Tag Archives: Charlie Parker

PERFECTION OF THE ART: “CLASSIC BRUNSWICK AND COLUMBIA TEDDY WILSON SESSIONS 1934-1942” (Mosaic Records)

Teddy Wilson was soft-spoken and reticent, so this is a rare interlude, a 1950 radio interview (from WNYC) by Ralph Berton, a good prelude to the recent banquet of Teddy’s recordings on Mosaic Records:

I’ve been waiting for this set every since I heard rumors of it, and it has not disappointed me in the slightest.

But I must start with a small odd anecdote.  Like many, I have a mildly unhealthy attachment to Facebook, and when this set entered the emotionally-charged world of FB dialogue, one jazz fan said that he was waiting to read the reviews before purchasing it.  It was as if he had said, “I hear about this writer Toni Morrison.  I want to read some reviews before buying one of her books.”  Substitute “Brahms” or “Modigliani” or “Connee Boswell” and you get the idea.  Cue rueful laughter.

Readers of this blog know how fervently I support Mosaic Records (and I don’t get copies for free) so I offer correctives to misperceptions of Wilson and, by  extension, the recordings in this box set.

Wilson gets less praise than he deserves, because of unavoidable events in his life and the lives of his contemporaries.  One is the looming dramatic presence of Billie Holiday, without debate one of the finest artists in the music but also someone (like Charlie Parker) wrapped in a mythology that blots out those associated with her.  The recordings in this set do not have Miss Holiday, so some listeners might perceive them as second-string.  True, so far there has been no coffee-table book chronicling a week in the life of, say, Boots Castle.  But the singers here are never inept, and some of them — Helen Ward and Nan Wynn, with brief appearances by Ella and Lena (!) — are memorable.  Removing Lady Day from the equation makes it possible to actually savor the instrumental performances, and they are consistently remarkable.

His greatest public exposure was as a sideman with Benny Goodman, and the Trio and Quartet records are splendid.  But being typecast as the hero’s friend in the movies is not the same as being the hero.  I am sure that Wilson could claim a better salary from 1935 on, but it took some time for him to be understood for his own virtues.  And there was always Fats Waller and Art Tatum — talk about looming presences.

Wilson’s consistency has, perversely, made him a quiet figure in jazz hagiography.  From his introduction to Louis’ 1933 WORLD ON A STRING to his last recordings in 1985, he was recorded so often that there is a feeling of abundance and perhaps over-abundance.  There is no single monumental recording — no WEST END BLUES, no BODY AND SOUL, no SHOE SHINE BOY — to bow down to. (Something of the same fate — almost a punishment for excellence — has befallen Benny Carter, for one.)  Some have reduced Wilson to caricature: a medium-to-uptempo sliding right-hand piano arpeggio; true, that some of his late performances were beautifully-done but cast in bronze, with few surprises.  I wish his detractors might spend an afternoon with a transcribed solo and see how easy it is to reproduce even four bars of it.

He was always himself — balancing elegance and passion — and the recordings in this set are so consistently rewarding that they tend to overwhelm the listener who sits down to ingest them in large gulps.  Not for the first time in reviewing a Mosaic box, I have wanted to compel listeners to take the contents as they were offered in 1936: two sides at a time, no more than once a week.  In this way, even an “average” side — say, SING, BABY, SING — emerges as marvelously multi-layered.  I will point out that these sessions were intended to be “popular” and thus ephemeral: records to be listened to on jukeboxes at a nickel a side: current tunes, music to dance to.  I suspect the musicians were paid scale and went home with the idea that they had made some extra money, not that they had made Great Art.  They’ve been proven wrong, but in the nicest ways.

The music impresses and moves me on several levels.  One is that it is operating at a high level of excellence, hugely professional and still charmingly individualistic.  Everyone’s voice is heard: Buster Bailey, Mouse Randolph, Cozy Cole.  There are no dull solos; the swing is wondrous, never mechanical.  The ensemble playing is the easy mastery of people who play in sections night after night and thus know all there is about ensemble dynamics and blending — but who are also feeling the pleasure of loose improvising amidst respected colleagues.  The three-minute concertos are dense with musical information but are easy to listen to, apparently simple until one tries to mimic any part.  The soloists are a cross-section of worthies, a list of them too long to type.  Check the Mosaic discography.

