Tag Archives: Charlie Barnet

THE WAY IT SHOULD BE DONE: A NEW BOOK BY DEREK COLLER and BERT WHYATT

Before you read another word: if you know the remarkable work of Derek Coller and the late Bert Whyatt, you can skip to the bottom for details on how to buy it: you won’t need me to convince you of its worth.

Full disclosure, for those who like FD: I corresponded with Bert and exchanged information and tapes for the Bobby Hackett book he and George Hulme did, and I am mentioned in this new book as a source pertaining to Frank Chace.

Now for larger matters: when I pick up a book purporting to be on jazz, I value clear presentation of information, at best first-hand narrative or close informed analysis, any ideological basis (if there must be one) aboveboard.  I should come away from any reading feeling that I know many new things or have been given new ways of perceiving what I know.

Here’s what repels me (details omitted to avoid legal action):

During the twentieth century, jazz was at the center of multiple debates about social life and American experience. Jazz music and its performers were framed in both positive and negative manners. The autobiographies of _____ musicians _____ and ______ provide insight into the general frames they used to frame jazz experience and agency sometimes at odds with dominant discourses. Through Michel Foucault’s notion of ethical substance, I analyze the way in which jazz is constructed in their autobiographies. Several themes are used by both autobiographers to frame their actions, which are constructed in a complex and ambivalent manner revealing both the ethics of jazz and its covert culture.

A long pause.  Happily, I can leave Foucault to his own devices, and enthusiastically recommend CHICAGO JAZZ: THE SECOND LINE, the opposite of the miasma in italics.  And, for the curious, the picture above is of Sig Meyer and his Druids, c. 1924 — including Volly De Faut, Arnold Loyacano, Marvin Saxbe, and Muggsy Spanier.  In itself, that photograph says everything you might need to know about the depth of research in this book.

Coller and Whyatt come from the old school of scholars — note I don’t write “critics” — who believe that the stories musicians tell about themselves and others are more worthy than what listeners believe they hear.  This is a collection of articles — essays, portraits, studies — by both authors, published in Storyville, The Mississippi Rag, the IAJRC Journal, Jazz Journal, and as liner notes — between 1983 and 2016.

For once, I will quote the publisher’s copy, because it is so apt:

When Derek Coller decided to pay tribute to his late friend – the author, biographer, discographer and researcher, Bert Whyatt – he looked for a common theme under which to group some of the articles they had written together over the years. He found it in Chicago where their research activities had gravitated towards the style of music created by the young white musicians from that city and its environs – particularly those who rallied around the figurehead of Eddie Condon – as they listened to and learned from the pioneer black stylists, many of them the greatest jazz players to emigrate from New Orleans, including King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Johnny and Baby Dodds and Jimmy Noone. Two trips to the USA, made by the authors in 1979 and 1992, led to meetings and correspondence with some of the musicians in this compilation, and to learning about many others. There are connections between most of these articles, interviews and notes, with an over-lapping of jobs, leaders and clubs. Some of the stories are about pioneers: Elmer Schoebel, Jack Pettis and Frank Snyder, for example, were in the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1923. Trombonist George Brunis, chronicled here, was also a member of that band, though his long career – during which he played with Muggsy Spanier, as did Rod Cless and George Zack, in the Spanier Ragtime Band of ‘Great Sixteen’ fame – has been more widely documented. Floyd Bean and Tut Soper, here too, were also Spanier alumni. The articles originally appeared variously under a dual by-line, or by either Whyatt or Coller, but always with consultation and discussion prior to publication. Here they become a lively mix of the voices of the authors as well as the musicians and their families, building a story through biography, reviews and discography. The book is illustrated with evocative black and white photographs and images, and there is an Index of names and places to help the reader keep track of the musicians, composers, producers, promoters and writers who created this part of the history of jazz.

