Tag Archives: Chaucer

MEAN.

Fats Waller said that one of his ambitions was to travel the country, preaching sermons with a big band in back of him. I feel the same tendency twice a year, so I encourage any reader who might find me even slightly didactic to turn the leaf and choose another page.

My travels in the land of jazz (and elsewhere) bring me face to face with men of my generation who affect a certain bluff, gruff heartiness as their mode of conversation with other men. It is meant to resemble comic friendliness, but it has bits of broken glass mixed in. This “being funny” has come to feel downright hurtful.  “Making a joke” isn’t amusing when it’s at someone’s expense.

I do not exempt myself from blame.  For a long time I was a small-time energetic Mocker, a Satirist, someone made fun of the failings of himself and his friends. I’ve tried to stop doing this.  It’s mean. It is the very opposite of welcoming and loving.

I guess that many men grew up believing that if you displayed your affection for another man, if you showed that you were delighted he was there, you were girlish — behavior to be avoided lest someone think you insufficiently manly.

But if “Joe, you old rascal. Tired of bothering the girls at Safeway and they let you out to come here?” really means, “Joe, I am always glad to see you and am happy you are here,” or even, “Joe, I love you,” why not say it and drop all the “funny” banter that is really nasty stuff?

I suspect that some of the “comedy” is because we feel Small in ourselves (“Will anyone notice how tiny I have gotten? Does anyone love me?”) and one way to feel Bigger is to make others feel Small.  If everyone is busy laughing at Joe, they will be too busy to laugh at Us.

But I believe that when we act lovingly, the questions of Who’s Bigger and Who’s Smaller quickly become inconsequential.  And laughter with an edge is like any sharp thing: you never know who’s bleeding once the ruckus stops.  (In this century, “edgy” has come to seem a term of modern praise. Think about it.)

Should any reader think I am being too hard on my fellow Males, I know that Women do this too — I think of Mildred and Bessie meeting on the street and one saying to the other, “I have this dress that’s too big for me.  Why don’t you take it?” which I used to think was hilarious. Now I wish they could just have given each other a hug and shut up. Love is more important than what the scale says.

I offer two kinds of music for meditations on Meanness, which you know used to mean a kind of ungenerous smallness.  Although these songs are based on the drama of the unresponsive or cold lover, let their melody and words (thank you, Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert) ring in your head before you — out of careless habit — say something Mean:

and almost a decade later:

If you show your heart to people, they show theirs back to you.

May your happiness increase!

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KIND WORDS NEVER GO OUT OF STYLE

In the five years’ plus that I have been creating JAZZ LIVES and sharing videos on YouTube, I have winced at the ubiquity of unkind words, publicly expressed, online.

I don’t refer to heated political or ideological discourse, but “criticism” aimed at the performances of particular artists I celebrate. A few examples, taken from life: X’s improvisations “don’t work. Sorry!”  Y (a living player) “isn’t fit to shine the shoes of Z” (a senior improviser).  A “shouldn’t sing like that”; B “is rushing”; C “doesn’t know what he’s doing on the tune”; D “has a whiny voice”; E “is out of tune”; F “should lose some weight.”

Why insult artists who bravely stand up in public?

I do understand subjective reactions, how deeply valid they seem.  I am not shocked that a reader might (let us say) think that anyone who doesn’t play like Lester Young is wrong.  That is a prerogative, in just the same way I like my tea prepared a certain way. But do such “critical judgments” require that artists who are clearly working hard at presenting candid, feeling art (for I give them that as a basic premise) should be insulted because a viewer prefers something else? If you think Lester is peerless, does it follow that you have to insult Ben Webster? And since the language of this century has become so coarse, I wish someone would tell me what is gained by someone online writing “[Artist’s name] sucks.”

You might tell me that Ben Webster is past feeling hurt by what people say, and perhaps you are right.  But I have used the examples above rather than put in the names of the real people who have been shot at from ambush.

Writing abusively about a fellow person is different from giving a motel a bad review on Yelp because your room was poor.