In addition, the singers — who range from merely excellent on up — are charming reminders of a time when “jazz” and “pop music” were comfortable with one another.  Imagine a time when young and old could hear a new recording of a song from a new Bing Crosby movie (let’s say LAUGH AND CALL IT LOVE) and appreciate it, appreciate a Jonah Jones solo — all on the same aesthetic plane.  The most creative improvising was accepted as wonderful dance music, an exalted period where highbrow and lowbrow met, where snobberies were not so deeply ingrained, and certainly the audience was not fragmented and sectarian.

The result is an amiable perfection: I never want to edit a passage on a Wilson record.  Perhaps paradoxically, I also understand why Bird, Dizzy, and Monk — who admired Wilson and his colleagues deeply — felt the need to go in different directions.  What more could one create within this form?  How could one’s swing and improvisation of this type be more perfect?

Eight decades later, these records still sound so buoyant, so hopeful. The news from Europe was grim, and became more so.  But in the face of apocalypse, these musicians swung, sang tenderly, and gave us reason to go on.

I first heard Wilson early in my jazz apprenticeship; he was one of the first musicians, after Louis, to catch my ear.  Blessedly, I saw him in person several times in 1971-4, and I bought the records I could find — the French “Aimez-vous le jazz?” of his 1935-7 solos, the later Columbia two-lp sets of the small groups issued here and in Japan, Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society discs.  When compact discs took over, I bought the Classics and Neatwork, the Masters of Jazz compilations.  However, I can write what I have written before: this Mosaic box offers music that I’ve never heard before, in splendid sound.

I’ve written elsewhere on JAZZ LIVES of my strong feeling that Mosaic Records is a noble enterprise.  Supporting their efforts is that rare double reward: a moral act that offers deep rewards.  So I won’t belabor that point here.  If you insist that everything should be for free online, that view that troubles me, especially if you expect a salary for the work you do.  But I will leave that to others to argue.

I confess that I am writing this review early, rather than waiting until I’ve arrived at the last track of the seventh disc — I have been savoring the earliest sides over and over.  And I have been appreciating Loren Schoenberg’s especially fine liner notes — over and above his unusually high standard! — for their subtleties and research.  And the photographs.  And the splendid transfers.  I haven’t even gotten to the unissued sides at the end of the package: 2018 is still young.

For more information, go here — either to purchase this limited edition while it is still available.  Or, so the people who say, “Well, how many unissued sides are there in this box?  Is it a good value?  I already have a lot of this material already,” can make up their own minds.  Those unaware of the beauty of this music can be amazed.

And those who, like me, look at this music as a series of aesthetic embraces, can prepare themselves for seven compact discs of joy and surprise, music both polished and warm.

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS CHARLIE PARKER (December 15, 2017)

I think what follows is just amazing, and it’s not inflated pride at having been the one who brought the camera and clipped the microphone to Dan’s shirt.  The first-hand sources in any field are few and precious.  Of course, there are many borrowers and interpreters, capable people who weren’t on the scene but are ready to theorize.  “Nay nay,” to quote Louis.

Jazz, so long viewed as “entertainment,” did not get the serious coverage it deserved for its first decades.  Thus we could search in vain for an interview with Bubber Miley or A.G. Godley.  And few people wrote their memoirs of involvement with Jimmie Blanton or Don Murray or Larry Binyon . . . but we have Dan, who was there and has a good memory.  And he has a novelist’s gift for arranging those memories in pleasing and revealing shapes.

When the subject is Charlie Parker, so many recollections of Bird veer between adulation for the musician and a superior attitude towards a man often portrayed as suffering from borderline personality disorder.  Thus Dan’s gentle affectionate inquiring attitude is honest and delightful.  His memories of Bird go back to the Three Deuces, the Royal Roost, Cafe Society, Bob Reisner’s Open Door, with strings at Birdland with Dizzy’s unsolicited clowning, his “last stand” at Birdland where Bud Powell could not accomplish what was needed, and a “miraculous” one on one encounter late in Bird’s life, balanced by a kind of exploitative incident in which Dan’s friend Nat Lorber was the victim, as well as a sad story of Bird’s late attitude towards life, and a portrait of the Baroness Nica.

Since Dan’s first-hand involvement with Bird was in the latter’s last years, I offer a very early Bird as a counterbalance — the recordings Parker made in Kansas City c. 1943 with the legendary guitarist Efferge Ware and drummer “Little Phil” Phillips, the latter celebrated by Bob Brookmeyer in his memories of K.C.  Thanks to Nick Rossi for reminding me of this.