“A lively mix” is an understatement. First off, the book is full of wonderful anecdotage, primarily by the musicians themselves.  And it helps to explicate Chicago — which is often legendary but certainly under-documented — as its own world of jazz, where one could encounter Jimmy Yancey, Brownie McGhee, Bud Jacobson, Brad Gowans, Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes — see the 1949 photo facing the table of contents.

For me, the complete and absorbing charm of the book and the research under it is in the focus on those musicians whom I’ve known as names on record labels or in discographies.  Yes, there is coverage of Muggsy Spanier and George Brunis (the first already the subject of a fine biography by — no surprise — Bert), but the other portraits are welcome because the musicians depicted never got the attention during or after their lifetimes.  I will simply list them: Jack Pettis, Frank Snyder, Elmer Schoebel, Rod Cless, George Snurpus, Maurice Bercov, Floyd O’Brien, Oro “Tut” Soper, Floyd Town, Johnny Lane, George Zack, Jack Gardner, Chet Roble, Floyd Bean, Bill Reinhardt and his club Jazz Ltd., Dan Lipscomb, Frank Chace, Jimmy Ille, Art Jenkins, Doc Cenardo, Freddy Greenleaf, and Paul Jordan.

And that is surely not all.  Photographs new to me, of course.  And when I open the book at random, gems leap out: on page 202, pianist Tut Soper describes Chicago as “the center of gravity as far as jazz is concerned.”  On page 63, we are in trombonist Floyd O’Brien’s datebook for 1928, describing gigs and who was in the band.  On page 227, jazz writer Larry Kart recalls hearing (and recording) clarinetist Frank Chace and pianist Bob Wright playing Coltrane’s LAZY BIRD and Tadd Dameron’s IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW.

I mentioned anecdotage earlier in this post, and will add a few excerpts from string bassist Harlow Atwood (201-2), talking of clarinetist / clubowner Bill Reinhardt and early rehearsals (Fall 1932) for Charlie Barnet’s first big band:

(. . . Charlie then was a 17 years-old pothead fugitive from Moses Brown Prep in Providence, R.I.) which boasted the legendary Jack Purvis on trumpet and Scoops Thompson (he sold drugs by the scoopful!) on guitar.  The two wildest dudes I ever met in the business.  That band, by the way, opened the brand-new Paramount Hotel, owned by Charlie’s family, on New Year’s Eve of ’32-’33 and lasted exactly one set.  Barnet’s mother, shocked to her socks by Purvis’ romping charts, fired Charlie herself.  I was sitting at Charlie’s table and heard the conversation.  

And, later, Atwood’s memories of valve-trombonist Frank Orchard (memorable for appearances on Commodore Records — I also saw him at Jimmy Ryan’s in the Seventies) who also acted as M.C., played piano, guitar, and sang — and who installed “a 2 1/2 times life-sized photo of himself at the club’s street entrance”:

The sets were pure Mack Sennett.  Frank would tinkle a piano intro, then switch to rhythm guitar for the opening chorus, grab his guitar and up to the mike to sing / play a chorus, then do the sock chorus on trombone lead and finally sprint back to the piano for the ending.  Plus, of course, introductory blather.

That’s purest jazz catnip to me, and I hope to you also.

If you’d told me a few years ago that I would hold a book with a detailed portrait of the pianist Jack Gardner in it, or a reference to tenorist Joe Masek, I would have thought that impossible.  And I have taken so long to review this book because of its irresistible nature.  When I received it in the mail, I left it visible in my apartment, and when I passed by it, I would stop to read a few pages: its distracting force was just that powerful.  I apologize to Derek and to the shade of Bert for being so tardy, but if you are in the least curious about Chicago jazz — from the teens to the Seventies — you will find CHICAGO JAZZ: THE SECOND LINE fascinating, quotable, and invaluable. I wish there were a bookshelf of volumes of equal merit.

Buy a copy here or here .  Alas, the book doesn’t come with a I BRAKE FOR SIG MEYERS AND HIS DRUIDS bumper sticker or a multi-volume CD set of previously unheard live sessions recorded by John Steiner, but we will make do with this lovely collection.

