Tag Archives: Clarence Williams

FRIENDS AT PLAY: STEVE PISTORIUS, “LIVING ROOM SESSIONS, VOLUME ONE: NEW ORLEANS TREASURES”

If you detect the aroma of a pie baking in your neighbor’s house, it’s not necessary to analyze its appeal at length.

My enthusiasm for the disc below and the music it contains is strong: I received the disc in the mail yesterday; I am playing it now while writing this post.  And if you like subtle hot jazz that lives at the heart of the music — direct and unaffected — you will want a copy or a download.

That in itself is a cheering sight, and the details are even better.

The musicians: Steve Pistorius, piano / Joe Goldberg, clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocal / James Evans, clarinet, bass clarinet, C-melody saxophone, vocal / Benny Amon, drums, washboard, bock-a-de-bock cymbals / Tyler Thomson, string bass / Maxwell Poulos, tenor banjo, mandolin.

The songs: Sittin’ on the Curb-stone Blues / Candy Lips (I’m Stuck on You)
Where Did You Stay Last Night? / Maori (A Samoan Song) / Tears / I’m Alone Without You / Piggly Wiggly / Love is the Sweetest Thing / Okey Doke / If You Knew (How I Love You) / Every Evening / Too Tight / Quem me Comprende / Cushion Foot Stomp.

The time, the place, the technology: December 5 and 6, 2019; Steve’s living room; recorded by Ryan Baer on vintage equipment: his reel-to-reel recorder and RCA ribbon microphone.

How to hear it / how to purchase it:

Steve Pistorius – Living Room Sessions, Vol. 1

you can hear thirty-second sound samples of five performances and then purchase the disc.  (Notice I do not write, “If you are so moved,” because I am sure most listeners will be.)  Here — in the name of instant gratification — you can purchase a digital download of the music.

A few words from me, if needed.  I’ve been a convert to Steve’s music — solo piano and the brilliantly heartfelt musical ensembles he creates and leads — for some years now.  I warm to their warm, unbuttoned music — loose without being messy, expert without being over-analyzed.  The New Orleans repertoire on this disc isn’t overplayed tourist slosh; these are caressingly melodic pieces that could woo a listener if played straight, and the twining improvisations are memorable from the first hearing on.  Whether the mood is yearning and dreamy or plunging forward, each track is a delightful aural experience on its own terms.

And the band is made up of people who know the joy of ensemble playing, so the result is a vibrant tapestry of musicians playing “for the comfort of the band” as well as creating brilliant solos.  They know the routines and the conventions yet aren’t chained by them.  The songs are “old” but the music feels bright and new, never dusty — no scholarly recreations of old records.

The recording studio, even in the best circumstances, is an unnatural place, even if there is joking, there are sandwiches and good coffee.  Musicians know that what they do here will be scrutinized for — perhaps not “forever,” but for a long time, and that tends to make the room temperature drop.  That so much of our memorable music has been captured in such artificial circumstances speaks to the wisdom and intensity of the musicians.  But this disc benefits immensely from the collective relaxation of Steve’s living room — a friendly gathering rather than a doctoral examination.  You can hear it.  And the “vintage” technology, while never blurring the sound, is also comfortable.  The result is rather like being invited to hear music next door — a rent party where everyone is sweetly attentive and the music soars. The disc goes by far too quickly, which is why I am cheered by the hope of more volumes to come.

I could write more, but why?  This is a lovely, rewarding disc, and I thank everyone involved with it.  You will, too.  But now I want pie for breakfast, damn it.  Oh, well: I’ll just play the LIVING ROOM SESSIONS again.

May your happiness increase!

STREET FOOD, AN EXOTIC HONEYMOON, EXUBERANT DANCE, 1936

If you asked me to give an overview of jazz and popular music in 1936, I might summon up Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Putney Dandridge, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Hill, Gene Krupa, Fifty-Second Street, Red Allen, Art Tatum, Bob Howard, Mildred Bailey, Jones-Smith, Incorporated, Teddy Wilson, and twenty others.  It would be a little after THE MUSIC GOES ROUND AND ROUND but just right for I’SE A-MUGGIN’, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, and RHYTHM IN MY NURSERY RHYMES, perhaps DINNER FOR ONE, PLEASE JAMES.

