Tag Archives: clarinet

THE WARM SOUNDS OF BILL NAPIER (1926-2003)

Clarinetist Bill Napier might be one of the finest musicians that few people outside of California have ever heard, or heard of.  Marc Caparone says, “I only played music with him twice, but he was a god, a very quiet man who didn’t get much publicity but was always superb.”  Leon Oakley remembers him as a “warm, creative player.”  Hal Smith told me that Bill cared about the music more than “traditional” ways of playing a chorus.

Almost all of the recordings Bill made, and the live performances captured outside of the studio have him in the middle of six or seven-piece units.  What I now can share with you here is intimate, touching music, with Bill the solo horn in a congenial trio.

The personnel of these live recordings is Napier, clarinet; Larry Scala, banjo; Robbie Schlosser, string bass.  They were recorded on August 8, 1994, outdoors at Stanford University, by Dr. Arthur Schawlow, who won the Nobel Prize (with others) for his work on the laser beam.  Dr. Schawlow not only liked jazz, but was an early adopter of high-tech: Larry says that he recorded these performances on a digital recorder, the first one he had ever seen.

Here are five delicious chamber performances, beginning with ALL MY LIFE.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

I’M CONFESSIN’:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

IF I HAD YOU:

and a masterpiece:

Napier’s sound comes in the ear like honey.  He never plays a superfluous note; he honors the melody but in the most gentle supple way.  It is rather as if he were leaning forward, softly saying something heartfelt that was important to him and that he knew would uplift you.  Beauty and swing without affectation.

Before we move on to precious oral history, a few words about one of the other members of this trio.  After you have bathed in the liquid gold of Napier’s sound, listen once again to the very relaxed and gracious banjo playing of Larry Scala. Like Napier, he understands melodic lines (while keeping a flexible rhythm going and using harmonies that add but never distract).  Banjos in the wrong hands can scare some of us, but Larry is a real artist, and his sound is a pleasure to listen to.  (You can find examples of his superb guitar work elsewhere on this blog.) And this post exists because of his generosity, for he has provided the source material, and Larry’s gift to us is a great one.  Music to dance to; music to dream by.

I asked California jazz eminences for memories of Napier, and this is some of what people remembered.  Bill was obviously A Character, but everyone I asked was eager to praise him, and you’ve heard why.

From Hal Smith: I was going through tapes in the archive of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation. One tape had several of the bands which performed at the Clancy Hayes benefit at Earthquake McGoon’s in May of 1970. Napier led a band for the occasion. I heard him get onstage, walk to the mic and say “Here we are!” Then, a couple of seconds later, “Where ARE we?”

By the way, Bill’s real name was James William Asbury.  I’m not sure how it got changed to “Bill Napier.”  When he would tell stories about his youth, or time in the Army, he always referred to himself as “little Jimmy Asbury.”

Bill told me about the clarinetists he admired, including Jimmie Noone and Jimmy Dorsey. He also liked Albert Nicholas and went to hear him at Club Hangover in San Francisco. He asked to sit in, but was turned down. As he described it, “I asked Albert Nicholas if he needed any help and he said he didn’t think so.”

Bill was the original clarinetist with Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band. He left the group following Jack Sohmer’s mean-spirited review of Schulz’s CD which was published in The Mississippi Rag. After that, whenever Schulz would ask if Bill was available to play a gig, Bill would say, “No. Jack Sohmer may be in the audience.”  Before he left the Schulz band, we played a concert at Filoli Mansion outside San Francisco. M.C. Bud Spangler asked each musician to explain why they play music for a living. There was a wide range of responses, but Bill’s was the best: “Well, I have to pay my taxes!”

From Clint Baker:  Bill Napier was a bit of a prodigy, as a teenager he was playing at the Dawn Club as part of a young band that was one of the substitute bands for the wartime Yerba Buena Jazz Band.  By the late 40’s he was working with Wingy Manone in San Francisco. He went on to have a couple of stints with the Turk Murphy band and also with Bob Scobey, a band for which he was better suited for sure. He later worked with all the better bands around here; he was not all that interested in playing music on the road and kept close to home for the most part after the Fifties.

I encountered him many times when I was coming up.  He was always the consummate sideman, and always played with great imagination; he had the most amazing tone, liquid would best describe his.  But he NEVER ran out of ideas, he was a wellspring of original musical thought. If he did fall back on a device such as quote, it was always the most obtuse thing one could come up with.

Bill was one of the only players I ever played with who perfectly combined the elements of swing clarinet and New Orleans style clarinet; he all at once sounded like Goodman or Shaw or Simeon or Bigard.  He was hip to all of it and could combine all of the musical DNA of those styles in to his own rich sound. I remember speaking with him about to old masters and he told Simeon was one of his main favorites.  BUT he was truly his own man with the richest of musical imaginations.  I was always honored to work with him, and wish I had had more chances, but the times I did, I cherish. You knew when you were on the bandstand with him you were in the presence of greatness.  Bill was a master.

