Tag Archives: Chick Webb

“GET RHYTHM IN YOUR FEET”: MICHAEL GAMBLE’S RHYTHM SERENADERS

Photograph of some of Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders by Sandlin Gaither. Musicians on the record but (very sadly) not pictured: Laura Windley, Lucian Cobb, Dave Wilken, Jason DeCristofaro.

Even for those who are as fortunate and entitled as I am, this world can seem like a tough place.  In the past two weeks, I’ve had conversations with men and women about various remedies: prescriptions for anti-depressants, brisk walks in the sunshine and yoga, finding the truth in Jesus, living a Buddhist or a Judaic life, Louis Armstrong, hugging, coffee, and more.

All of this is true, and not invented for the purposes of a nifty opening paragraph. If something works for you, I would be a mean-spirited fool to mock it.  I find the most evident manifestations of beauty, of joy, of love, in music.

I write to call your attention to a wondrous new CD by Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders, titled GET RHYTHM IN YOUR FEET.  I know that title may seem to some a plain encouragement to dancers — feel the groove, get up on the floor (but watch your floorcraft!) and Swing.  But for me it means so much more.

First of all, any band that uses a song by the Blessed Alexander Hill to announce themselves is already deep in righteousness.  Hill gave himself to the music wholly and is thus a minor deity in my world, and the song says (better than I will do it here) that your ills can be cured by embracing rhythmic music.

The new CD not only says this truth; it embodies it.  Had you been able to peek in my window a few hours ago while I was playing it again to write this blogpost, you would have seen me grinning and clapping my hands to the music.  It’s that joyous and that right.  For those who want to skip to the punchline, you can purchase the disc — in a number of ways — here.  Of course, the ideal way would be to be present at a Rhythm Serenaders’ gig (even, if like me, you flunked ballroom dancing) and buy copies from the band / the leader.  Here is the band’s schedule, so you can see if they are coming to a nicely polished wooden floor near you.

As a relevant digression, here is what I wrote about the Serenaders’ first CD.

“Why is Michael so excited about yet another ____________ CD?” some of you might be muttering to yourselves.  This one sounds deeply genuine, a very honest evocation of, say, 1935-45. The band knows the original 78s but isn’t copying them in every aspect.  The (flexible) tempos seem right, never stiff or too far forward into the beat.  The band isn’t in a hurry to get to the end of the number. The arrangements cheer and inspire; they aren’t little prisons.  The music breathes, is alive, is human — created by real musicians who live in the twenty-first century but who venerate the music of the great Ancestors with every cell of their bodies.  The band can play as hot as you’d want, but they have a tender side (MEMORIES OF YOU) which I cherish as well.  The band has a wonderful rhythm section, delicious ensemble playing, fine soloists, and one of my favorite singers, Laura Windley, whose voice is like the pleasure I take from my first bite into a splendid local apple: just the right mix of crisp, tart, sweet.

And ths CD passes the JAZZ LIVES test: when I come to the last song, I start it up again.

Now for some details: the musicians are Michael Gamble, string bass, arrangements, leader; Jonathan Stout, guitar; Keenan McKenzie, reeds; James Posedel, piano; Jonathan Doyle, reeds; Russ Wilson, drums; Noah Hocker, trumpet; Josh Collazo, drums; Gordon Au, trumpet; Jason DeCristofaro, vibraphone; Laura Windley, vocal; Lucian Cobb, trombone; David Wilken, trombone.  (Not everyone plays on every track, but you’ll have to buy the CD to figure out who’s on the stand at any given time.)

The songs: GET RHYTHM IN YOUR FEET / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES / ON THE ALAMO / IT’S TOO HOT FOR WORDS / NAPPIN’ JOHN / GOT A PEBBLE IN MY SHOE / WHOA, BABE! / OH, LADY BE GOOD! / RIGAMAROLE / HOW COULD YOU? / DOWN HOME JUMP / DON’T MEDDLE IN MY MOOD / BREAKFAST FEUD / MISS BROWN TO YOU / DON’T BE THAT WAY / MEMORIES OF YOU.  (Scholars will note the homage to Teddy, Billie, Benny, Ella, Chick, and Charlie . . . but also to Willie Bryant, Lionel, Cootie, Basie.  Gamble knows his Swing.)