But in even broader strokes, this was the early triumph of the Swing Era, dominated by well-rehearsed bands, using intricate arrangements for dancers.  But art, however you define it, is never homogeneous: while Joyce and Woolf were exploding the conventions of narrative, many traditional linear novels were published and read.  In jazz, we know that Max Roach and Baby Dodds were on the same radio broadcast in most congenial fashion.  And in the very late Fifties, Herbie Nichols, Steve Lacy, Ed Allen, and Cecil Scott were all gigging in New York City simultaneously.

These musings come about because of Briscoe Draper’s posting on Facebook of a song I’d never heard, LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON, which delights me.  It features the clarinet playing of Arnett Nelson, someone I’ve heard about from one of my other teachers, Sammut of Malta — whose expert playing has nothing to do with the elegant playing of Benny and Artie, so much in fashion in 1936.  These tracks were issued under the all-inclusive but unspecific name “Chicago Rhythm Kings,” which jazz fans will recognize as a nom-de-disque for young white Chicagoans in 1928.

Here is the recording data, edited from Tom Lord.  Steve Abrams suggests that Guy Kelly is the trumpeter, but I feel that the player we hear is less assured.  And is the pianist Black Bob or Jimmy Blythe?  I do not know, nor are such matters my focus.

Lord notes: prob. Alfred Bell (cnt) Roy Palmer (tb) Arnett Nelson (cl,vcl) prob. Black Bob (p) prob John Lindsay (b) Jimmy Bertrand (d).  Chicago, March 11, 1936: YOU BATTLE-HEAD BEETLE- HEAD Vocalion 3208 / IT’S TOO BAD (WHEN THE SISTERS START TRUCKIN’ AROUND) in two takes; Voc 3208.
Same personnel but unknown (as-1) added.  Chicago, April 3, 1936: SHANGHAI HONEYMOON Bluebird 6371 / LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON (same, unknown vocalist).

Because Steve Abrams has generously made available his 78 transfer of IT’S TOO BAD / YOU BATTLE-HEAD, I have included that as well as the YouTube transfers, which might be from the RST CD collection.  (There are pitch and sonic differences: I would assume that the 78 transfer is a more trustworthy source, but such waters are deep and dark.)

I invite you to turn away from the news and immerse yourself in a different world, thanks to these “Hot Dance with Vocal Chorus” records.  I’ll have some listening comments at the end.

and the 78 version:

Flip it over, as they used to say:

This seems the same take as the 78, unless they followed the routines closely:

If you are enamored of SHANGHAI HONEYMOON, there are many versions with vocal refrains and ostentatious “Chinese” cliches.  However, Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs have performed this opus — you can find it on YouTube — with its ethnic-racial tendencies tamed, and a duet by Ray and Katie Cavera (also on the Jazzology CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO):

and my new favorite ditty, which I hope to hear Dave Stuckey sing when we meet again (although that is a suggestion rather than an order — greetings, Pappy!):