Thank you, Dan.  And thank you.  Once is insufficient.

May your happiness increase!

FRIEND AND NEIGHBOR: DAN MORGENSTERN RECALLS MILES DAVIS (December 15, 2017)

Dan Morgenstern is a discerning judge of people, but he makes friends wherever he goes — and they aren’t limited to one style of school: Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Muhal Richard Abrams, James Baldwin, Hot Lips Page, Cecil Scott, and Miles Davis.

Some traditionally-minded jazz fans have fallen into the habit of grafting horns and a tail onto Miles, but Dan knew him as a warm presence as well as a musical innovator, which comes out in the three videos that follow: two vignettes and one portrait, recorded at Dan’s apartment (around the corner from Miles’) on December 15, 2017.  In the first clip, Miles mentions a name that we might not expect to come to his lips:

and a longer remembrance of Miles as “quite outgoing,” as a neighbor, with Coleman Hawkins, responding to an over-eager fan, taking Richard Pryor’s wife to OH! CALCUTTA, Miles in his Lamborghini, Cicely Tyson, and more:

and an anecdote about Miles and Louis:

More to come: Dan pays tributes to people he loves and admires, and we honor him in the same way.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN RECALLS JOHN HAMMOND, HELEN HUMES, BOOKER ERVIN (September 29, 2017)

One of the consistently thrilling aspects of sitting across from Dan Morgenstern is the immediate knowledge that here is a man who is both here now and was there then, his  perceptions gentle but also sharp-edged.

A word about “immediacy.”  I have written at length about John Hammond, read his memoir, read the biography of him, seen him on television, heard him interviewed, and from that collection of facts, stories, impressions I’ve made my own complex portrait of a man who was both immensely generous and intuitive, the man to whom we owe so much good music, from Garland Wilson to the last Buck Clayton Jam Sessions.  I also grapple with the man who could turn cruel when not obeyed, the man who grew tired of formerly-admired artists and worked against them.  So my mental portrait is complex, ambiguous, and shifting.

But as valuable as I think my study of Hammond might be, it shrinks when I can sit in a room with a man who’s heard Hammond say, “Come on with me, get in my car.  We’re going up to Harlem.  There’s someone I want you to hear.”

What you will also hear in this single segment (and I hope it has been evident all along) is Dan’s embracing affection for all kinds of what we treasure as jazz and blues.  In this conversation of September 29, 2017, Dan spoke with warmth, humor, and insight of  Hammond and the people who surrounded him: Barney Josephson at The Cookery, Helen Humes, George Benson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Hank O’Neal, Buddy Tate, Lester Young, Mildred Bailey, Booker Ervin, and Victoria Spivey.  Too many people to fit in Dan’s living room, but he brings them to life:

I found Dan’s portrait of Booker Ervin — Texas tenor and Mingus-associate — particularly touching.

We met again just a few weeks ago in December 2017, and spoke of some famous “bebop and beyond” sages, including Bird, Tadd Dameron, and Dan’s rather famous neighbor and friend Miles Dewey Davis.  More to come, and we bless Mr. Morgenstern for being himself so deeply.

May your happiness increase!

“WE CALL IT MUSIC” (PART ONE): DAN BLOCK, SCOTT ROBINSON, EHUD ASHERIE, JOEL FORBES, PETE SIERS (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 14, 2017)

Possibly the first recording of the Gershwin classic, October 20, 1930.

What we have here is the essence of classic jazz — spirited improvisations on the chord changes of I GOT RHYTHM, followed by a Thirties song from a Broadway show.  I write this to calm any skittish listener, deeply enamored of jazz pre-1931 or 1944, who might run off when hearing the opening line, called either CRAZEOLOGY (if the composers are Little Benny Harris and Charlie Parker) or BUD’S BUBBLE (if Bud Powell takes credit); SEPTEMBER SONG, that follows, should scare no one.

Beautifully played by Dan Block, tenor saxophone; Scott Robinson (partially concealed behind the piano) tenor saxophone and trumpet; Ehud Asherie, piano; Joel Forbes, string bass; Pete Siers, drums.

Should any of my readers / listeners take flight at “that modern jazz,” I urge them to listen calmly, even hum I GOT RHYTHM along with the band — to see that the divide between “styles and schools” was never created by musicians, but by journalists, to whom pugilism was good copy.  (See “Blesh, Rudi,” “Ulanov, Barry,” “Feather, Leonard,” among others.)  Listen, listen.  It’s all music.