And here’s what Michael Gamble has to say about the CD — modest and perceptive:

For the second record, I wanted to showcase a hotter, older repertoire than the first, and to particularly hone in on songs that would’ve been known to dancers of the mid-to-late thirties: An imaginary “must-have” collection of greatest hits for lovers of the Lindy Hop, Charleston, Balboa, Slow Drag, Shag; all the Peabody and One Step dancers, Savoy Ballroom regulars as well as followers of the Tin Pan Alley hit factories. Stomp tunes such as “Rigamarole” (by bandleader, early jazz disc jockey, and so-called “Mayor of Harlem” Willie Bryant) – a blazing tempo hop-across-the-coals for Jitterbugs of all stripes. Riff-fests like “Down Home Jump” and “Whoa, Babe!” (recorded by pioneering jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton) that served no higher purpose than to pull people onto the dance floor as if hypnotized by that infectious sound.

The other thing I tried to do was to serve up a sweet sample of some of the most beautiful songwriting from that time period, using as a jumping-off point the repertoire Benny Goodman seemed to hold onto over the years as his “cool down” pieces and small group features for himself. Tunes like “On the Alamo” and “Memories of You” are elegant demonstrations of the nostalgic sound that become popular as the Great Depression was winding down. The sentimental-but-smart elocution Laura Windley brings to the band pays respect to vocal performances by Kay Starr, Helen Ward, and of course Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, each of whose work is lovingly represented here.

Nothing more needs to be said, except this exhortation: Buy this CD.  Whatever your mood, it will improve it.

May your happiness increase!

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IMPROV CLASSES (May 15, 1938)

“We improvise our way through life,” wrote the seventh-century philosopher Sammut of Malta. And perhaps that’s why jazz is such an enthralling wellspring of inspiration: even on a record that we know by heart, we get to hear musicians maneuver themselves into impossible corners and slither out.  Houdinis of Swing and Stomp.

These two Decca sides are seriously neglected, even though they feature three of the strongest players in the John Kirby Sextet: drummer / vocalist O’Neil Spencer (1909-1944, tuberculosis) and two musicians who coincidentally ended their days as members of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars: pianist Billy Kyle and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Even before Spencer gained some fame with Kirby, he had lifted up many recordings by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and was a valued session player for the Variety and Decca labels, recording with everyone from Jimmie Noone and Willie “the Lion” Smith to Maxine Sullivan, Bob Howard, and a host of forgettable blues singers.  These sides come from the only session Spencer was able to be given leader credit, and I think they are remarkable. Often I think of the Kirby band as expert but polished, with some powerful exceptions: these sides are much looser and to me extremely gratifying.

BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COM HOME? is usually played as a slow drag or medium opportunity to ask the musical question.  Here, the imagined speaker must have been terribly eager or impatient, for the tempo is unlike any other. What a good singer Spencer was, and how nimbly Buster maneuvers those turns at top speed before the splendid drum solo:

LORNA DOONE SHORTBREAD (had someone brought a box of cookies into the studio?) features Buster’s singular tone, swing, and phrase-shapes; Kyle’s sparkling accompaniment and solo, and that rarity, a full chorus for Spencer, who is his own person but sounding much like a hot hybrid of Catlett and Webb:

I like, for a moment, to imagine an alternate Thirties-universe, where O’Neil Spencer was a regular leader of small-group sessions for Decca, singing and rocking the band.  I wouldn’t mind another thirty or forty sides with him out front, instead of (for one example) having to lug Milt Herth through a song.

And something extra: AFTERNOON IN AFRICA by the trio, easy and lyrical, showing that clarinet / piano / drums did not have to imitate Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa:

These three players embody great freedom, courage, and joy: I celebrate them not only as musicians but as models, showing us how to do it.

May your happiness increase!

