella on drums.  Generously filling a vacancy in the rhythm section, Andy Stein, most well-known for his Venuti-inspired violin capers, strapped his baritone saxophone on and took up a chair next to the piano, providing Rollini bass lines and climbing solos.  Marty was in good spirits, happy to be surrounded by friends, and took us back to 1936 with a jolly “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” which mixed a little Bing Crosby in Marty’s hot crooning with some Condon touches.  Usually sets are assembled so that the second song is slower than the opening rouser, but Marty kicked off a fast “Them There Eyes,” again singing the sweet, silly lyrics — inspiring Duke to great early-Louis flights of passion.  The Beloved, who had never seen Duke play before, leaned over and said, “His playing is clear as a bell!”

A trotting “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” followed, and the set concluded with a song Marty explained as the band’s tribute to Connie Francis, who, he said, had recorded a “maudlin, mawkish” version of it in her heyday.  I was momentarily mystified — Connie Francis isn’t usually hailed at jazz parties — but then the band swung into a ferocious version of “Who’s Sorry Now?” that owed its heart and soul to the Blue Note Jazzmen, nothing at all to Connie.  The soloists were so fine that it would take a whole page to celebrate them, but I still marvel at how Arnie’s thundering accents drove the band, how Dapogny’s right hand evoked the glories of Stacy and Hines, his left some of the magic of James P.  And the band worked hard — on the way out after the last song, a listener got up to shake Randy Reinhart’s hand, and I heard Randy say, “Now I can relax.”

A somewhat more pastoral set followed, with the front line of the inestimable Joe Wilder (now eighty-six!) on fluegelhorn and Bob Reitmeier on clarinet, whose easy lines complemented each other beautifully, making the most familiar pieces of jazz repertory, “Lady Be Good,” “Fine and Dandy,” and a ballad medley come alive.  Wilder continues to amaze: it’s not the simple matter of his age — playing a brass instrument is difficult for anyone — but the surprises he unfurls as he plays, his dancing, leaping phrases never going in predictable ways.  And he got the highest praise: when Joe was playing, Bob Reitmeier grinned at particularly felicitous inventions.

In one of those odd turns that jazz parties and jam sessions often bring, the elder statesman of the party (and of the brass world) was followed in the closing set by two immensely talented youths — Bix-inspired fellows from Wisconsin: Andy Schumm (cornet and piano) and David Bock (trombone), 22 and 20 respectively.

They were joined by players we know well: Rossano Sportiello on piano, Pete Siers on drums, and Dan Barrett on trombone.  Jon Burr, who had packed his bass, was prevailed upon to stay (another good thing!) and the session began.  It’s one kind of pleasure when a listener hears someone fine and familiar, another entirely when someone you’ve never heard steps onstage and proceeds to shine.  Schumm reveres Bix and can easily reproduce the nuances of that style, but he isn’t playing copies of the records.  Rather, he has somehow gotten inside the Bixian thought patterns, so that what comes out, alternatively hesitant and plunging, sounds like what Bix might have played had he been allowed to live into 1939.  On the one song the band played that was outside the Beiderbecke canon, “In A Mellotone,” Schumm drew upon a nicely tailored Mainstream approach, somewhere between Hackett and Harry Edison, always a reassuring combination.  His trombone playing friend, wearing a Gennett Records t-shirt, was more energetically rough-hewn, but he was no tailgater: his solos made Dan Barrett smile and applaud.  And Barrett was in fine form: not only playing smoothly and exuberantly, but taking an unexpected vocal, plaintive and casual, on “Louise.”

As the set was nearing its end, two moments happened that seemed to echo the great Hollywood fictions about jazz players in clubs — recall the scene in THE FIVE PENNIES where Danny Kaye, playing Red Nichols, comes back from drunken embarrassment to play extravagantly glowing phrases from the back of the speakeasy — phrases so compelling that he nearly steals the spotlight from one Louis Armstrong?  While the Wisconsin Bixians were playing, a once-exhausted Jon-Erik Kellso sat down next to me, put his horn together, and joined them, from the audience, moving on to the stage, on a very fast “Somebody Stole My Gal,” then leading the troops on an affectionate “Sugar,” and closing the set with “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”  At the same time, Dan Block was standing behind the piano, assembling his clarinet, joining the band in mid-chorus.  Wonderful additions to an already gifted band!  I had yet another occasion to note Kellso’s gentle, intuitive leadership.  He never says “Do this,” but he shapes a performance by suggesting riffs, backgrounds, and solos.  He is a great soloist with an architectural sense of the jazz band as small, flexible orchestra.  It’s the kind of thing Count Basie and Ruby Braff did so splendidly, and a band with Kellso in it has a certain loose-limbed intelligent order that it wouldn’t have otherwise.  When one player is soloing, the musicians don’t lean against the wall or tell jokes.  They become a living organism, and the music soars.