I prefer other responses that do less harm.  To quote Chaucer, if you don’t like the story, you turn over the leaf; you choose another page. Or, if the internet is a huge city with a million restaurants, you walk to the next block if the taqueria here displeases you.  But some of my “correspondents” apparently need to smash the plate glass window of the place they are rejecting.  Their expression of “taste” isn’t complete as praise; it has to destroy everything else.

I am not suggesting a moratorium on negative judgments.  I do not propose that we say that your nephew, after his second violin lesson, sounds as good as Joe Venuti.  (I hope he does, but you will agree it is unlikely.)

But should the relative anonymity of the web, the aliases people use regularly, encourage unkindness?  The people you see on my videos, on other people’s videos, those you hear on CDs and downloads, are living persons with feelings. As a rule, online viewers are getting to watch P or Q sing or play for free.  Why, then, be ungracious or snide? Certainly there are other “better” performers to see, to hear — easily accessible.

I also know that such criticisms are often “witty,” and some prefer their “humor” that is sharp-edged.  In very small doses this might be entertaining, but it often sounds like mean schoolchildren, and it certainly stops being amusing when the blade sticks in your tender vitals.  To me, much of this “acerbic” wit is really anger, not well-disguised and not terribly attractive.  And I think it takes great courage, conviction, and generosity of spirit to sing or play in public, to allow oneself to be video-recorded; a small group of people, preferring anonymity, firing darts in public from their computers or phones, seem less courageous and generous.

Being “smart” from behind a pseudonym allows the Masked Critic to pretend to greater knowledge of an art form then musician being criticize.  But “pretend” is crucial here.  These varieties of unkind behavior are nothing more than weapons that the deeply insecure use to make themselves feel superior to people who are getting more attention.  Such acts that masquerade as “free speech” and “expressing an opinion,” if unkind, afford a short-term, mean-spirited pleasure, and the consequences of such unkindness might be much more lasting and wounding than the initial impulse.  Opinions are lovely.  Everyone has a plenitude of them.  Must they all be shared, if their intent, however disguised, is destructive?

I admit, I have watched videos online and thought, “My goodness, that band is awful!” but I had to ask myself, “Is the band really awful or are they simply not playing the way you like?”  And with that question in the air, I have held back from making a public statement of what is essentially a subjective, personal response.  What would it serve if I typed it in and then hit Publish?  Would the band, astonished and enlightened, start playing in a way that pleased me?  Should it?

Should we use our considerable energies and finite time to focus on imperfections, or should we celebrate what we see, in all its flawed human glory? Spread love, not hate.

In some New Orleans restaurants, the sign BE NICE OR LEAVE is prominently displayed.  Those words are too tough for me, but I offer another version: KINDNESS BEGETS KINDNESS.  If you are generous to others, they will return that embrace.  And we all need kindness.

May your happiness increase!

TRANSLUCENT EXPLORATIONS: LENA BLOCH QUARTET at SOMETHIN’ JAZZ (April 29, 2012)

I first met the tenor saxophonist Lena Bloch in fast company — alongside Joel Press, Brad Linde, Ted Brown, Michael Kanan.  And I was impressed immediately by her expertise and willingness to explore the unknown, what Sam Parkins called “precision and abandon.”

I haven’t managed to make it to as many of Lena’s gigs as I would like, but I made a special effort to get to this one: at a new club, Somethin’ Jazz (very nice!) on East 52nd Street between Second and Third Avenues, a ten-dollar cover and a ten-dollar minimum, with a new group for Lena — guitarist Dave Miller, drummer Billy Mintz, and bassist Putter Smith.  (With this group, she will be recording her debut CD, UNFOREHEARD.)  On the final two performances of this evening, pianist Roberta Piket sat in, most eloquently.

The music created wasn’t a reheating of the familiar.  In fact, the first two selections were floating inquiries rather than boxed-in statements of formulas, and I felt that the musicians had embarked on improvisational journeys even when the chord structures beneath the performances were familiar.  Lena guided the group but was also a gentle participant who didn’t demand the prerogatives of A Leader.  Each song embodied a gentle communal awareness, with a crucial openness-to-experience that we could feel.