“THE MAIN THING, OF COURSE, WAS THE MUSIC”: DAN MORGENSTERN on SANDY WILLIAMS, BENNY MORTON, and THE SCENE (April 21, 2017)

Once again, our friend, hero, and down-home Eminence, Dan Morgenstern, shares his stories with us. . . . stories that you can’t get on Spotify.

But first, some musical evidence — both for people who have never heard Sandy Williams play the trombone, and those, like me, were happy to be reminded of this “barrelhouse solo”:

Here’s Dan in a wide-ranging memory-journey that encompasses not only Sandy and Benny Morton, the Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza, but an astounding cast of characters, including Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Bob Maltz, Conrad Janis, Ed Allen, Cecil Scott, Floyd Casey, Clarence Williams, Bob Dylan, Carl Kendziora, Annette Hanshaw, Bernie Privin, Leadbelly, Josh White, Horace Henderson, Lips Page, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge,Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, and more.

and just so no one forgets Mr. Williams or his associates:

Or the very sweet-natured Benny Morton (heard here with Billie Holiday, Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones) — it would be a sin to forget Benny!

I emphasize that Dan’s stories — squatting next to the piano to hear James P. Johnson more clearly, the kindness of Benny Morton, and other bits of first-hand narrative — have a larger resonance, one not limited to hot jazz devotees.

When the music is gone, when the band has packed up, when the chairs have been upended on the tables, the memories and stories remain.  I urge my readers to tell theirs — and to record the stories of older generations.  These stories are priceless now; as the participants leave us, the stories are even more precious.

The people in them don’t have to be famous, and the tales don’t have to be dramatic: asking Grandma what she ate when Grandpa took her out for their first date is irreplaceable.  (I nag at my students to do this — aim your iPhone at someone! — and I am fairly sure they won’t.  Forty years from now, their loss will be irreparable.)

That is also why Dan Morgenstern’s generosity of spirit — taking time to share his memories with us — is a great gift, one that won’t wear out or fade.

May your happiness increase!

SOME RARE STUFF

That’s Stuff Smith, one of the supreme beings of jazz violin, who deserves more attention than he received in life and does now.  An audio sample from 1936 with Stuff playing and singing (with Jonah Jones, Jimmy Sherman, Mack Walker, Bobby Bennett, Cozy Cole):

This little remembrance of Stuff is because I found two rare paper items on eBay — which you shall see.  But before I completed this post, I checked everything with Anthony Barnett, the reigning scholar of jazz violin, who’s issued wonderful CDs, books, and more about Stuff, Eddie South, Ginger Smock, and many other stars and hidden talents.  More about Anthony’s ABFable projects below.

Here is a 1947 Associated Booking Corporation (that’s Joe Glaser’s firm) magazine advertisement for both Stuff and Eddie South — Eddie has Leonard Gaskin, string bass; Allen Tinney, piano:

Music instruction books linked to famous artists proliferated from the Twenties onwards, and here is one I had never seen before.  I don’t know how deeply Stuff was involved with the compositions and arrangements, but this 1944 folio is a fascinating curio:

Characteristically and thriftily, a mix of public domain songs and a few originals:

The composition looks unadventurous, but this is only the first page.  “Who is Lee Armentrout?” is the big question on JEOPARDY, and the answer is here:

How about some more music?  “Can do,” we say — a lovely rendition of DEEP PURPLE, a duet between Stuff and Sun Ra, recorded on July 29, 1948 by drummer Tommy Hunter. Ra is playing a solovox which was a piano attachment.

Anthony tells me, “There is a lost recording by Ra and Coleman Hawkins from around the same period (but not the same session).  Stuff and Hawk led a band for a couple of weeks around that time with Ra on piano.”

I’ve been writing ecstatically about Anthony’s ABFable discs for more than a decade now: they are absolute models of loving presentation of rare music.  How about this : a CD of 1937 broadcasts of a big band, led by Stuff, its members drawn from the Chick Webb band plus other stars — with a young singer named Ella Fitzgerald?  Stuff leading a septet drawn from the 1942 Fats Waller band while Fats was touring; a Ray Nance compilation that features acetate recordings of Nance, Ben Webster, Jimmie Blanton, Fred Guy, Sonny Greer — oh, and Ben plays clarinet as well as tenor; more from Ray Perry, Eddie South, and glorious violinists you’ve never heard of.  Helen Ward, Rex Stewart, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Joe Bushkin, Jo Jones  . . .