I’ll write about the highlights of the next three days (and there were plenty) in future posts.

P.S.  The inexplicable title?  That’s one of Marty Grosz’s stage jokes.  “We’ll do the next tune with dispatch and vigor,” he says seriously.  Gesturing to the left and right, to two musicians standing nearby, he then says, “That’s Dispatch, and that’s Vigor.”  English music-hall or Twenties vaudeville, I don’t know, but it makes me laugh every time.

EDDIE CONDON’S IDEAL JAZZ WORLD

Charles Peterson’s famous photograph of Eddie Condon looks more pensive than exuberant, but the joy is there in the music. Casual listeners call it “Dixieland,” a term Condon hated, because it relies on collective improvisation, often on jazz tunes written before 1920. And “Royal Garden Blues” sounds much less hip than “One O’Clock Jump” or “Billie’s Bounce” to some. But the records Condon made for forty-five years prove that his jazz was hard-driving and raucous but tender and deeply blues-based. There wasn’t a straw boater in sight and sing-alongs were forbidden.

Condon’s jazz had its roots in Joe Oliver and the Chicago scene of the early Twenties, but his sessions showcased musically sophisticated players: Bobby Hackett, Jess Stacy, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Rex Stewart, Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden, Dick Cary, Cliff Leeman, Red Allen, Dave Tough, George Wettling, Kenny Davern, Bob Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Fats Waller, Bud Freeman, Lee Wiley, Benny Morton, Sidney Bechet, Hot Lips Page and Louis himself.

This isn’t to call for a re-evaluation of his music, or to urge a Condon renaissance. He’s never been away to those who enjoy their jazz Hot. Many contemporary jazz players keep his music alive — Dan Levinson, Dan Barrett, Marty Grosz, Kevin Dorn, Mark Shane, Jon-Erik Kellso, Hal Smith, Chris Tyle, Ray Skjelbred, James Dapogny, Duke Heitger, Jim Fryer, Vince Giordano, Dick Hyman, Bent Persson, David Ostwald, Johnny Varro, Randy Reinhart, Bobby Gordon, Bob Barnard and a host of others.

A new CD, produced by the Italian Jazz Institute, is a happy reason to write about Eddie and his friends — especially since it contains some delightfully rare performances. Giorgio Lombardi, author of Eddie Condon on Record 1927-72, has gathered nearly two dozen tracks from 1929 to 1968. The CD begins with the soundtrack from a Vitaphone Red Nichols short film, featuring Pee Wee revisiting his solo on “Ida” and a surprisingly winning Condon vocal on “Nobody’s Sweetheart Now.” Ten years later, we find Bobby Hackett in pearly form amidst George Brunis and Ernie Caceres; then several performances document the concerts that Condon gave in the Forties. Hear Catlett behind the horns on “Peg O’My Heart” and rejoice. A real rarity follows, from Condon’s television series, the Eddie Condon Floor Show. It features Johnny Mercer singing “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll” with splendid impudence. The Fifties recordings come from Condon’s own club and feature Ralph Sutton, Ed Hall, and Walter Page, as well as a few band performances. The radio nnouncer, Aime Gauvin, “Doctor Jazz,” talks over Dick Cary’s trumpet solo on “Bill Bailey,” but it’s worth straining to hear. A 1965 television tribute to Condon is uneven but offers rousing work by Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, and Vic Dickenson. And an Art Hodes jazz series puts Condon back where he started, on banjo (how much persuading did that require?) but you can hear Eddie exhorting Tony Parenti and J.C. Higginbotham.  Condon’s pushing rhythm guitar is delightfully evident all through the CD, but even when he isn’t playing, his presence is invaluable.

For information on ordering this CD, visit www.italianjazzinstitute.com. The joyous energy of the music fairly bursts through the speakers.