May your happiness increase!

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WITH POWER TO SPARE: LIONEL HAMPTON AND HIS ORCHESTRA (1947-48)

The publishers of the Dutch jazz magazine and CD label DOCTOR JAZZ don’t overwhelm us with issues, but what they offer is rare and astonishing. First, they offered  a two-CD set, DINNERTIME FOR HUNGRY COLLECTORS, which contained previously unheard Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lester Young; Don Redman and Cab Calloway soundtracks from Max Fleischer cartoons; Lionel Hampton on the air; Jimmie Lunceford transcriptions; unissued alternate takes featuring Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Adrian Rollini, “The Three Spades,” Spike Hughes with Jimmy Dorsey / Muggsy Spanier; Charlie Barnet; Earl Hines; Mildred Bailey with the Dorsey Brothers; Frank Trumbauer; Joe Venuti; Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald; Paul Whiteman; Jack Teagarden; Bob Crosby featuring Jess Stacy; Billie Holiday; Raymond Scott Quintette; Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins in Europe.

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Their new issue, “THAT’S MY DESIRE,” is exclusively focused on the 1947-48 Lionel Hampton big band, and offers seventy-nine minutes of previously unheard (and unknown) aircheck material. Eighteen of the performances come from November 2-30, 1947, at the Meadowbrook in Culver City, California; the remaining four originate from the Fairmont in West Virginia, on June 29, 1948.

The songs are RED TOP / THAT’S MY DESIRE / HAWK’S NEST / VIBE BOOGIE / MUCHACHOS AZUL (BLUE BOY) / GOLDWYN STOMP / LONELINESS / HAMP’S GOT A DUKE / MIDNIGHT SUN / GOLDWYN STOMP #2 / MINGUS FINGERS / OH, LADY BE GOOD / RED TOP #2 / CHIBABA CHIBABA (My Bambino Go To Sleep) / ADAM BLEW HIS HAT / I’M TELLING YOU SAM / PLAYBOY / GIDDY UP / ALWAYS / DON’T BLAME ME / HOW HIGH THE MOON / ADAM BLEW HIS HAT #2

These are newly discovered airchecks, and Doctor Jazz tells us, “In this period the band was musically very creative and a tight musical aggregation. The Hampton band was one of the top jazz bands in business. In this version we hear a young Charles Mingus performing his ‘Mingus Fingers’. We don’t know who recorded these acetates, but our ‘recording man’ was very active at that time (1947-1948). He recorded a lot from the radio and may have had some other sources where he could dub then rare recordings. In 2013 a building contractor worked on an old abandoned Hollywood house in the Hollywood Hills and discovered a storage area that was walled off and filled with several wrapped boxes of acetate records. Among them these Hampton acetates. They are now carefully restored by Harry Coster and released for the first time. The CD contains a booklet of 32 pages including photos and a discography.”

Collectors who know airchecks — performances recorded live from the radio or eventually television — savor the extended length and greater freedom than a band would find in commercial recordings of the time. And the sound is surprisingly good for 1947-48, so the string bass of Charles Mingus comes through powerfully on every cut even when he or the rhythm section is not soloing. Another young man making a name for himself at the time is guitarist Wes Montgomery, and the West Virginia HOW HIGH THE MOON is a quartet of Hampton, Mingus, Wes, and pianist Milt Buckner (although Wes does not solo on it). Other luminaries are trombonist Britt Woodman, trumpeter Teddy Buckner; tenor saxophonists Johnny Sparrow, Morris Lane, and clarinetist Jack Kelso take extended solos as well.

The Hampton aggregation, typically, was a powerful one. If the Thirties and early Forties Basie band aimed to have the feeling of a small band, Hampton’s impulses led in the other direction, and even in these off-the-air recordings, the band is impressive in its force and sonic effect. Hampton tended to solo at length, although his solos in this period are more melodic and less relentless than they eventually became. The rhythm section is anchored by a powerful drum presence, often a shuffle or back-beat from Walker.