It’s self-indulgent to quote oneself, but perhaps this is forgivable: I don’t ordinarily endorse the productions of an entire CD label, but Anthony Barnett’s AB Fable series of reissues is something special: rare music, beautifully annotated and transferred, delightfully presented.  Barnett’s notes are erudite but never dull. Each CD I’ve heard has been a joyous experience in preconception-shattering. I used to think of jazz violin improvisation beyond Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli as a mildly inconvenient experience. Grudgingly, I acknowledged that it was possible to play compelling jazz on the instrument, but I was politely waiting for Ray Nance to pick up his cornet. Barnett’s CDs have effected a small conversion experience for me—and even if you don’t have the same transformation take place, they are fun to listen to over and over again.

And — as a musing four-bar break: we are, in 2017, caught between the Montagues and the Capulets, the people who say, “Oh, CDs are dead!” and those who say, “I’ll never download a note.”  These CDs are rare creations, and those ignorant of them might be unintentionally denying themselves joy.  For more of the right stuff and Stuff — books, CDs, accurate information galore — visit here.

May your happiness increase!

DAN BLOCK AND HIS MÖBIUS TRAVELERS at SMALLS, PART ONE (February 3, 2017): DAN BLOCK, GODWIN LOUIS, ADAM BIRNBAUM, JENNIFER VINCENT, ALVESTER GARNETT

mobius_strip

Photograph by David Benbennick, c/o Wikipedia

The image above is of a Möbius strip: it has only one side and you keep traveling around it without beginning or end.  You could look it up, as Ring Lardner wrote. It is artifact, concept, and metaphor all in one.

How does this relate to music?  First, a sample: BUGS PARADE, composition and arrangement by Billy Moore, recorded by the 1940 Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra:

It’s 2017.  How would a group of living musicians deal with this work of art?  One approach would be to attempt to reproduce it exactly: transcribe the recording, rehearse it with a select group of musicians — the same number and instrumentation — so that one could hear it live.  Hard work with often beautiful results.  Another approach — at the other end of the spectrum — would be to shatter the original through mockery, to draw an unflattering caricature of the original.

Dan Block, one of the most consistently inspired creators I know, respects the music of the Swing Era and knows it deeply, but has chosen his own path through these two polarities.  It’s hard to explain verbally, but it works in the same way the Möbius strip does: one reveres the original but opens it up innovatively (the artists we respect now were in some way all radical innovators) before returning home to the Palace of Swing.  Dan and his comrades: Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums, did this ten times at an ecstatic musical evening at Smalls on February 3.  Here are three glorious examples — which also stretch the boundaries of the 78 rpm disc above.

HARLEM CONGO, associated with Chick Webb:

Benny Carter’s lovely NIGHTFALL:

And, yes, the aforementioned BUGS PARADE:

You will notice I haven’t said anything about the players or the performances. This band is explosively energized and deeply lyrical, often at the same time.

A postscript: I hope no one feels compelled in the name of red-label Columbias and sunburst Deccas to write in, “I like the originals better.”  Consider that Dan’s reinventions are meant to honor the original lively and lyrical spirits of these Thirties recordings: otherwise why spend the time creating his own tributes? They are not desecrations in any way.

A more cheerful postscript, Dr. Eugenia Chang’s Möbius bagel and lox:

May your happiness increase!

IN THE RIVER THAT IS TIME: DAN BLOCK’S TRANSFORMATIONALISTS (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 17, 2016)

I think of Dan Block as the main character in a Ray Bradbury story.  Friendly but mysterious, he comes to a small town in the Midwest and puts up a banner advertising his TRANSFORMATIONALISTS: “Time Is But The Stream We Go Fishing In / Come With Us!”  A middle-school trombonist hesitantly approaches the Magical Transormationalist, falls under the spell of the music, and when the band leaves town, she goes with them, entranced, on to glories yet undiscovered.

finshing-thoreau

When Dan has led his “Harlem in the Thirties Updated” group at Fat Cat and other venues, I’ve not counted the audience members to see if anyone went missing.  But we were certainly entranced and remain so.