THE ELUSIVE FRANK NEWTON

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the remarkable jazz trumpeter Frank Newton in the last few weeks, even before having the opportunity to repost this picture of him (originally on JazzWax) — taken in Boston, in the late Forties, with George Wein and Joe Palermino. 

Jazz is full of players who say something to us across the years, their instrumental voices resounding through the murk and scrape of old records.  Some players seem to have led full artistic lives: Hawkins, Wilson, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Bob Wilber come to mind at the head of a long list.  Others, equally worthy, have had shorter lives or thwarted careers.   Bix, Bird, Brownie, to alliterate, among a hundred others.  And all these lives raise the unanswerable question of whether anyone ever entirely fulfills him or herself.  Or do we do exactly what we were meant to do, no matter how long our lifespan?  Call it Nurture / Nature, free will, what you will.     

But today I choose Frank Newton as someone I wish had more time in the sun.  His recorded legacy seems both singular and truncated.     

Frank Newton (who disliked the “Frankie” on record labels) was born in 1906 in Virginia.  He died in 1954, and made his last records in 1946.  A selection of the recorded evidence fills two compact discs issued on Jasmine, THE STORY OF A FORGOTTEN JAZZ TRUMPETER.    His Collected Works might run to four or five hours — a brief legacy, and there are only a few examples I know where an extended Newton solo was captured for posterity.  However, he made every note count. 

In and out of the recording sudios, he traveled in fast company: the pianists include Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Sonny White, Mary Lou Williams, Buck Washington, Meade Lux Lewis, Kenny Kersey, Billy Kyle, Don Frye, Albert Ammons, Joe Bushkin, Joe Sullivan, Sonny White, and Johnny Guarneri.  Oh, yes — and Art Tatum.  Singers?  How about Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Maxine Sullivan, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Although Newton first went into the studio with Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys in 1929 for Victor, the brilliant trumpeter Bill Coleman and trombonist Dicky Wells blaze most notably on those sessions. 

It isn’t until 1933 that we truly hear Newton on record.  This interlude, lasting less than a minute, takes place in the middle of Bessie Smith’s “Gimme A Pigfoot,” one of four vaudeville-oriented songs she recorded at her last session, one organized by John Hammond, someone who re-emerges in Newton’s story.  It was a magnificent all-star band: Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry, Benny Goodman (for a moment), Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, Billy Taylor on bass.  Hammond wanted Sidney Catlett on drums, but Bessie refused: “No drums.  I set the tempo.”  For all the rent-party trappings of the song, “Pigfoot” is thin material, requiring a singer of Bessie’s majesty to make it convincing.   

What one first notices about Newton’s solo is his subversive approach, his unusual tone and attack.  In 1933, the jazz world was rightly under the spell of Louis, which led to understandable extroversion.  Project.  Hit those high notes loud.  Sing out.  If you were accompanying a pop or blues singer, you could stay in the middle register, be part of the background, but aside from such notable exceptions as Joe Smith, Bubber Miley, trumpets were in the main assertive, brassy.  Dick Sudhalter thought Newton’s style was the result of technical limitations but I disagree; perhaps Newton was, like Tricky Sam Nanton, painting with sounds. 

Before Newton solos on “Pigfoot,” the record has been undeniably Bessie’s, although with murmurings from the other horns and a good deal of Washington’s spattering Hines punctuations.  But when Newton enters, it is difficult to remember that anyone else has had the spotlight.  Rather than boldly announce his presence with an upwards figure, perhaps a dazzling break, he sidles in, sliding down the scale like a man pretending to be drunk, whispering something we can’t quite figure out, drawling his notes with a great deal of color and amusement, lingering over them, not in a hurry at all.  His mid-chorus break is a whimsical merry-go-round up and down figure he particularly liked.  It’s almost as if he is teasing us, peeking at us from behind his mask, daring us to understand what he is up to.  The solo is the brief unforgettable speech of a great character actor, Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton, scored for jazz trumpet.  Another brassman would have offered heroic ascents, glowing upwards arpeggios; Newton appears to wander down a rock-choked slope, watching his footing.  It’s a brilliant gambit: no one could equal Bessie in scope, in power (both expressed and restrained) so Newton hides and reveals, understates.  And his many tones!  Clouded, muffled, shining for a brief moment and then turning murky, needling, wheedling, guttural, vocal and personal.  Considered in retrospect, this solo has a naughty schoolyard insouciance.  Given his turn in the spotlight, Newton pretends to thumb his nose at us.  Bessie has no trouble taking back the spotlight when she returns, but she wasn’t about to be upstaged by some trumpet-playing boy.     