And, once again, I post this video as a sad but admiring tribute to the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, which will not continue into 2018, even with the superhuman efforts of its heroic team, Nancy Hancock Griffith and Kathy Hancock — read about it here.  Both I and Laura Wyman (of Wyman Video) will be sharing videos from the 2017 Party in time.

May your happiness increase!

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, 1944

A simple song about a universal, deep desire — by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar.  The melody is very unadorned, as are the lyrics: qualities that would make it memorable to a large popular audience and also great material for jazz improvisers.  It was recorded frequently when it was a new pop song, then given new life by Benny Goodman, his orchestra, and other Swing Era bands.

In my time, I’ve seen leaders call I WANT TO BE HAPPY when they want a trustworthy up-tempo song, often to close a set.  I remember Wild Bill Davison announcing the title and then leering at the audience, “Don’t we ALL?”  Kenny Davern, more an intellectual comedian, would conjugate the statement in a half-Yiddish inflection, “I vant to be happy, he vants to be happy . . . ” and then trail off amidst the audience’s laughter.

Here is a particularly memorable 1944 version, showing that a good melody has its own immortality, especially when explored by brilliant improvisers who never lose sight of the melody’s validity: the Commodore Records classic (from a long session with many alternate takes) featuring Edmond Hall, Teddy Wilson, Billy Taylor, Arthur Trappier (July 20).  It is easy to take this superficially as a version of a Goodman small group because of the uplifting presence of Wilson, but Hall and Wilson had been working together at Cafe Society for some time.

The YouTube presenter has gotten the date wrong and provides no data; instead there is a constant flow of often irrelevant photographs, but the music is what matters.

And what music!  It’s really a simple recording — a worked-out introduction, a chorus for Hall, one for the rhythm section, another for Hall (low-register with the bridge for bassist Taylor) one for the rhythm section with the bridge for Trappier on brushes, then a quartet improvisation, everyone more intense but hardly louder, ending with no dramatics.  I marvel at Edmond’s tone in all his registers, his easy facility that is allied to great quiet intensity; the depth of Wilson’s harmonic inventions that are always moving — he never puts a foot wrong but nothing seems worked-out — and the solid sweet push of Taylor and Trappier.

It’s a remarkable recording because it never tugs at the listener’s sleeve to say LOOK HOW REMARKABLE WE ARE.  (However, if one hears it through a fog of multi-tasking, it might become background music — what we used to call “elevator music,” which would be a shame.)

This was the peak of a particular style (still practiced beautifully today): swinging melodic inventiveness in solo and ensemble.  There really is no way that a listener could improve on this group effort, and I whimsically theorize that Bird and Dizzy went their own ways because this style, these individualistic players, had so polished this kind of jazz that there was no way to better it without breaking out of it.

We still want to be happy, and music like this points the way, if only we take the time to immerse ourselves in it.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN, AMONG FRIENDS: DICK WELLSTOOD, BUZZY DROOTIN, GEORGE WEIN, MOREY FELD, ZUTTY SINGLETON, WILD BILL DAVISON, and a few words about TESCH, (April 21, 2017)

Here’s another opportunity to hear some priceless stories from the man who was there, with eyes, ears, and heart open — our friend and hero Dan Morgenstern, at home on April 21, 2017, speaking of the people he knew and admired.  I’ve shared previous interview segments here and here.

And here’s more: Dick Wellstood covering fires for the local newspaper, Lester Young auditioning the new pianist:

and on a wide range of memorable people.  (After I’d shut the camera off, I mentioned the Singletons’ dog, Bringdown — whom Dan had also encountered. Perhaps the next interview segment should be devoted to Famous Jazz Pets?)

What’s the moral?  Nothing new, I think.  When people pass into spirit, they never “die” as long as they are remembered with affection, as Dan does here. And the living — that’s us, with luck — have a responsibility to keep the memories fresh, by telling stories and making sure those stories don’t vanish.  If you have a story-teller in your bunch, and the stories don’t have to be about jazz, place your iPhone in front of Grandma and ask her to tell what made her love Grandpa so. (Big Joe Turner had his own answer, which you can inquire about.)

Bless Mister Morgenstern — not only for keeping the memories alive, but for sharing them with us so beautifully.  There’s more to come.

May your happiness increase!