It is not a subtle or a soothing band, although there are a number of ballad features. What I hear — and what might be most intriguing for many — is a jazz ensemble attempting to bridge the gap between “jazz” and “rhythm and blues” or what sounds like early rock ‘n’ roll. Clearly the band was playing for large audiences of active dancers, so this shaped Hampton’s repertoire and approach. It is music to make an audience move, with pop tunes new and old, jump blues, boogie-woogie, high-note trumpets, honking saxophones, and energy throughout. As a soloist, Hampton relies more on energy than on inventiveness, and his playing occasionally falls back on familiar arpeggiated chords, familiar gestures. He is admirable because he fit in with so many contexts over nearly seventy years of playing and recording — from Paul Howard in 1929 to the end of the century — but his style was greatly set in his earliest appearances, although he would add a larger harmonic spectrum to his work.

The Meadowbrook personnel (although labeled “probably”) includes Wendell Culley, Teddy Buckner, Duke Garrette, Leo Shepherd, Walter Williams or possibly Snooky Young, trumpet; James Robinson, Andrew Penn, Jimmy Wormick, Britt Woodman, trombone; Jack Kelso or Kelson, clarinet; Bobby Plater, Ben Kynard, Morris Lane, John Sparrow, Charlie Fowlkes, saxophones; Milt Buckner, piano; Charles Mingus, string bass (Joe Comfort or Charles Harris may also be present); Earl Walker, drums; Wini Brown, Herman McCoy, Roland Burton, the Hamptones, vocals.

For the 1948 West Virginia airchecks, Jimmy Nottingham is the fifth trumpet; Lester Bass, bass trumpet; the trombones are Woodman, Wormick, and Sonny Craven; the reeds are Kynard, Plater, Billy “Smallwood” Williams, Sparrow, Fowlkes, with the same rhythm section.

The good people at Doctor Jazz don’t offer sound samples, but having purchased a few of their earlier issues, I can say that their production is splendid in every way: sound reproduction of unique issues, documentation, discography, and photographs. So if you know the Hampton studio recordings of this period and the few airshots that have surfaced, you will have a good idea of what awaits on this issue — but the disc is full of energetic surprises.

May your happiness increase!

CLIFF LEEMAN’S SOUND LIVES ON

Drummer Cliff Leeman had a completely personal and identifiable sound, a seriously exuberant approach to the music.  You can’t miss him, and it’s not because of volume.

He’s audible from the late Thirties on in the bands of Artie Shaw and Charlie Barnet, then most notably in Eddie Condon’s bands, later with the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Bob Crosby reunions, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, Kenny Davern and Dick Wellstood, and Soprano Summit.  Cliff died in 1986, but his slashing attack and nearly violent exuberance are in my ears as I write this . . . including his trademark, the tiny splash cymbal he used as an auditory exclamation point.  He spoke briefly about his approach in this interview for MODERN DRUMMER magazine.

In case Cliff is someone new to you, here he is on a 1975 television program with Joe Venuti, Marian McPartland, and Major Holley, elevating CHINA BOY:

In spring 2008, Kevin Dorn and I paid a call on Irene (Renee) Leeman, his widow, then living comfortably in New Jersey.  I have very fond memories of that afternoon, hearing stories and laughing.  Until recently, I thought that those memories were all I had.  But a recent stint of domestic archaeology uncovered the small notebook in which I had written down what Mrs. Leeman told us.  Here are some of her comments and asides, shared with you with affection and reverence (and with her permission).

But first: Cliff on film in 1952 with Eddie Condon . . . the epitome of this driving music.  Also heard and seen, Edmond Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Cutty Cutshall, Gene Schroeder, Bob Casey:

Some words from Mrs. Leeman to go with all those good sounds:

I first met Clifford at Nick’s.  I didn’t go there by myself, but because of a friend who had a crush on Pee Wee Erwin.

Roger Kellaway always asked for Clifford.