Could any trumpet player, jazz or otherwise, do more than approximate what Newton plays here?  Visit http://www.redhotjazz.com/songs/bessie/gimmieapigfoot.ram to hear a fair copy of this recording.  (I don’t find that the link works: you may have to go to the Red Hot Jazz website and have the perverse pleasure of using “Pigfoot” as a search term.) 

The man who could play such a solo should have been recognized and applauded, although his talent was undeniably subtle.  (When you consider that Newton’s place in the John Kirby Sextet was taken by the explosively dramatic Charlie Shavers, Newton’s singularity becomes even clearer.)  His peers wanted him on record sessions, and he did record a good deal in the Thirties, several times under his own name.  But after 1939, his recording career ebbed and died. 

Nat Hentoff has written eloquently of Newton, whom he knew in Boston, and the man who comes through is proud, thoughtful, definite in his opinions, politically sensitive, infuriated by racism and by those who wanted to limit his freedoms.  Many jazz musicians are so in love with the music that they ignore everything else, as if playing is their whole life.  Newton seems to have felt that there was a world beyond the gig, the record studio, the next chorus.  And he was outspoken.  That might lead us back to John Hammond. 

Hammond did a great deal for jazz, as he himself told us.  But his self-portrait as the hot Messiah is not the whole story.  Commendably, he believed in his own taste, but he required a high-calorie diet of new enthusiasms to thrive.  Hammond’s favorite last week got fired to make way for his newest discovery.  Early on Hammond admired Newton, and many of Newton’s Thirties sessions had Hammond behind them.  Even if Hammond had nothing to do with a particular record, appearing on one major label made a competing label take notice.  But after 1939, Newton never worked for a mainstream record company again, and the records he made in 1944-1946 were done for small independent labels: Savoy (run by the dangerously disreputable Herman Lubinsky) and Asch (the beloved child of the far-left Moses Asch).  The wartime recording ban had something to do with this hiatus, but I doubt that it is the sole factor: musicians recorded regularly before the ban.  Were I a novelist or playwright, I would invent a scene where Newton rejects Hammond’s controlling patronage . . .  and falls from favor, never to return.  I admit this is speculation.  Perhaps it was simply that Newton chose to play as he felt rather than record what someone else thought he should.  A recording studio is often the last place where it is possible to express oneself freely and fully.  And I recall a drawing in a small jazz periodical from the late Forties, perhaps Art Hodes’ JAZZ RECORD, of Newton in the basement of an apartment building where he had taken a job as janitor so that he could read, paint, and perhaps play his trumpet in peace.  

I think of Django Reinhardt saying, a few weeks before he died, “The guitar bores me.”  Did Newton grow tired of his instrument, of the expectations of listeners, record producers, and club-owners?  On the rare recording we have of his speaking voice — a brief bit of a Hentoff interview — Newton speaks with sardonic humor about working in a Boston club where the owner’s taste ran to waltzes and “White Christmas,” but using such constraints to his advantage: every time he would play one of the owner’s sentimental favorites, he would be rewarded with a “nice thick steak.”  A grown man having to perform to be fed is not a pleasant sight, even though it is a regular event in jazz clubs.     

In addition, John Chilton’s biographical sketch of Newton mentions long stints of illness.  What opportunities Newton may have missed we cannot know, although he did leave Teddy HIll’s band before its members went to France.  It pleases me to imagine him recording with Django Reinhardt and Dicky Wells for the Swing label, settling in Europe to escape the racism in his homeland.  In addition, Newton lost everything in a 1948 house fire.  And I have read that he became more interested in painting than in jazz.  Do any of his paintings survive?  

Someone who could have told us a great deal about Newton in his last decade is himself dead — Ruby Braff, who heard him in Boston, admired him greatly and told Jon-Erik Kellso so.  And on “Russian Lullaby,” by Mary Lou WIlliams and her Chosen Five (Asch, reissued on vinyl on Folkway), where the front line is bliss: Newton, Vic Dickenson, and Ed Hall, Newton’s solo sounds for all the world like later Ruby — this, in 1944. 