Much of my pleasure was also in encountering musicians I had not known well if at all before this evening.  I had heard Putter Smith on several recordings, and musicians whose opinions I respect had spoken most fervently of him, but I was not prepared for the variety of sonorities he created, the sweet validity of his sound.  Dave Miller, bless him, didn’t feel compelled to fill space with notes and runs.  I could feel him thinking, quietly, “What might I add here?  Perhaps it could be a lovely silence.”

Billy Mintz is a revelation.  My drumming heroes of the past and present keep time, create colors, and drive the band forward — all noble aspirations.  Although Billy is intuitively connected to the rhythms that the band might float on, he is never mechanical, never content to create predictable patterns.  He struck me most strongly as thinking of what color, what texture, would best fit the situation — making it happen and then moving on to something new, never entrapping himself or the band.  He is soft-spoken and intent in person, equally so at the drums.  Like Dave and Putter, he is poetic without being showy, generous yet spare.

All I will say about Roberta Piket is that I want to hear her play more and again: she has a great deal of technique and accuracy, but it never dominates her music.  Her soloing and accompaniment were elegant but not fussy; she added so much without calling attention to herself.

Lena was free and brave, questing towards something whose name she might not have known, but getting somewhere satisfying — whether humming almost in a whisper, echoing the songs of a mythological bird, or showing that she, too, could follow the Tristano – Konitz – Marsh – Brown path without being hemmed in by its rules and obligations.

At the end of the evening, I felt as if I had witnessed art both translucent and powerful, with echoes of Lester Young and Brahms, of Eastern meditation and collective invention: strong but never harsh, sweetly fulfilling in its desire to ask questions without worrying about conclusions.

Some of my more “traditionally-minded” readers might think this music more open-ended than they would like . . . and they are free, as always, to recall Chaucer’s gentle encouragement to choose another page.  But if they embrace the bravery that animates the jazz they so love, I invite them to choose a performance based on “familiar chord changes” and start there.  I predict that open-hearted listening will make their hearts more light and more full.

Here is the music that made me write the elated words you have, I hope, read.

Lena’s questing original, 33:

Billy’s BEAUTIFUL YOU:

Ted Brown’s FEATHER BED (based on the chord changes of YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO):

Lena’s mournful reharmonization of STAR EYES — making it both deep and surprising:

MARSHMALLOW (based on CHEROKEE — by Warne Marsh with the bridge written by Lee Konitz:

Dave Miller’s deep searching RUBATO:

Roberta Piket joined in for Lena’s own HI LEE (based on HOW DEEP IS THE OCEAN):

And Lena concluded the evening’s explorations with SUBCONSCIOUS-LEE (written by Mr. Konitz but not titled by him — based on WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?):

These musicians take us with them on their voyages.  I am exceedingly grateful.

May your happiness increase.

A DOWNTOWN PILGRIMAGE (May 30, 2010)

My Sunday-night trips downtown to the Ear Inn (in Soho, Greenwich Village, New York City, 326 Spring Street) are really spiritual pilgrimages in search of the right sounds to heal any of the non-musical affronts of the preceding week.  These quests let me watch artists at play, hear them improvise delightfully, to feel joy — things not to be taken lightly in this world.

Fortunately for me, the trip to The Ear is less arduous than the one Chaucer’s pilgrims had to undertake: they didn’t have the benefit of the C or the number 1 train.   

The healers I went to see last Sunday night (May 30) weren’t Doc Cooke and his 14 Doctors of Syncopation.  They were The Ear Regulars (or the EarRegulars — scholars differ on this): Danny Tobias, cornet; Chuck Wilson, also sax; James Chirillo, guitar; Murray Wall, bass.  Later on in the evening other swing gurus joined: Dan Block, clarinet; Pat O’Leary, cello and bass; and newcomer (from County Mohan, Ireland — although he’s been here for ten years), Tony Steele, bass.  

They began the evening with the most encouraging welcome: LINGER AWHILE:

And then, a slow-rocking SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY:

LINGER AWHILE made me think of the precious 1943 recording by Dicky Wells; SOMETIMES reminded me greatly of all the Keynote Records sessions — Danny’s lyrical motions and subtle (almost invisible) bandleading, his riffs and encouragements, always create the best small-band-Swing.