A version of Dan’s magic troupe performed a brief set at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party in September 2016: Dan, alto saxophone / arrangements; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Jon Burr, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums.  The repertoire came from famous bands (Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter) and was written by Mary Lou Williams, Carter, and others — but it sounded fresh, rather than being a distillation of famous records.

The opener, associated with Chick Webb, HARLEM CONGO:

Mary Lou Williams’ composition (I believe Puddin’ Head was trumpeter Edgar Battle):

another Mary Lou creation:

Something for and from Benny Carter:

And, finally, an early version of climate change from the 1934 Henderson band:

Inventive and wholly satisfying.  Another version of the Block Transformationalists will be playing at Smalls on West Tenth Street on February 3, 2017, with the group that performed this music at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Mark your perpetual calendars, please.

May your happiness increase!

AT THE INTERSECTION OF ART AND COMMERCE: TAFT JORDAN AND THE MOB (February 21-22, 1935)

TAFT

A nice bio of trumpeter / vocalist Taft Jordan is available here, which is also the source for the photograph.

TAFT Night Wind Banner

In February 1935, “Taft Jordan And The Mob” — Taft, trumpet; Ward Silloway, trombone; Johnny Mince, clarinet; Elmer “Tone” Williams [not “Skippy” Williams as listed in Tom Lord — thanks to Mark Cantor], tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Bobby Johnson, guitar; John Kirby, string bass; Eddie Dougherty, drums — recorded four memorable sides that have never gotten the attention they deserve.  (Incidentally, the beautiful record labels are illustrations only: the music can be found in the videos below.)  

TAFT MOB label

The idea was John Hammond’s, and one that we are grateful for.  The usual story is that Hammond worked hard to get the music he loved on record, to make opportunities for racially mixed bands.  He succeeded beautifully: most readers know this part of the story as preface to the 1933-42 Billie Holiday sides.

But other parts of the story deserve attention.  There is, for one thing, the success of the coin-operated phonograph (later, the “jukebox”) that could offer people recorded music in restaurants, bars, and elsewhere for what seems to us like a bargain: a nickel would get you three minutes of new music.  But a 1935 nickel was much more than the ninety-nine cents per song that iTunes charges.  (A contemporary advertisement shows Easter dresses for $1.95, and a skilled worker for the W.P.A. might earn $79 a month.)

And, at the time, commercially produced records were — as it says on the label — “not licensed for radio broadcast.”  I think that coin-operated phonographs served the audience’s desire for novelty (“Let’s hear that new record of ______ by Erin Morris and her Ponies!”) — songs from new movies, new songs popularized by much loved bands and singers . . . and for five cents, one could have a side played for a gathering of listeners and/or dancers.  The record labels pictured above are now called “dime-store,” because one could  buy these records inexpensively at, say, Woolworth’s.

Radio and recordings created a need for new material, so many songs, not all memorable, were published, with a clear financial relationship between composers / lyricists, publishing companies, artists, recording supervisors, and record companies.  (A small example: IF THE MOON TURNS GREEN was written by Bernard Hanighen, Billie Holiday’s friend, also a recording director at Brunswick Records.  He would have been happy — aesthetically and financially — to have his song recorded.)

Taft’s four sides run parallel to other small groups led by Fats Waller, Henry Red Allen, Bob Howard, Putney Dandridge, Stuff Smith, Adrian Rollini, Tempo King, Cleo Brown, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Frank Froeba, Bernard Addison, Louis “King”Garcia, Stew Pletcher, and others.  I’ve heard writers say these sessions were “cranked out for the jukebox trade,” but these records are lovely, imperishable.  That there were only four sides says more about an audience’s awareness of Taft as a star than about their quality.  Some listeners might have known him from the Savoy Ballroom and radio, but not many.  When the records were later reissued in the UK (the red-and-gold Vocalion issues) Teddy Wilson had become famous enough so that his name would sell discs.

