Tag Archives: Christmas

JOHN GILL SINGS A SAD SONG FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Our hero John Gill says, “Everyone has a little Elvis in them somewhere,” and he proved this once again at Terry Waldo’s Sunday gig (December 18) down in the darkness of Fat Cat, 75 Christopher Street, New York City.  There’s a direct line from Presley to Gill to us, and this song is my idea of a healthy corrective to all the manufactured holiday cheer.

John Gill by Marce Enright / New England Traditional Jazz Plus

John Gill by Marce Enright / New England Traditional Jazz Plus

John’s colleagues, helping him find his way on his dark indigo quest, are Terry Waldo, piano; Brian Nalepka, string bass; Jay Lepley, drums; Jim Fryer, trombone; Evan Arntzen, reeds; Jon-Erik Kellso, cornet.

May your happiness increase!

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HOW DO YOU KEEP THE MUSIC PLAYING?

I don’t celebrate Christmas, but this picture embodies what it might mean at its highest — an occasion for love, immortality, generosity, and art.  The little boy here, now grown up, is Stephen Hester — the noted Red Nichols scholar.  I’ll let him provide the details:

“The picture was taken on December 24, 1958 in our house in Pontiac, Michigan, by my grandfather. (My grandmother was holding my newborn baby brother, off camera.) Yes, that is my mother, me (age 3), and dad.  I tease dad,because of this picture, that he started me before I can remember.  I have been told at the time of this picture my favorite record was Felix The Cat (Whiteman w/Bix).  I do remember at age 5 my favorite record was Red’s O’er The Billowy Sea, which is about the time I did meet Red, at our house.  I remember I was collecting and starting to help dad with the reseach when Red passed in 1965.  That exact copy of Bixieland is still in the collection.  I do have “newer” copies to play, but that one has a special place.”

Steve’s father, Stan Hester — along with Woody Backensto — is responsible for much of what we now know about some eminent but often neglected jazz musicians of the Twenties, Red Nichols and his associates.  Steve told me, “Dad started collecting in 1941. He and Woody started the Nichols research (with Red’s help) the month after I was born.  I have been lucky to have been able to read and study all the correspondence, notes, from them, and all their contacts: bandleaders, musicians, collectors, etc. Many of the musicians and collectors became my friends, among them Joe Tarto, Mannie Klein.”

You might want to consider what this picture suggests.  One whimsical moral is, of course, “It isn’t Christmas without Condon!” and few would disagree.  But there is something larger resonating here.  Give something you hold dear to the people you love, and both gift and giver will transcend time and the calendar.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah to all of you.  May jazz always  give you happiness, and may you find ways to spread happiness through jazz.

Part Two: THE CARDS OUTDO THEMSELVES (Feb. 27, 2010)

Blessings on their heads, one and all. That’s Tamar Korn, vocals, impromptu dancing, mouth trumpet, air violin, percussive effects; Jake Sanders, banjo; Debbie Kennedy, string bass; Marcus Milius, harmonica; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet, electric mandolin; Gordon Au, trumpet. 

I cherish them all: their passionate seriousness and rhythmic drive.  Jake’s intelligent, quiet way of shaping an ensemble rather than letting everyone take two choruses; his powerful but never noisy playing.  Debbie’s swinging pulse; her good cheer.  Marcus’s intent candor.  Dennis’s big tone and shapely phrases.  Gordon, quietly majestic, roaming around in what I think are the most beautiful registers of the trumpet.  

Tamar isn’t the only one singing in this band.   And look at what a good time they’re having! 