From Paul Mehling: I worked with him for nearly thirty years in a trio of bass, guitar, and clarinet, and he is on two of our CDs.  He was very shy, quiet, and private. He loved his two (or more?) cats. He and his wife would take the two cats camping and one year when it was time to leave they couldn’t find one of their cats. They called and called but feared he’d been abducted or eaten so they drove home very sad. Next year, they went camping again, same spot/campground. Guess who showed up!  They were overjoyed.  He never really believed how much I loved his playing and all I aspired to at that time was to be GOOD ENOUGH TO SHINE HIS SHOES (musically). I used to try to get into his head during each song and try to give him the kind of rhythm that he’d be most comfortable with.

I was 18 when I first played a full gig with him, but I first met him at the Alameda County Fair when I was 16, long-haired, and didn’t know anything about music but had enough gumption to drag my acoustic guitar into the fairgrounds and find those guys- Lueder Ohlwein, banjo; maybe Ev Farey, trumpet; for sure Bob Mielke, trombone, was there and probably Bill Carrol on bass.  They said Do you know any songs?” I said “Sure, whaddabout Avalon and I Got Rhythm,” and probably one other song.  I played, they liked it, and a few years later Napier remembered me!

He and I bonded early on over comedy. He liked how often I quoted Groucho. We had a shared love for bad puns:
Napier: “Let’s play the suspenders song.”
Me: “ What song is that?”
Napier: “It all depends on you.”
Me: “What?”
Napier : “It hold de pants on you.”

Napier: “You like to golf?”
Me: “Uh, no. You?”
Napier: “No, I never wanted to make my balls soar.”

We’d come up with all manner of re-titling songs to keep us from feeling bad about playing background music and getting almost zero love from “audiences.”

When the Bob Scobey band did a two-year stint in Chicago, Benny Goodman used to show up just to dig on Napier’s playing (which sounded like Goodman/Bigard/Noone!

One thing for sure: the guy never did NOT swing. Never. Even a song he didn’t know. In fact, and more curious was that I could throw all kinds of (gypsy) chord substitutions at him (I didn’t know any better, I thought that’s what jazz musicians did: reharmonize everything) and he never, EVER said “No” or so much as cast an evil eye in my direction. I think the years he played with Bill Erickson at Pier 23 were his favorite years.  He didn’t speak much of Erickson, but I could just tell.

Oh, here’s the BEST story. I just remembered: we were at a swanky Sunday brunch on the Stanford Campus, near that big Stanford Mall with Bloomingdales and other stores.  We would often try to engage diners by chatting and asking if they had a request. Most people wanted to hear something from CATS (ugh). Or they wanted to hear In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.  So we went up to this table, and there’s a guy there, of a certain age. With an attractive woman half his age.  One of us said, “What would you like to hear?”
Man: “ I want to you to play “It Had To Be You” but not fast, about here- ….”(snaps his fingers indicating a medium slow tempo)
Me, aside to Napier: “Why don’t you ask MR. CONDUCTOR what KEY he’d like to SING it in?”
Napier, whispering to me: “I think MR. CONDUCTOR is MR. Getz.”
Boy, did I feel stupid: Stan Getz, doing a residency at Stanford, one of Napier’s heroes.

Obviously, a man well-loved and well-remembered.

I have foregone the usual biography of Bill, preferring to concentrate on the music for its own sake.  But here is a lovely detailed sketch of his life — unfortunately, it’s his obituary, and here is another week’s worth of rare music — Napier with bands — provided thanks to Dave Radlauer.  There are more trio performances, also.

Now, go back and listen to Napier play.

May your happiness increase!

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TO “PUNK” AND “SPUNK”

Yes, you read that correctly.  Here’s an eBay marvel, quite remarkable, showing Benny Carter in a promotional picture playing clarinet — which he did infrequently but with great style — and the picture is wittily inscribed:

BENNY CARTER inscribed

The seller notes,

Photograph is inscribed and signed: “Best wishes to ‘Punk and Spunk’ which may be junk but surely no bunk with a hunk of sincerity, Benny Carter”

Photograph captioned: ” BENNY CARTER And His Orchestra”.