A tender but gutty CREOLE LOVE CALL followed:

Please notice James Chirillo’s wonderfully dissonant surprises [Charles Ives meets Teddy Bunn meets Herb Ellis]; Chuck Wilson’s speaking melodic style, Murray Wall’s lovely pulsing beat and singing solos.

Dinner for the band and conversation amongst everyone followed; then it was time for the second set.

A deliciously slow-motion EXACTLY LIKE YOU led off (proof that almost all great melodies can benefit from being played slowly):

An eager BEALE STREET BLUES:

A two-part version of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ brought Pat back with his cello, alongside Tony Steele on bass:

And the riffing conclusion with Pat O’Leary’s cello commentaries:

LOVE ME!:

OR LEAVE ME!:

And the evening closed with a brisk, brief, speedy CHINA BOY — the original band plus Dan Block:

Feeling lost?  Downtrodden?  Does your clothing suddenly seem heavy on your shoulders?  A trek to ask the Sage for guidance won’t be necessary.  Come to the Ear Inn or any of the other jazz spots I’ve been featuring.  I predict an immediate emotional uplift in a few hours.

BLANK PAGES AND SILENCES

Serious jazz scholarship (as opposed to reviews) began more than seventy years ago: early books by Robert Goffin, Hughes Panassie, Charles Delanay, Wilder Hobson, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey come to mind, as well as essays by Ernst Ansermet, Otis Ferguson, and Roger Pryor Dodge. 

In 2010, there is no scarcity of books on jazz, from musicology to polemical ideology.  Biographies and autobiographies — from Armstrong to Zwerin with perhaps one hundred subjects between — the autobiographies of Buck Clayton, Sammy Price, Bob Wilber, biographies of Monk, Mingus, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Parker, Paul Desmond, Ellington.  Books have been published about musicians who are still relatively obscure: Mark Miller on Herbie Nichols, Anthony Barnett on Henry Crowder.  

John Chilton’s studies of Bechet, Hawkins, Eldridge, and Red Allen are models of the form.  Ed Berger and his father did right by Benny Carter; Ed devoted a book to George Duvivier and is working on one about Joe Wilder.  My shelves are full, and I’m not listing criticism and discography. 

Most of what I have noted above (with admiration) is jazz scholarship from the outside — by enthusiastic listeners who have immersed themselves in jazz.  I would be the last to disparage that as an art form, as writers who do it include Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern, Gene Lees, Chris Albertson, Frank Driggs, Nat Hentoff and two dozen others.  A few musicians — rare souls — who were also fine writers: Dick Wellstood, Richard M. Sudhalter, Rex Stewart, Dick Katz.    

But even given all of this, how often have jazz musicians been asked to tell their stories? 

I know that there is a history of popular journalism — early on in urban Black newspapers — of getting quotations from musicians, but I wonder how many utterances that were attributed were actually spoken by the musicians themselves.  Later on, one had DOWN BEAT and METRONOME, and smaller magazines — Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD, here and abroad.  Some of this “journalism” perpetuated the stereotype of the musician as an eccentric character who spoke an unintelligible hipster gibberish.     

There are, of course, the pioneering recorded interviews of Jelly Roll Morton done in 1938 — mythic in many ways — that might be the first oral history of a jazz musician.  Whether you take them as an extended piece of performance art or as first-hand narrative / reportage, they remain invaluable.

Others have attempted to let the players speak — the Oral History Project had musicians interviewing their peers and friends, Stanley Dance’s series of books, the Shapiro / Hentoff HEAR ME TALKIN’ TO YA, Gitler’s SWING TO BOP, the diligent work of Bill Spilka, Hank O’Neal’s book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM, collections of interviews and profiles by Whitney Balliett, Peter Vacher, Max Jones.  Phil Schaap has done extensive, rewarding radio interviews for forty years now.  Lester Young spoke to Chris Albertson and Francois Postif.  And irreplaceable video-documentaries focus on Ben Webster, Lester, Goodman, Phil Woods.  Fifty years ago, Riverside Records recorded Coleman Hawkins and Lil Hardin Armstrong telling their stories.             

But all of this is outweighed by the invisibility, the unheard voices of musicians. 