He wore Capezios on the job.

He had a colorful vocabulary and didn’t repeat himself.  He thought Bing Crosby was the best, but Clifford was always very definite in his opinions.

He came from a Danish-Scandinavian family where the men didn’t hug one another.

Clifford once asked Joe Venuti, “How do you want me to play behind you?” and Venuti said, “Play as if I’m five brass.”

He worked on THE HIT PARADE with Raymond Scott, who timed everything with a stopwatch, “The hardest job I ever had.”

Clifford was the drummer on Bill Haley and the Comets’ Decca recording of ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK, and when the session ended, he said, “I think I just killed my career.”

Sidney Catlett was Clifford’s idol.  Jo Jones, Ben Webster, Charlie Shavers and Clifford loved each other.  They all hung out at Hurley’s Bar, Jim and Andy’s, and Charlie’s Tavern.

Clifford played piano — not jazz, but ROCK OF AGES and MOTHER MACHREE, as well as xylophone.  And he could read music.  He was always surprised that other musicians couldn’t, and would come home after a gig and say, “Do you know _____?  He can’t read!”

Clifford was left-handed but he played with a drum kit set up for right-handed drummers.

He thought the drummer was supposed to keep the time and drive the band and pull everything together.  Clifford listened. He was fascinated with rock drummers he saw on television, and would tell me how bad they were.

“Cliff is the best timekeeper,” Billy Butterfield said.  Billy was so cute.

He loved his cymbals.

He was hard on himself, and on other people, but he loved working with Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart.  They had a good time.  They respected each other. They thought that music should be fun. Yank and Bob used to rehearse the band in Lou Stein’s basement in Bayside, New York.

Kenny Davern!  Kenny was a challenge to the world and a thinker. He was an angry young man who became an angry old man.  He and Clifford were a comedy team wherever they went.

Clifford didn’t embrace the world, and he could be abrasive if people bothered him.

Clifford played with Bob Crosby and Louis Armstrong on one of those Timex television jazz shows.  He was so proud of working with Louis you couldn’t stand it.

I have always liked musicians as a group, and never had a 9 to 5 life. Because of Clifford, I got to meet Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Gene Krupa.  In those days, rhythm sections stuck together, so I knew a lot of bass players and their wives: Milt Hinton, Major Holley, George Duvivier, Jack Lesberg.  I was lucky to have known such things and such people.  How fortunate I was!

We are all fortunate to have lived in Clifford Leeman’s century, and his music lives on.  And I thank Mrs. Leeman for her enthusiastic loving candor.

May your happiness increase!

PETER VACHER’S SUBTLE MAGIC: “MIXED MESSAGES:

The best interviewers perform feats of invisibility.  Yes, they introduce the subject, give some needed context or description, and then fade away – – – so that we believe that X or Y is speaking directly to us.  This takes a great deal of subtlety and energy . . . but the result is compelling.  Whitney Balliett did it all the time; other well-regarded interviewers couldn’t.  Peter Vacher, who has written for JAZZ JOURNAL and CODA, among other publications, has come out with a new book, and it’s sly, delightful, and hugely informative.

Vacher

MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES is a lively collection of first-hand recollections from those essential players whose names we don’t always know but who make the stars look and sound so good.  The title is slightly deceptive: we are accustomed to interpreting “mixed messages” as a combination of good and bad, difficult to interpret plainly.  But I think this is Vacher’s own quizzical way of evaluating the material he so lovingly presents: here are heroic creators whose work gets covered over — fraternal subversives, much like Vacher himself.  One might think, given the cover (Davern, Houston Person, and Warren Vache) that this is a book in which race features prominently (it does, when appropriate) and the mixing of jazz “schools” is a subject (less so, since the players are maturely past such divisive distinctions).