I’ve acquired a photo album, with over 100 photos, which comes from the Down Beat Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. These photographs are from the Swing Era. They are all original photographs. There are photographs of such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Cootie Williams, Erskine Hawkins, Count Basie, Andy Kirk, and Cab Calloway. Some of these photographs are signed and inscribed. I’ve included images of three additional items which will not be included in the sale, but help to illustrate the location, upcoming events of the time, and a couple of the illustrious musicians who played there. The photograph on the bottom right is of Erskine Hawkins and Ida James in the Down Beat Ballroom in front of some of the very photographs which are currently for sale or will be offered for sale in the days and weeks to follow. The other photograph is an amazing one of Louis Armstrong (Satchmo) playing in the Down Beat Ballroom. If you look above Louis’ head and above the word Ballroom, you’ll see a musical bar with the word Down in it. I’ve also included the back of an orange Nookie Ration Card, which was used as a calendar of upcoming events. As most of the signed photographs were inscribed to Spunk and Punk, I must assume that these were the names by which the proprietors of the club were known.

DOWN BEAT BALL ROOM

Doing research from my desk chair, I found that the “Down Beat” was in operation in July 1941 and was named for the music magazine of the time (Ella Fitzgerald and her Orchestra were appearing there).  I gather that the building that once stood at 1201 North Greenwood no longer exists; I could find no photographs of the ballroom.  Oklahoma State University has its main address as 700 North Greenwood, and Greenwood runs through the campus, so I hope that one or more of the Music Department’s classrooms now occupy the space where Punk and Spunk held court:

1201 N Greenwood Ave TulsaThe Carter photograph is undated, but the “Nookie Ration Card” provoked a short — and possibly ethereal — investigation of historical linguistics.  I submit the evidence but offer no conclusions.  One: rationing in the United States began in late 1941 and continued through the Second World War.  Two: “nookie” was cited as early as 1928 as a word meaning both sexual intercourse and the female sexual anatomy.  I would thus love to see more photographic detail about the “Nookie Ration Card.”  Did it contain stamps that one could present to receive a rationed — thus highly desirable — product?

While readers consider the implications of this, or don’t, here is the eBay link.

And here is the lovely sound of Bennett Lester Carter (“The King”) playing clarinet.

DEE BLUES (The “Chocolate Dandies,” 1930 — Bobby Stark, Jimmy Harrison, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Horace Henderson, Benny Jackson, John Kirby:

JOE TURNER BLUES (1940: Big Joe Turner, Bill Coleman, Benny Morton, Benny Carter, Georgie Auld, Sonny White, Ulysses Livingston, Wilson Myers, Yank Porter):

BEALE STREET BLUES (same):

On both tracks, Joe sang his own quite impromptu lyrics, amusing since the records were intended as a tribute to W.C. Handy.

LOVELESS LOVE (take one, Billie Holiday for Turner):

LOVELESS LOVE (take two):

ST. LOUIS BLUES (take one):

ST. LOUIS BLUES (take two):

Here you can find other photographs inscribed to Spunk and Punk or the reverse — Cootie Williams, Savannah Churchill.  Here’s Ida Cox, in a rare shot:

IDA COX to PUNK AND SPUNK

and this person:

TO SPUNK AND PUNK FROM LOUIS

Thanks to the Swing Detective, Kris Bauwens.  And I dedicate this post to Benny Carter’s friend, photographer, and scholar Ed Berger.

May your happiness increase!

THE JOHNNY DODDS JUBILEE, PART TWO at the WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (Nov. 8, 2014)

This is the final portion of an ecstatic set of music devoted to the clarinet master Johnny Dodds — as created on November 8, 2014, at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party.  The participants: Thomas Winteler, Matthias Seuffert, Claus Jacobi, reeds; Rico Tomasso, cornet; Emma Fisk, violin; Martin Litton, piano; Malcolm Sked, string bass; Martin Wheatley, Spats Langham, Jacob Ullberger, banjo; Nick Ball, washboard.  The other postings from this set can be found here and here.

MELANCHOLY (featuring Martin Litton, piano; Claus Jacobi, reeds, Matthias Seuffert, clarinet; Malcolm Sked, bass; Thomas Winteler, clarinet; Rico Tomasso, cornet; Martin Wheatley, banjo):

MY BABY (add Nick Ball*, washboard; Spats Langham, banjo, replaces Martin Wheatley):

HEN PARTY BLUES (add Emma Fisk, violin):

MEMPHIS SHAKE (as HEN PARTY):

Frank Melrose’s FORTY AND TIGHT (tout ensemble, posted once, but it should be posted evermore):

These hot ecstasies have been a hallmark of the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party for decades; now renamed the Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party in honor of its beloved founder. This year it will be held from November 6-8, and it will be delightful.  (*If you want to know my feelings about being there, you have only to watch Nick’s face — joy and surprise tumbling on one another constantly.)

May your happiness increase!