Who thought to ask Kaiser Marshall or Walter Johnson anything after they had finished a set with the Fletcher Henderson band?  Who interviewed Ivie Anderson?  Allen Reuss?  Jimmy Rowles?  Dave McKenna?  Al Cohn?  Shad Collins?  Barry Galbraith?  Shorty Baker?  Did anyone ask Denzil Best or Nick Fenton about what it was like to play at Minton’s?  Who spoke with Joe Smith or Joe Nanton about their experiences?  George Stafford, Tiny Kahn, Nick Fatool, Dave Tough?  (I know some of these figures were interviewed or analyzed by my hero Whitney Balliett, but the burden of jazz history of this sort shouldn’t have to rest on one writer’s shoulders.)

Granted, many stellar musicians were once anonymous sidemen and women, and the leaders of bands got all the attention.  So there are more interviews of Ellington than of Johnny Hodges, more of Goodman than of Vido Musso, more of Basie than of Jack Washington.  But Swing Era fans knew every member of the reed section in their favorite orchestras.

Thus claims of “obscurity” have to be taken less seriously: there was a time when Cootie Williams was nearly as well known as Jackie Robinson would be — you may substitute names you prefer in this equation of “famous jazz musician” and “famous sports figure.” 

I can imagine a number of reasons for musicians being ignored.

Some musicians would rather play than talk about their playing; some are even taciturn, although articulate.  And sometimes even the most garrulous players are not the best interview subjects.  “What was it like to play with Big Boy Smith?” one asks.  “Oh, it was a ball!  We had a great time!” the musician answers.  The interviewer waits for more.  “Do you remember any specific incidents?”  “Oh, no.  It was a lot of fun.  We couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand.”  And so on.  I’ve had this happen to me with the most sophisticated players here and in Europe.  They wereen’t reluctant to talk, but they weren’t intuitive novelists themselves.

Although cordial to outsiders, many musicians also don’t see the point of discussing serious matters — like music — with them.  Too much explaining.  Life is short; the next set is coming soon.   This does say something about the unseen wall between themselves and fans — people who don’t know what it is to play, to improvise professionally, come from a different planet.  Nice folks, but aliens.  Even sweet-natured Bobby Hackett referred to the audience as “the enemy.”  “Fans” and “academics” are friendly, “critics” and “writers” might be useful, but none of them really know

And oftentimes, musicians are ambushed by people who want to talk wishing to talk at inopportune times.  A musician asked to comment on the music she’s just played after a forty-five minute set may well be drained by the effort.  When they’re not playing, musicians talk of other subjects, including the cost of things, their most recent car repair, health care proposals.  Anything is more interesting than responding to “What inspires you when you take a solo?”  Some may want to be left in peace, to eat their scrambled eggs while they’re somewhat hot.  And who could blame them?       

When some venerable musicains are finallyinterviewed when they have become venerable, they have forgotten the details.  What they did forty years ago wasn’t musical history, but a way of making a living.  And even those who have sharp memories may not want to tell all: candor might mean losing friends or gigs.  And some aren’t interested in reliving their pasts: autobiographies and interviews are career-ending landmarks: what musicians do when they can no longer play.  Doing beats talking and theorizing.      

Others are “saving it for their book” — books that might get poublished posthumously if ever.  And when musicians die, sometimes their spouse discards “all that old clutter,” including letters and memorabilia.  Sometimes a divorce means that possessions get thrown out, or a son or daughter believes that Papa’s papers are worth millions and refuses to let anyone make money from themsee them.    

Having said all that, I want to put it aside. 

There were all the reasons that musicians might not want to be asked. 

But so many, I have to believe, would have been delighted to tell their stories.  Why weren’t they?

Much comes from the earliest perception of jazz as entertainment, hardly serious.  It was played at night in places where people talked loudly, smoked, drank, and danced.  Real art could be found in museums and in concert halls.  Jazz players weren’t ordinary people; they existed outside polite society; some thought them licentious madmen working themselves into ecstasies on the bandstand.  Who would be so bold as to ask one of them a question?  And what savage reply would result? 