The artists made little or nothing for these sessions: they were paid “scale,” although they were pleased to make the extra money.   The math is fascinating, a quiet recital of economic disparity, even at the remove of eight decades.  Let us say a band of eight musicians made four sides for $50 a musician.  The records were pressed, distributed, and ended up in the phonographs.  One could hear a side once — no limit on the number of hearers, theoretically — for a nickel. The machine could take in twenty nickels in an hour.  In 1935, the profit went to the record companies and the owners of the phonographs. Later (too late, perhaps) musicians and composers received royalties, but that is another story.

Yes, mechanical reproduction of art guarantees “exposure,” but one cannot eat exposure.  I am aware of this from both sides as an interloper with a video camera who can only recompense musicians in insubstantial ways.

I offer these notions, some of them quite sad or infuriating, as preface to wonderful music, and also to point out that an unstable, often exploitative relationship between the artists, “the marketplace,” technology, and lasting art is not a twenty-first century issue.

TAFT Vocalion Devil

What good songs these “disposable” pop tunes are — thanks to Rothberg, Coots, Alex Hill (yes!), and Hanighen.  And the players, professionals all, were used to sight-reading and creating instant arrangements — with split choruses, riffs, backgrounds.  To take one example, LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE, still recognizable, is a series of thirty-two and sixteen bar solos with rhythm (and what a rhythm section!) with a jammed ensemble ending.  How fine it sounds now.  One could spend an afternoon listening to the glowing epigrams Wilson dispenses, the variety of timbres the horns offer, solo and in ensemble.

In my collecting history, these four sides were part of a Columbia Chick Webb lp compilation — glorious gap-fillers, but also logical because of Taft’s role in the band.  Mince and Silloway were with Tommy Dorsey; Skippy Williams, Bobby Johnson, and John Kirby with Webb also; Eddie Dougherty a busy free-lancer. Wilson had not yet joined the Goodman orchestra as a member of the Trio and Quartet, but had recorded with BG in ad-hoc studio groups.

What we have here — each side is less than three minutes long — is both superior dance music and small-band swing of the highest order, pleasing to all audiences.

In my time-travel fantasy, I would like to be a silent onlooker at one of these sessions, but I doubt the musicians romanticized such work.  It was another way to pay the rent, perhaps (for the lucky sideman) to get some recognition for future leader’s gigs . . . or perhaps, after creating four quiet masterpieces, the guys went out for a drink or some ribs, a nap before the night’s work.  If I’d asked Taft about these sides in 1972 /3 and later — I didn’t see him at close range — I wonder what would he have said.

LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE:

NIGHT WIND:

DEVIL IN THE MOON:

IF THE MOON TURNS GREEN:

All four of these songs were also recorded “with vocal chorus” by Taft, a charming Louis-influenced singer (consider his work with the Washboard Rhythm Kings and Webb) but none of the vocals was issued.  Mysterious.  I know there is an alternate take of NIGHT WIND issued on a Jerry Valburn collectors’ compilation, but it’s instrumental.

TAFT Vocalion Green

Does anyone know more about Eddie Dougherty than is published in John Chilton’s WHO’S WHO IN JAZZ?  I have learned that he recorded between 1933 and 1952 or a little later, that he lived in Brooklyn, and, according to Johnny Williams via Mike Burgevin, that he pronounced his last name as if spelled Dockerty.  But no more.

The music remains.  And I, for one, am truly grateful for that.

Taft as a member of the Ellington orchestra. Photograph by Charlie Mihn, courtesy of Chuck Slate.

Taft as a member of the Ellington orchestra. Photograph by Charlie Mihn, courtesy of Chuck Slate.

As a postscript, here are four contemporaneous versions of DEVIL IN THE MOON — in honor of the Blessed Alex Hill.  I think they are all beautiful, so this is not to make insidious comparisons.

Leo Reisman:

Mills Blue Rhythm Band (with an incendiary Buster Bailey interlude that the expert dancers must have loved):

Benny Goodman:

Art Tatum:

May your happiness increase!