THE JOHNNY DODDS JUBILEE, PART ONE: WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (November 8, 2014)

This was a truly delightful set, balancing neatly between uproarious riot and precise tribute, where the participants paid tribute to New Orleans / Chicago clarinetist Johnny Dodds by evoking some of his less famous recordings.  Those expert participants were Claus Jacobi, reeds; Matthias Seuffert and Thomas Winteler, clarinet; Rico Tomasso, cornet; Martin Litton, piano; Spats Langham, Jacob Ullberger, Martin Wheatley, banjo; Malcolm Sked, bass; Nicholas Ball, washboard. (That’s the collective personnel: you’ll see / hear who is playing on each number.)

Here’s the first part, as captured at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party on November 8, 2014.

I note with pleasure how happy the musicians look — and that’s no stage joke. The most accurate emotional barometer on this little stage is the visage of one Nick Ball, percussionist supreme: he looks as if he’s going to explode with rhythmic joy.  You can imagine how happy I was from behind my camera.

IDLE HOUR SPECIAL (with an unexpected cameo by a t-shirted jazz fan at 4:00, who momentarily blocked the view but thankfully not the sound — I knew he was a “jazz fan” because it was written on his shirt, thus saving me the need to speculate):

ORIENTAL MAN:

39TH AND DEARBORN:

CARPET ALLEY BREAKDOWN:

More to come.  And you might want to investigate this year’s Mike Durham Classic Jazz Party.  It’s a place where such things happen — beautifully — throughout a long weekend.

May your happiness increase!

 

 

 

LESSONS FROM MR. RUSSELL

CHAUTAUQUA, LAURA SMITH, SAN DIEGO, PWR 056

Back by popular demand, as promised — solos played by Charles Ellsworth “Pee Wee” Russell. Several reed players found the previous Russell post intriguing and there has been an enthusiastic reaction to the most recent Eddie Miller interlude.  So here are the complete Russell solos: consider them well.  And then go for yourselves!  As he always did.

EDDIE MILLER PEE WEE RUSSELL 031

Slow.  Don’t rush.

EDDIE MILLER PEE WEE RUSSELL 027Slow Swing!

EDDIE MILLER PEE WEE RUSSELL 026

Fast Swing!

EDDIE MILLER PEE WEE RUSSELL 025

At the end of the day, consider this:

EDDIE MILLER PEE WEE RUSSELL 024

Stick around, why don’t you?

EDDIE MILLER PEE WEE RUSSELL 023

A classic.  Fast!

EDDIE MILLER PEE WEE RUSSELL 022

The Spanish tinge:

EDDIE MILLER PEE WEE RUSSELL 021For the Barnharts, especially Anne:

EDDIE MILLER PEE WEE RUSSELL 020

When whip-poor-wills call:

PEE WEE RUSSELL 001

And finally:

PEE WEE RUSSELL 002

These are for Jeff in the UK, Stan, Ben, Hal, Andrew, and myself in the US. Anyone who can play these convincingly is encouraged to make a little video — we might like to hear them come to life.

May your happiness increase!

BOBBY GORDON, JAZZ POET

Clarinetist / singer Bobby Gordon is one of the great poets of jazz.  I won’t say he’s “unsung” because the people who know love his delicate traceries.  And Bobby certainly knows how to sing!

I could write a paragraph on his sweet quirky lyricism, his way of finding the delicious surprising notes that go right to our hearts — but eight bars of Bobby will do it better than any description.

Here he is at the 1997 Mid-America Jazz Festival — thanks to Don Wolff for the video! — with Marty Grosz and Greg Cohen, on a tender IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN:

Something sweet from the same session (with Peter Ecklund, cornet; Greg, string bass) prefaced by one of Philosopher / Social Anthropologist / Professor Grosz’s analyses, so true:

Thank you, Bobby, Marty, Peter, Greg, and Don.  This music brings the sun in the room.

May your happiness increase.

AN IDEAL NEIGHBOUR: PETE NEIGHBOUR PLAYS “‘DEED I DO”

I would be very happy to have clarinetist Pete Neighbour move in next door — with his pretty tone, fearless swing, neat melodic embellishments, I know I would be entertained all the time.  Here are Pete, Richard Pite, drums; Murray Salmon, string bass; Colin Goode, piano, embarking on ‘DEED I DO in London (October 2012) at Boisdales, Canary Wharf:

Visit / subscribe to Pete’s YouTube channel here.  And for more of his music, or  keep up with him on Facebook here.  Although he was born in London (and he gigs there with his UK pals) he makes his home in Columbia, South Carolina — which means that swing lovers on both sides of the ocean should have ample opportunity to hear him play.  And here you can hear excerpts from (and purchase!) one of his CDs, IT’S ALL RIGHT WITH ME.

‘Deed he does!

May your happiness increase.