A thousand thanks to Paul Wegener for bringing the Cards to the Shambhala Meditation Center on 22nd Street, which will be hosting other swing dance groups in future — with the Cards scheduled for an August return (they’re the toast of Shanghai as I write this!).  That’s http://ny.shambhala.org/music.php.  The Shambhala Meditation Center Of New York is located at 118 West 22nd Street, 6th Floor, New York,  New York 10011.  Tel. 212-675-6544    Email: // info@shambhalanyc.org

Now, four more performances from February 27, presented with pleasure:

Here’s the very pretty and optimistic APRIL SHOWERS, a song that inspires Tamar to take chances (as she does beautifully in the last sixteen bars) and there’s a nice extended dialogue between Dennis and Gordon that is reminiscent in spirit of Jimmie Noone and Guy Kelly, circa 1935 Chicago:

I had never heard the verse to SUGAR BLUES.  Another thing to be thankful to the Cards for!  It’s always a good sign in a band when musicians are smiing at what their colleagues are playing, and joy is contagious here.  Perhaps emboldened by Gordon’s utterly perverse reference to “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” at the end of his first chorus, Tamar embarks on her own chorus of mouth trumpet, sounding like a particularly expressive Siamese cat:

What happens when the beat gets to you?  CRAZY RHYTHM, of course.  Honors here might go to Marcus and Jake, as well as the Korn Percussion Section.  But be patient: there’s a rocking out-chorus to come:

A jaunty reading of I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, featuring an adventurous exploration by Gordon and Tamar and her Magic Violin (or the 101 Strings, made much more personal):

Delicious!  And there’s more . . .

SANTA’S ALCHEMICAL SECRET

As is her habit, the Beloved is listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s Christmas show on WNYC-FM, where his guests include Mandy Patinkin, Charles Osgood, Jay Leonhart, Steve LaSpina, Harry Allen, John Pizzarelli, Tony Monte, and Gene Bertoncini.  When the chatter comes to a graceful halt, Jonathan offers high-quality seasonal music, including tenor saxophonist Harry’s romp through “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” 

The Beloved, quite properly, was delighted with Harry’s performance.  But she asked me, “Do jazz musicians really enjoy playing such silly songs?” 

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is well-established in the American cultural landscape, ubiquitous, even.  I used to roll my eyes whenever it was played.  However, when I found out that it had been composed by J. Fred Coots, composer of “You Go To My Head” and “For All We Know,” I was able to feel more kindly towards the song.  Somehow it appealed to me that Coots should have made a fortune on this musical shred — enabling him to live comfortably and write far better songs.   

I answered the Beloved’s question by invoking the Sage of Corsicana, Texas, Hot Lips Page, who, when asked a similar question, reputedly said, “The material is immaterial.”  And Django Reinhardt, who surely knew something about improvisation, asked for the simplest theme from “Tiger Rag” as material to improvise on at a jam session. 

Like alchemists, jazz musicians inhabit a miraculous universe, turning junk into gold, often enjoying the vapidity of a piece of music because its three-chord structure allows them to improvise freely while the F, G7, and C are endlessly returning.  Think of the twelve-bar blues as the perfect example.  The freedom to create as one wishes — what a blessing!

But back to seasonal matters.  Between now and Christmas, I am always tempted to equip myself with a pair of earplugs when I go out in public.  I would be thrilled to hear Bing’s “White Christmas” once a day, but “The Little Drummer Boy” performed with funk underpinnings raises my blood pressure alarmingly.  So I propose two aesthetic alternatives for the season.

mark-shane-santaOne is the best, most jubilant jazz Christmas CD I have ever heard: Mark Shane (and his X-mas All-Stars, including Jon-Erik Kellso) on the Nagel-Heyer label, WHAT WOULD SANTA SAY?  It’s a CD I enjoy all through the year.    

The other piece of music is accessible online, as I found to my delight.  It’s a 1944 record made for the Savoy label, featuring the delightfully accomplished pianist Johnny Guarneri and the irreplaceable bassist Slam Stewart.  A truly irrepressible pair! 

The song — apparently improvised impromptu in the studio — is called SANTA’S SECRET, a jolly evocation of Fats Waller, who had died less than a year before.  It answers the pressing question, “What makes Santa so jolly?”  Whether Johnny and Slam were Tall when they recorded this I leave to scholars more erudite than myself. 

If you visit http://www.musicalfruitcake.com (which bills itself as offering the worst Christmas songs ever recorded — a position I don’t hold) and search for “Guarneri,” all should be revealed.  The link is genuinely troublesome, but it is alive and worth pursuing.      

In this holiday season and beyond, I hope that you are as happy as Johnny and Slam seem to be on that record.  And that you get to display your very own alchemical wizardries, even if you don’t play an instrument.