The subject of race can’t be pushed aside.  If both White and Black listeners thought that jazz was primarily dance music, why study it?  Why take its players seriously?  And the early preponderance of White jazz scholars and critics — some Europeans and White Americans — can be traced to the idea that jazz was no more than “good-time music,” denying Afro-Americans proper dignity.  Would you want your daughter to marry a jazz musician?  Would you want your African-American child to concentrate his or her academic efforts on Cab Calloway, on Louis Armstrong?  But the initial racial imbalance did shift, and I suspect that Joe Nanton would have been happy to speak with a White college student if the student was both sincere and aware.  As would Rod Cless have been.       

I think of Emerson in “The American Scholar,” delivered in 1846, urging his audience to study their own culture — only in this way could a nation exist.  Many years after Emerson’s death, an American college student couldn’t expect to do advanced study about the authors of his time and place: a college education required German, Chaucer, rather than James T. Farrell and Charlie Chaplin.  To say nothing of Sidney Catlett.  And so it was for jazz.  By the time that academia caught up with it, so many of the progenitors were dead, their stories untold. 

The losses are irreparable.  To urge readers to interview a jazz musician today won’t replace what has been lost. 

What might Frank Teschmacher or Freddie Webster have told us, have someone thought it sufficiently important to ask them?

Those pages remain irrevocably blank.

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2010
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A NICE BIG PIECE OF BIRTHDAY CAKE (July 4, 2009)

News, always welcome, from the Louis Armstrong House Museum.  I know that July 4, 1900, has been disproven as Louis’s actual birthdate — in some inspired, diligent sleuthing — but I don’t particularly care.  Louis thought it was his birthday, and that’s always been enough reason for me to celebrate, especially since I am past the age of getting excited as cherry bombs and M-14s turn the night air into Armageddon.

First, the famous picture: Louis with the kids.  Our eyes are drawn, of course, to the fellow on the right with his plastic trumpet, following the Master’s lead.  But I am intrigued by the child in the center, who doesn’t have a trumpet (it seems unfortunate that there weren’t dozens to go around, so that Louis could have had his own Corona Brass Band of kids in the street) — notice how earnestly he’s practicing his embouchure until the day that he can get a horn and swing out.  I hope he did.  His eyes gleam as brightly as Louis’s do — a good sign. 

LA%20with%20neighbors_Oct15

There will be many events celebrating Louis’s life and music (as if the two could be separated) courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.  You haven’t been there yet?  Chaucer’s pilgrims had Canterbury: the LAHM is easier to get to and I am sure it’s more fun.  There will be a scat-singing lesson, a concert by the Red Hook Ramblers, a presentation on Louis’s collages by the esteemed Deslyn Dyer, a tour of the house (don’t forget to admire the turquoise kitchen!). 

AND there’s cake.  We won’t be there, but cake freezes very well.

Here’s the link to the schedule: https://webmail.optimum.net/attach/LAHM%20July%204%20Events%20Listing.doc?sid=&mbox=INBOX&charset=escaped_unicode&uid=20333&number=4&filename=LAHM%20July%204%20Events%20Listing.doc

Happy Birthday in advance to Mr. Strong!

REMEMBERING GOSTA HAGGLOF

gosta-hagglof-1965

You know the man on the right in this 1965 picture, taken in Sweden.

The man shaking Louis’ hand is less well-known, but he was one of the most generous advocates of jazz that it has ever been my privilege to know.  His name was Gosta Hagglof, and he died on March 8, 2009.  Gosta had been ill for some time, but he never gave any indication of it.  He was as enthusiastic as ever about the music in what were the last emails I was to receive from him.

For a much fuller appreciation of his life, I would have you “turn over the leaf and choose another page,” to quote Chaucer.  The other page is Ricky Riccardi’s extraordinarily touching essay on the man:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2009/03/in-loving-memory-of-gosta-hagglof.html

But a few words of my own might be apt here.  I first encountered Gosta in an extremely indirect but effective way.