Depending on how deeply you have steeped yourself in the music of the period, you may hear many different things.
First, the material itself is cheerfully homemade: except for SHANGHAI, the songs are composed by the players, and they are miles away from Rodgers and Hart or Arlen and Koehler.  That is not to condescend, for listeners respond strongly to campfire songs as well as poetry, but BEETLE and TOO BAD seem more enthusiastic than expert: the end-rhymes are inexact, and occasionally the lyrics and music do not fit neatly.  They are set-pieces for an audience who wanted to party: the “you’re a fool for getting so drunk” song; the “let’s celebrate wild action on the dance floor” song — reminiscent of a contemporaneous Tampa Red blues — especially because the Chicago blues records of this period employed many of the same musicians.  I hear echoes of MAMA DON’T ALLOW and HOW’M I DOIN’ as well as YOU RASCAL YOU.
LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON aspires to be one of those songs mingling love and the bill of fare (think WHEN LOVE DROPPED IN TO TEA) but it doesn’t get there; the composer(s) are more focused on what’s for sale than in a Billy Wilder meet-cute with someone’s hamburger being shared by thrifty lovers.  (I hear echoes of ACE IN THE HOLE in the first strain.)
SHANGHAI HONEYMOON is the most “professional” song of the four, possibly going back to 1927, and whether Lester Melrose had anything to do with writing it or simply required a portion of the royalties in exchange for getting it published, played, and recorded, I do not know, but the three other songs did not have any currency outside of this record date, where HONEYMOON did.  I have seen no sheet music for the other songs.
Second, these recordings are stylistically earlier than 1936 (no offense meant there either); rather than being “streamlined,” “innovative,” or “harmonically forward-looking,” they happily live in the musical world that Dick Wellstood called “grease and funk,” with TOO BAD and BEETLE sounding, to me, like Saturday-night-party music.  The closest parallel in jazz is the long series of Clarence Williams recordings, but these sides are genuine crossover music before the name ever emerged, with sideways connections to blues and roots music.
And this is understandable, given the histories of the players: for most of them, this was their last recording session, and some of them had been recording since 1921 or 1923.  I delight in Arnett Nelson’s wildly opinionated clarinet — “I have something to say and I have to say it loudly and right now,” and the powerful rhythm section. But we are miles away from the Benny Goodman Quartet, Toto.  I also have a special affection for the rather sweetly amateurish singer on SANDWICH: was he someone’s relative or friend?  (I wonder what the significance of “He didn’t serve no rice” is.  An easy rhyme for “nice,” or are there deeper meanings?
Finally, I wonder how these record dates came to be.  In New York, Williams made no records between 1935 and 1937, and his 1934 sides for the Decca “Sepia Series” were issued as the “Alabama Jug Band.” Did a Vocalion recording executive in Chicago perceive that this band — of known reliable musicians who were also appearing on blues records — should be given the chance to make two sides of their own compositions with the hope of a jukebox hit?  Musicians recorded such sessions with little preparation; they were paid scale.  It would not have cost Vocalion much, but clearly the records did not make a stir.  Did Nelson or someone else in the band take the test pressings over to the Victor studios and request a date in April?
I have stayed away from discussing race in this post, but I will suggest that a 1936 record buyer would recognize these four sides as being performed and aimed at a “colored” audience, to use the description of the times.  Yet I know Bluebird (by which I mean Victor) also used the “Chicago Rhythm Kings” name to issue a record or records by what I believe are white orchestras.
All this must, I think, remain mysterious.  What we have is rollicking, enthusiastic hot music played by Chicago veterans.  Thank goodness for records, and particularly for odd, cheerful ones like these four.
May your happiness increase!

IN DUBIOUS TASTE, BUT EXCELLENT MUSIC: CURIOUSLY RELEVANT TO A CURRENT DILEMMA (March 16, 2020)

Did you go to the grocery store in search of toilet paper and find this scene?

Photograph by Brittany Newman for the New York Times.

Fear of not-having brought out some people’s worst impulses.  A neighbor went to the supermarket and saw a woman with several carts of toilet paper.  He politely asked her, “Excuse me, what is all that for?” and she snarled, “IT’S FOR MY FAMILY!” true only if her brood was the size of Josephine Baker’s.

I have some in my closet, so admittedly I write this from complacency.  But I have a solution for those who find the shelves empty.  Learn the lyrics and melody to this ditty and sing it loudly — or if you can’t do that on short notice, play the video at full volume on your phone, then go to the next aisle, meander through the spaghetti sauce and couscous, and when you return, the shelves will magically be full.  Try it:

If my magic doesn’t work, singing WIPE IT OFF loudly will keep people more than eight feet from you.  What could possibly go wrong?

On a more serious note: this post may strike some as in bad taste, but laughing beats weeping or punching a hole in the sheetrock (aim between the studs).

Thanks to Lonnie Johnson, Clarence Williams, James P. Johnson, and Spencer Williams for their comic-spiritual uplift.