Because Vacher has opted to speak with the sidemen/women — in most cases — who are waiting in the lobby for the band bus, or having breakfast by themselves — his subjects have responded with enthusiasm and gratitude.  They aren’t retelling the same dozen stories that they’ve refined into an automatic formula; they seem delighted to have an attentive, knowledgeable listener who is paying them the compliment of avidly acknowledging their existence and talent.  The twenty-one musicians profiled by Vacher show his broad-ranging feeling for the music: Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer, Byron Stripling.  New Orleanians, beboppers, late-Swing players, modern Mainstreamers, lead trumpeters and a stride pianist, and people even the most devoted jazz fancier probably has not heard of except as a name in a liner note or a discography.  Basie, Ellington, and Charlie Barnet make appearances here; so do Johnny Hodges, Jimmie Lunceford, Al Grey, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Red, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, the AACM, Freddie Green, John Hammond, Roy Eldridge, Dick Wellstood, Duke Jordan, Sal Mosca, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Art Farmer, Mary Lou Williams.

But the strength and validity of this book is not to be measured by the number of names it includes, but in the stories.  (Vacher’s subjects are unusually candid without being rancorous, and a number of them — Braff, Berry, Stripling — take time to point out how the elders of the tribe were unusually kind and generous mentors.)  Here are a few excerpts — vibrant and salty.

Benny Powell on working with Lionel Hampton:

He was a pretty self-centered guy.  Kinda selfish.  When something wasn’t right or he wanted to admonish somebody in the band, he would have a meeting just before the show.  He’d get us all on stage and tell us how unworthy we were.  He’d say, “People come to see me.  I can get out on stage and urinate on stage and people will applaud that.”  He would go on and on like this, and when he was finished, he’d say, “All right, gentlemen, let’s have a good show.”  I’d say to myself, “Good show!  I feel like crying.”

Pianist Carl “Ace” Carter:

. . . the drummer . . . . was Ernie Stephenson, they used to call him Mix.  He said, “Why don’t you turn to music?  You can get more girls.”  He’s passed on now but I said if I ever see him in heaven I’m gonna kill him because to this day I haven’t got a girl.” 

Trumpeter John Eckert:

I didn’t appreciate Louis Armstrong until I played a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band, when I was. maybe, 26 years old [circa 1965].  A lot of big acts were there, including Maynard, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, and three or four other modern groups.  Louis ended the concert.  I’d always seen him as this old guy, with the big smile, saying negative things about bebop, but I was just thunderstruck at how he sounded.  I couldn’t believe how powerful he was, his timing, just the authority he played with — his group wasn’t really that impressive — but he was the king.

To purchase this very satisfying book, click here.

May your happiness increase.

NAPOLEON’S TRIUMPH: COMING TO THE REGENCY JAZZ CLUB (December 7, 2012)

You can’t afford to miss this dream, to quote Louis.

Ray Mosca, Marty Napoleon, Bill Crow

Ray Mosca, Marty Napoleon, Bill Crow

Pianist Marty Napoleon is now 91.  Yes, 91.  And he is still exuberantly playing, singing, composing, telling stories.  He’s played with everyone of note including Louis, Gene Krupa, Billie Holiday, Cozy Cole, Buck Clayton, Henry Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Barnet, Harry Carney, Serge Chaloff, Kai Winding, Allen Eager, Shelley Manne, Charlie Ventura, Buddy Rich, Chubby Jackson, Charlie Shavers, Ruby Braff, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Rex Stewart, Jimmy Rushing, Bud Freeman, Earle Warren, Emmett Berry, Vic Dickenson, Buster Bailey, George Wettling, Max Kaminsky, Urbie Green, Clark Terry, Randy Sandke, Jon-Erik Kellso, Harry Allen, Billy Butterfield, Doc Cheatham, Peanuts Hucko, and more.

That history should count for something — recording and playing from the middle Forties until today.  Lest you think of Marty purely as an ancient figure, here is some very lively evidence, recorded less than six months ago: Marty, Joel Forbes, Chuck Riggs, Jon-Erik Kellso, Harry Allen, Joe Temperley — exploring SATIN DOLL:

If you’re like me, you might say at this point, “Where is this musical dynamo playing?  He sounds very fine for a man twenty years younger.”