In her notes to the Jasmine reissue, Sally-Ann Worsford writes that a “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” Newton “made his final appearance at New York’s Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950s.”  That large hall, peopled by loudly enthusiastic college students shouting for The Saints, would not have been his metier.  It is tempting, perhaps easy, to see Newton as a victim.  But “sick, disenchanted, dispirited” is never the sound we hear, even on his most mournful blues. 

The name Jerry Newman must be added here — and a live 1941 recording that allows us to hear the Newton who astonished other players, on “Lady Be Good” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” in duet with Art Tatum (and the well-meaning but extraneous bassist Ebenezer Paul), uptown in Harlem, after hours, blessedly available on a HighNote CD under Tatum’s name, GOD IS IN THE HOUSE.  

Jerry Newman was then a jazz-loving Columbia University student with had a portable disc-cutting recording machine.  It must have been heavy and cumbersome, but Newman took his machine uptown and found that the musicians who came to jam (among them Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Don Byas, Thelonious Monk, Joe Guy, Harry Edison, Kenny Clarke, Tiny Grimes, Dick Wilson, Helen Humes) didn’t mind a White college kid making records of their impromptu performances: in fact, they liked to hear the discs of what they had played.  (Newman, later on, issued some of this material on his own Esoteric label.  Sadly, he committed suicide.)  Newman caught Tatum after hours, relaxing, singing the blues — and jousting with Newton.  Too much happens on these recordings to write down, but undulating currents of invention, intelligence, play, and power animate every chorus.

On “Lady Be Good,” Newton isn’t in awe of Tatum and leaps in before the first chorus is through, his sound controlled by his mute but recognizable nonetheless.  Newton’s first chorus is straightforward, embellished melody with some small harmonic additions, as Tatum is cheerfully bending and testing the chords beneath him.  It feels as if Newton is playing obbligato to an extravagantly self-indulgent piano solo . . . . until the end of the second duet chorus, where Newton seems to parody Tatum’s extended chords: “You want to play that way?  I’ll show you!”  And the performance grows wilder: after the two men mimic one another in close-to-the-ground riffing, Newton lets loose a Dicky Wells-inspired whoop.  Another, even more audacious Tatum solo chorus follows, leading into spattering runs and crashing chords.  In the out- chorus, Tatum apparently does his best to distract or unsettle Newton, who will not be moved or shaken off.  “Sweet Georgia Brown” follows much the same pattern: Tatum wowing the audience, Newton biding his time, playing softly, even conservatively.  It’s not hard to imagine him standing by the piano, watching, letting Tatum have his say for three solo choruses that get more heroic as they proceed.  When Newton returns, his phrases are climbing, calm, measured — but that calm is only apparent, as he selects from one approach and another, testing them out, taking his time, moving in and outside the chords.  As the duet continues, it becomes clear that as forcefully as Tatum is attempting to direct the music, Newton is in charge.  It isn’t combat: who, after all, dominated Tatum?  But I hear Newton grow from accompanist to colleague to leader.  It’s testimony to his persuasive, quiet mastery, his absolute sense of his own rightness of direction (as when he plays a Tatum-pattern before Tatum gets to it).  At the end, Newton hasn’t “won” by outplaying Tatum in brilliance or volume, speed or technique — but he has asserted himself memorably.   

Taken together, these two perfomances add up to twelve minutes.  Perhaps hardly enough time to count for a man’s achievement among the smoke, the clinking glasses, the crowd.  But we marvel at them.  We celebrate Newton, we mourn his loss.

Postscript: in his autobiography, MYSELF AMONG OTHERS, Wein writes about Newton; Hentoff returns to Newton as a figure crucial in his own development in BOSTON BOY and a number of other places.  And then there’s HUNGRY BLUES, Benjamin T. Greenberg’s blog (www.hungryblues.net).  His father, Paul Greenberg, knew Newton in the Forties and wrote several brief essays about him — perhaps the best close-ups we have of the man.  In Don Peterson’s collection of his father Charles’s resoundingly fine jazz photography, SWING ERA NEW YORK, there’s a picture of Newton, Mezz Mezzrow, and George Wettling at a 1937 jam session.  I will have much more to write about Peterson’s photography in a future posting.