In 1927, the Melrose brothers of Chicago, music publishers, had wanted to capitalize on Louis’ clearly increasing fame — not by making records, but by publishing a folio of music for aspiring trumpeters to copy.  Or to attempt to copy!  The story goes that they gave Louis a cylinder phonograph and a goodly number of blank cylinders, asked him to play solos on familiar jazz tunes (many of them published by Melrose) as well as recording many of his famous jazz breaks.  The pianist Elmer Schoebel transcribed the music, and the folio was published (the solos and breaks only, no harmony supplied).  That was 1927.  By the way — and it’s an important comment — the cylinders have never surfaced.  louis-hot-choruses

Gosta thought it would be a brilliant idea if the phenomenal cornetist / trumpeter Bent Persson recorded the solos and breaks.  But the idea didn’t stop there.  It would have been easy to hand the folio to Bent, somene who is himself a rich treasury of Armstrong-lore and music, and ask him to play them with rhythm accompaniment.  Gosta and Bent went far deeper — and the records that resulted are extraordinary, not only in the instrumental playing, but in their conception.  Each performance is clearly the result of creative investigation and experimentation, and the formats are varied and rewarding.

I didn’t know anything of this, one day perhaps thirty years ago, when I found myself at J&R Music in downtown Manhattan.  It is even possible that in those pre-internet days I had not heard of either Bent or of Gosta.  But I bought one of those “imported” records as an experiment, a leap of faith.  If it hadn’t worked out, I would have squandered perhaps seven dollars.

When I played the record at home, the jazz leapt out of the speakers at me in the very best way.  I couldn’t believe it.  Some day I will write more about Bentlouis-hot-choruses-lp1 Persson, but for now I would simply send you to his site (listed on my blogroll, as is Gosta’s “Classic Jazz Productions”).   When I could, I returned to J&R and bought the remaining volumes in the series.  Happily, this music has been issued on CD.  Incidentally, this for was Gosta’s “Kenneth” label, its actual paper label an ornately witty takeoff on the Gennett logo.  I looked for all the Kenneths I could find — some featuring Maxine Sullivan in her finest recordings, others spotlighting Doc Cheatham.  Each one was better than its predecessor.

And then I learned about the “Ambassador” label.  Gosta loved swinging jazz, but his heart belonged to Louis.  At that time, Louis’ most under-reissued and misunderstood recordings were the series (usually done with a big band) for Decca between 1935 and 1942, with later sessions here and there.  Gosta took it upon himself to create a series of the Deccas, in chronological order, in the best sound possible, speed-corrected without annoying “improvements” to the sound.  In addition, to compile as complete an aural portrait of Louis’ life in those years, the Ambassador compact discs offered radio broadcasts, concert performances — whatever evidence there was.  They were and are beautiful recordings, beautifully researched, full of new discoveries.  However, in the United States, they were not well-known.  Decca had very intermittently issued a number of records and eventually compact discs, but the Ambassadors were unequalled.

In 1999 or 2000, I wrote to Gosta and asked him a favor.  I was then writing reviews for the IAJRC Journal, a publication that let me review whatever I wanted as long as I bought the recordings myself and paid for my subscription.  (That’s another story.)  Gosta generously sent me a set of the Ambassadors, and I wrote a leisurely appreciation — perhaps twenty thousand words.  I don’t know how many people ever read it, but it made us friends.  And the Ambassadors are among my most treasured discs.

This led to what I consider a stroke of luck for me.  One day a letter came from Gosta: he had noticed the number of times I had reverentially mentioned Big Sid Catlett in my writing.  Would I like to write the notes for a CD that would make available new material by Louis and Sid from 1939 to 1942.   I can’t remember how quickly I wrote back to say “Yes,” but I think it was the same day.  And that CD is something I am very proud of — it also has rare performances by Louis  of “As Time Goes By” and “Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” unbelievably tender and knowing.

When I began this blog, I looked for opportunities to tell everyone about Gosta’s handiwork — most recently CDs featuring Doc Cheatham and Dick Cary (the latter a tribute to Hoagy Carmichael).  Those CDs are rewarding in every way but also clearly labors of love because Gosta never made much profit, if any, on them.

I was heartbroken to read of his death, and not just because he and I loved the same music.  Gosta was devoted to something larger than himself.  And he was one of those lucky individuals who gave his energies to something he loved passionately.  What Gosta loved so deeply and so well he also shared with us.

I have read no obituaries of Gosta except Ricky’s, but I tell you that we have lost someone rare.