The news is good, especially for Long Island, New York residents who despair the lack of swinging jazz here.  The gig is at a reasonably early hour.  And it’s free.

Details below.  I hope to see you there, and hope you give Marty, bassist Bill Crow, and drummer Ray Mosca the enthusiastic welcome they deserve.

May your happiness increase.

Napoleon.Trio.Trim

THE SHAPE OF A CAREER: RED McKENZIE, 1924-1947

Photograph thanks to Scott Black: a trio of solid senders, Frank Trumbauer, Red McKenzie, and their former boss Paul Whiteman

William “Red” McKenzie, born in 1899, had a career whose highs and lows might have made a good — and sad — film biography.  Let us begin with a phenomenal hit record, the 1924 ARKANSAS BLUES — a smash for the novelty group, The Mound City Blue Blowers (McKenzie on comb and newspaper, Jack Bland on banjo, Dick Slevin on kazoo):

A word about his musical abilities, unique to him.  McKenzie’s singing isn’t to everyone’s taste; he is earnest, declaratory, even tipping over into barroom sentimentality.  But he could put over a hot number with style, and his straight-from-the shoulder delivery is both charming and a product of the late Twenties.  As an instrumentalist — on the comb and newspaper, a homegrown kazoo with panache — he had no equal, and the remarkable thing about the records on which he appears is how strongly he stands his ground with Coleman Hawkins and Bunny Berigan, powerful figures in their own right.  Both singing and playing, McKenzie reminds me greatly of Wild Bill Davison, someone who had “drama,” as Ruby Braff said.

In the late Twenties McKenzie was not only a musician but an activist for the music, bringing hot jazz players — Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Jimmie Noone, the Spirits of Rhythm — to the attention of record companies and creating early record dates where Caucasians and African-Americans to record.  Without McKenzie, Coleman Hawkins would have waited a number of years to be allowed into the recording studio to perform with mixed groups.

Here is McKenzie in 1929 — out in the open in the short film OPRY HOUSE as a delightfully unrestrained singer, with Bland, banjo; Josh Billings, whiskbrooms and suitcase:

His popularity grew — as s singer and someone whose face might sell sheet music of a new song:

McKenzie was the featured vocalist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra — an orchestra, we should remember, that had launched the careers of Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey — with a pretty 1932 tune, THREE ON A MATCH (featured in the Warner Brothers film of the same name, starring Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis):

He continued to be someone whose presence could help sell new songs — this 1936 number, that most of us know through Billie Holiday’s recording:

and this 1936 song, more famous in Bing Crosby’s recording:

At forty, McKenzie went into a temporary retirement — moving back to his hometown, St. Louis, to work at a brewery for four years.  Apparently he was one of the great heavy drinkers of his time, and only the support of his great friend Eddie Condon kept him in the limelight in the Forties, where he appeared now and again at a Condon concert or a Blue Network broadcast.  The latter, I think, accounts for McKenzie’s 1944 appearance on a V-Disc and a session for Commodore Records — where Milt Gabler also thought the world of him.  Gabler produced record sessions simultaneously for Decca Records and the World Transcription System: here’s a 1944 version of DINAH with McKenzie, Max Kaminsky, Jack Teagarden, and Pee Wee Russell:

Here’s McKenzie as captured by William P. Gottlieb in an October 1946 photograph:

But little was heard from McKenzie for the last years of his life, except for one 1947 record date — shown in a newsprint advertisement for four sides on the National label.  His obscurity is nodded at — another “comeback story” in the sad word REINTRODUCING:

By February 1948 McKenzie was dead — cirrhosis the official cause.  I find IF I HAD MY LIFE TO LIVE OVER and HEARTACHES sad reminders of what had happened.  I would hate to think that his life could be summarized as an equal devotion to hot music and hard liquor, the latter winning out over the former.