May your happiness increase! 

BRAGGIN’ IN BRASS: JON-ERIK KELLSO, SCOTT ROBINSON, JOE COHN, MURRAY WALL (Cafe Bohemia, January 30, 2020)

A few night ago, I was witness to a glorious expression of personalities and an explosion of sounds.  The “Cafe Bohemia Jazz Quartet,” which appears regularly on Thursdays at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York, was that night led by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet (as usual), with Scott Robinson, magic man, playing tenor saxophone, taragoto, and a new find from his basement, an “adorable” little Eb cornet.  With them were Joe Cohn, guitar, and Murray Wall, string bass.

The evening’s music was characteristically rewarding and varied: a first set of SONG OF THE WANDERER, SUGAR, INDIANA, ROCKIN’ CHAIR, THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME, I FOUND A NEW BABY, and CREOLE LOVE CALL.  In the Bohemia audience, appropriately, were members of the Pilsner Jazz Band, who had just appeared at the Kennedy Center (more about that below) and were enthusiastically responding to the band.  I don’t recall if Jon-Erik asked them what they’d like to hear (the act of a brave person) but someone suggested ROYAL GARDEN BLUES and that began the second set.

A word about ROYAL GARDEN BLUES — which has a lovely pedigree, because the song (with lyrics) by Clarence and Spencer Williams, possibly just by Spencer, refers to the place King Oliver played, later the Lincoln Gardens.  It’s a century old, if we take as its starting point the unissued recordings pioneering bandleader George Morrison made of the tune.

We all have our favorite versions, from Bix to the Goodman Sextet to Tatum to Louis, and as I write this, another’s being created.  But since it was taken up from the Forties onward by “trad” groups — define them as you will — it’s one of the three songs played nearly to a crisp (the others are MUSKRAT RAMBLE and STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE).  Too many formulaic renditions in my history have caused me slight flutters of ennui when someone suggests it.  But not with this quartet.  After a gentle ensemble start (I missed a bit due to camera rebellion) this performance escalates into a wonderfully friendly joust between Jon-Erik and Scott.  Quite uplifting, with every tub securely on its own botom, seriously cheering

I felt like cheering then, and I do now.  See what happens when you leave your house to confront the music face to face?  More about the notion of leaving-your-house, at least temporarily, here.

Beauty awaits us, if we just look for it.

And just because this title was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of this post, here’s an evocative jazz artifact:

Postscript: here’s the Pilsner Jazz Band at the Kennedy Center, Jan. 27, 2020:

May your happiness increase!

THE FAT BABIES: “UPTOWN” (Delmark Records): ANDY SCHUMM, JOHN OTTO, JONATHAN DOYLE, DAVE BOCK, PAUL ASARO, JOHNNY DONATOWICZ, BEAU SAMPLE, ALEX HALL

To my ears, modern bands don’t find it easy to reproduce the music of Twenties and early Thirties medium-sized ensembles beyond playing the notes, although I commend their attempts.  The most pleasing exceptions have been Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, still doing the thing regularly in New York and elsewhere; I’ve also delighted in some ad hoc ensembles put together at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Festival.  (Listeners have other favorites, I know: I am not compiling a list here.)

But most recently, the Chicago-based FAT BABIES are are a consistent pleasure.

Here’s UPTOWN, performed at the July 2016 Evergreen Jazz Festival:

UPTOWN is also the name of the Babies’ latest CD, their fourth for Delmark, beautifully thought-out, played, and recorded.

Visit here to buy the disc and hear samples, or vice versa.

The band on this disc is the 2016-18 version, with Andy Schumm, cornet, alto saxophone, clarinet; Dave Bock, trombone; Jonathan Doyle, clarinet, tenor, soprano; John Otto, clarinet, tenor; Paul Asaro, piano, vocal; Johnny Donatowicz, tenor banjo, tenor guitar; Beau Sample, string bass; Alex Hall, drums, percussion.  They deeply understand the music without being stuffy.