Had he been in better health, he could have been one of those apparently ancient but still vivacious stars who appeared on the ED SULLIVAN SHOW and the HOLLYWOOD PALACE alongside Crosby, Sophie Tucker, Durante, and Ted Lewis . . . but it was not to be.

May your happiness increase. 

SWING SIBLINGS TAKE MANHATTAN: THE ANDERSON TWINS PLAY THE FABULOUS DORSEYS

Let’s assume you had an urge to put on a show celebrating the music and lives of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.  You’d need at least fourteen musicians, and they’d have to be versatile — a reed wizard able to duplicate the curlicues of JD on BEEBE and OODLES OF NOODLES, to sing soulfully on his more romantic theme song.  You’d need a trombonist who could get inside TD’s steel-gray sound, perhaps someone to evoke Bunny Berigan, a drummer who understood Dave Tough and Ray McKinley, vocal groups, singers . . . a huge undertaking.

Those energetic young fellows, Pete and Will Anderson, twins who play a whole assortment of reeds from bass clarinet and flute to alto, tenor, and clarinet, have neatly gotten around all these imagined difficulties to create a very entertaining musical / theatrical evening doing the Fabulous Dorseys full justice.  It’s taking place at 59E59 (that’s the theatres at 59 East 59th Street in New York City) and you can see the schedule there.

The Anderson Twins have two kinds of surprising ingenuity that lift their tribute out of the familiar.  (You know — the PBS evening where a big band with singers walks its way through twenty hits of X and his Orchestra, punctuated by fund-raising.)  They’ve assembled a sextet of New York’s finest musicians — great jazz soloists who can also harmonize beautifully: Pete and Will on reeds; Ehud Asherie on piano; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Clovis Nicolas, string bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.  No, there’s no trombonist — but our man Kellso does a wonderful job of becoming TD on I’M GETTING SENTIMENTAL OVER YOU — a tribute to both of them.  And rather than being a parade of the expected greatest hits, this is a musical evening full of surprises: a few rocking charts by Sy Oliver that remind us just how hard the Forties TD band swung; a beautiful piano solo by Ehud in honor of Art Tatum; several of the arrangements that Dizzy Gillespie wrote for JD’s band, and a few improvisations that show just how this sextet, alive and well in 2012, can rock the house: DUSK IN UPPER SANDUSKY, HOLLYWOOD PASTIME, and more.

But the evening is more than a concert — the Andersons have a fine theatrical sense of how to keep an audience involved.  In 1947, Tommy and Jimmy starred in a motion picture that purported to tell the story of their lives — THE FABULOUS DORSEYS.  On the plus side, the movie has the two brothers playing themselves as adults, and some extremely dramatic performances by the stars of the Abbey Theatre, Sara Allgood and Arthur Shields, as Mother and Father Dorsey.  It also has on-screen footage of Art Tatum, Ray Bauduc, Ziggy Elman, Charlie Barnet, Mike Pingitore, Paul Whiteman, Henry Busse . . . a feast for jazz film scholars.  As cinema, it verges on the hilarious — although I must say that its essential drama, the rise to fame of the Brothers, is helped immensely by their true-to-life inability to get along.  In the film, they are finally reconciled at their father’s deathbed . . . which makes a better story than having them join forces because of the economics of the moribund Big Band Era.

The Anderson boys use clips from the film as a dramatic structure to keep the tale of the Dorseys vivid — and it also becomes a delightful multi-media presentation, with the Andersons themselves pretending to feud (with less success: sorry, boys, but you lack real rancor), pretending to break the band in two and then . . . but I won’t give away all the secrets.  My vote for Best Speaking Part in a Musical Production goes to Kevin Dorn, but, again, you’ll have to see for yourself.  It’s musically delightful and — on its own terms — cleverly entertaining.

I will have more to say about this production in the future, but right now I wanted to make sure that my New York readers knew what good music and theatrical ingenuity waits for them at 59E59.  This show will conclude its run on October 7 — don’t miss it!

May your happiness increase.