Of the thirteen selections, UPTOWN and THAT GAL OF MINE are originals by Andy Schumm; SWEET IS THE NIGHT by Jonathan Doyle.  The arrangements and transcriptions are by Schumm, Doyle, and Paul Asaro, who also sings on five tracks with proper period flourishes.  The rest of the repertoire — venerable songs — EDNA, HARMONY BLUES, THE BATHING BEAUTY BLUES, RUFF SCUFFLIN’, OUT OF A CLEAR BLUE SKY, THUMPIN’ AND BUMPIN’, THE SPELL OF THE BLUES, TRAVELIN’ THAT ROCKY ROAD, THE SOPHOMORE, HARLEM RHYTHM DANCE — have noble associations with King Oliver, Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk, Eubie Blake, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, Bing Crosby, the Dorsey Brothers, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Clarence Williams, Claude Hopkins, and others.  But you’ll notice that the song selection, although deep and genuine, is not The Same Old Thing (you know: the same two Ellingtons, one Bix, DIPPER MOUTH BLUES, MOTEN SWING, and so on): even scholars of the period might not be used to hearing some of these compositions.

What makes this band so delightful?  The answers come thick and fast.  They are a working band, so their section work is beautifully polished but never stiff.  The solos caress or explode, depending on what the song requires.  There’s also a refreshing variety in tempo and mood: the Babies do not need to play racetrack tempos all the time, and they know that hot is best served with with nicely seasoned side dishes of sweet.  This is music for dancers as well as listeners.  I’ve seen other ensembles do creditable work with charts they are seeing for the first or second time, but nothing can replace the comfortable familiarity that comes with playing a song twenty times in a month.

“Authenticity” is always a slippery subject, but the Babies manifest it in every note and phrase: they’ve lived with this music long enough and intensely enough to have the rhythmic feel of this period as part of their individual and collective nervous systems, so there is no self-conscious “going backwards,” but the band feels as if they’ve immersed themselves in the conventions of the style — which go beyond slapped bass and choked cymbal.  It doesn’t feel as if they are acting, pretending to be ancient: their joy in being comes through.  And the solos are stylistically gratifying without being museum-pieces.  It’s been said before, but if the Babies were to be dropped in Harlem in 1931, they would cause a sensation and be welcomed at the Rhythm Club, the dance halls, and after-hours clubs.

It’s joyous music, joyously played.  And my only reservation about this Delmark CD (which, again, I point out, is beautifully recorded) is that it’s not a three-disc set.  Maybe next time.

May your happiness increase!

THE EASY WINNERS FILL THE AIR WITH LOVELY MELODIES

There are so many names for the music The Easy Winners create (is it string-band music, ragtime, roots music, Americana, or venerable popular song?) that I have given up the quest to name it.  But it’s light-hearted, sweet, sometimes hilarious, sentimental in the best ways, old-fashioned without being stuffy.

THE EASY WINNERS, photograph by Wendy Leyden.

Here’s RAGGED BUT RIGHT, swinging and comedic at once:

Who are these gifted and friendly people?  In the middle, that’s Nick Robinson, to his left is Zac Salem; for this appearance at the 2019 Historic Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival they are joined by Robert Armstrong — you’ll know which one he is because he sings with great subtle skill.  I’m also pleased to point out that the very fine videos are the product of Unigon Films: video and audio by Rob Thomas, edited by Lewis Motisher.
To me, this music is completely charming — what I envision people who lived some distance from cities playing and singing at home (ideally on the porch in summer), old songs, pop songs, swinging without trying hard to, joining their individual string sounds and vocal harmonies to entertain family, friends, neighbors.  They feel a million miles away from music funneled through the iPhone into earbuds or blasting from someone’s car speaker: they remind me of a time when people made music on their own and they were expert at it even when Ralph Peer didn’t offer them a record contract: a landscape full of wonderful sounds, people creating beautiful melodies for their own pleasure.
One of the additional pleasures of this group is their varied library, “ragtime era music of the Americas on mandolin and guitar . . . classic rags, waltzes, cakewalks, tangos, marches, and songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”  For those whose little “is this jazz?” alarm bells are going off, calm down and remind yourself that Oliver, Henderson, Gioldkette, and other fabled bands (we celebrate them as hot ensembles) played tangos and waltzes because the crowd wanted them and expected them — as delights for the ears and intriguing dance music, variety over the course of an evening.
A little personal history: in 2013 I delighted in Nick’s former band, The Ragtime Skedaddlers, at the Cline Wine & Jazz Festival, and it was my pleasure to write about them and post video from their performance here.  Nick happily reminded me that I called the R.S. “old-fashioned melodists,” true then, true now, no matter what the band is called.
The R.S. gave way to The Easy Winners — an optimistic title with echoes of Joplin (and much easier to spell).  I wasn’t at the Sutter Festival, but 17 (!) beautiful videos have emerged and I am delighted to share a few with the JAZZ LIVES audience in hopes of introducing them to this beautiful expert unaffected group.  You can see them all
here or here (the first is Nick’s playlist; the second the filmmakers’ channel).
But here are two more that I particularly like because the songs have deep jazz connections for me and perhaps you as well:
DIANE always makes me think of Jack Teagarden, although the verse is new to me — as is Robert’s fine playing on that home-improvement item (he doesn’t sing “Did you see what I saw?” but perhaps he should):

BREEZE, which I associate with Clarence Williams and Jess Stacy:

I didn’t have the good fortune to grow up among people so talented (although my father played a round-back mandolin in his youth) but the Easy Winners are not only a musical delight but a kind of spiritual one.  Although we are listening to them digitally through our computers, they link us to a time and place where sweet music helped us to perceive the world as a benevolent place.  I hope they prosper.
If I had a house with a porch (my apartment complex has unyielding concrete benches) I would want to hire The Easy Winners for late-spring serenades.  There could be pie and lemonade, too.
May your happiness increase!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY OR ANNIVERSARY, BOYS! CHICAGOANS in CALIFORNIA, CONTINUED (The CHICAGO CELLAR BOYS at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST, November 25, 2018)

I read recently that the Chicago Cellar Boys were celebrating being a band for two years: I don’t know whether we should wish them HAPPY BIRTHDAY or HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, but my impulse is to celebrate them: their wonderful mixture of exactitude and abandon is so very inspiring, so hot, so sweet.  How do we celebrate here at JAZZ LIVES?  We share video that you haven’t seen before unless you were at the gig.  That’s what we do!

KEEP SMILING AT TROUBLE, not only a good song but a fine life-maxim, performed in the style of the Apex Club Orchestra, with its verse as well:

ROSY CHEEKS, with an idiomatic vocal chorus by Paul Asaro:

Clarence Williams’ BOTTOMLAND, played at a yearning tempo:

A word about husbands who suffer; take it seriously or not, POOR PAPA:

Another song related to Jimmie Noone’s small band, which performed at the El Dorado Club — I read that EL RADO SCUFFLE was named because some of the lighting on the club’s sign was not working:

SO TIRED, which is obviously not the Cellar Boys’ theme song:

SWEET EMMALINE, recorded in 1928 by Clarence Williams.  Is there any truth to the rumor, half-remembered, which has Clarence saying, late in life, that he wrote none of the music for which he took credit?

A great band!

Incidentally, parents in the JAZZ LIVES audience are surely familiar with “the terrible twos,” where the toddler says NO to everything, dramatically.  The CCB say NO to many things: inauthentic music, badly played music, striped vests, stuffed pets on the gig, poor-quality snacks in the musicians’ room, too-tight polo shirts.  To wonderful music they say YES, as do we.

Two other bits of relevant information.  The Cellar Boys will be back at this year’s San Diego Jazz Fest, and they will have copies of their debut CD, BUSY ‘TIL ELEVEN, which is a Rivermont Records production.  Also for Rivermont, they’ve recorded a microgroove 78 rpm record (four songs) if it isn’t sold out by now.

And if you’ve never seen a copy of THE SYNCOPATED TIMES, you owe it to yourself to click on the bright-blue rectangle below, which is there for some good reasons.

May your happiness increase!