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!

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.

FAST COMPANY at THE EAR INN (June 26, 2011)

The music played at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) this last Sunday night — June 26, 2011 — was inspiring.  And you won’t have to take my word for it.

The EarRegulars that night were a slightly different crew, although three of the four players were SemiRegulars: guitarist Chris Flory, tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, and trumpeter Charlie Caranicas.

The fourth player was new to me — bassist Corin Stiggall — but I can only reproach myself for not knowing his work before this: he is a find, indeed.  All I will say about Corin (you will hear the truth for yourself) is that he reminds me greatly of Oscar Pettiford — strong, steady, inventive, with his own deep sound, and he doesn’t think of his instrument as an overfed guitar.

Here’s the quartet on a truly exuberant reading of Billy Strayhorn’s early don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, I’M CHECKING OUT, GOOM-BYE (the brisk tempo courtesy of Mr. Allen):

A little good blues?  Here’s JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID, celebrating the days when Lester played and Sidney Torin spoke on your AM radio:

For Rodgers and Hart, an enthusiastic, twining THIS CAN’T BE LOVE:

In the middle of the evening, the marvelous community of friends old and new — so often encountered these Sunday nights at The Ear — began to come together.  Earlier, trumpeter, dancer, and scientist Lucy Weinman came up to me and introduced her West Coast buddy, reed expert Chloe Feoranzo.  (Chloe has made two CDs already — the second in the company of serious players: Dan Barrett, Hal Smith, Chris Dawson, Bryan Shaw, Dave Koonse, Richard Simon*.  She’s no tyro, tentative and unsure.)

Chloe had brought her clarinet and was welcomed to the Ear Inn “bandstand” for PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.  Her bell-bright sound is a treat, as is her reluctance to go familiar ways.  Many clarinet players are tempted towards glibness — “I can play a fast run here, so why not?” — but Chloe seems to be thinking about what phrases she might create (without hesitating), her sound reminding me of Tony Scott, of early Jimmy Hamilton — with Teddy Wilson in 1941 — and now and again Lester on clarinet:

Friends came by — a whole reed section began to assemble.  Dan Block unpacked his alto saxophone.  Pete Anderson and Andy Farber brought their tenors.  And I felt as if I had been happily dropped into the middle of this: as you will see on the videos, Harry stood in front of me, as did Chloe; Dan was seated to my right on a barstool, Andy on the next one away, Pete diagonally across from me.  Reed rapture!

And although I am usually much more interested in the sound of my videos than the visual aspects, I was very happy to be able to capture Harry’s happiness, his eyes half-closed, while he listened to Chloe play.

How about that romping affirmation of joy, I WANT TO BE HAPPY:

A sweet IF I HAD YOU:

For the closer, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE with the Soho version of the Henderson / Hopkins riffs:

Incidentally, speaking of community, there were old friends and new at The Ear — among them man of music Doug, the inspiring singer Jewel, and Claiborne (the last a genuine movie star — catch her in PAGE ONE).

You’ve never been to The Ear Inn on a Sunday night, never heard the EarRegulars, never met Victor Villar-Hauser (a gentleman, a scholar, and a serious actor)?  Alas.

*Chloe’s second CD looks like this: I predict there will be many more!

“PERFECT!”: THE EARREGULARS “COAST TO COAST” (May 1, 2011)

My title comes from a wonderful Bobby Hackett Capitol record date where Bobby (New York by profession, Massachusetts by birth) went out to California with one Jack Teagarden and played with the West Coast boys — COAST CONCERT or COAST TO COAST.  Years ago, such sessions were both novel and fashionable — one side of a Columbia lp devoted to Eddie Condon, the other to the Rampart Street Paraders, or “battles” between East and West Coast players.

No battle here, no head-cutting or manicuring, just beauty.

Last Sunday, the EarRegulars were having a wonderful time at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street) — they were Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Pete Martinez, clarinet; Frank Tate, bass.  They devoted their first set to GREAT JAZZ CITIES OF THE WORLD (without saying a word): thus, CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME; ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS; a slow-drag CHICAGO; ST. LOUIS BLUES; MEMPHIS BLUES, and a few others.  Exquisite soloing, interplay, and creativity.

But I had noticed two familiar faces who nearly surprised me off my barstool — the great San Francisco acoustic guitarist Craig Ventresco and the singer Meredith Axelrod.  They were in town for a flying unannounced family visit — celebrating Craig’s parents’ fiftieth anniversary (hooray for Mr. and Mrs. Ventresco of Maine, hooray!).

Matt Munisteri, bless him, had known Craig was coming . . . so he brought a second guitar for Craig to play.  And lovely things happened.  I knew Craig from my jazz rebirth in 2005 — he played with the Red Onion Jazz Band as well as other floating ensembles (often in the noble company of Kevin Dorn, Jesse Gelber, Barbara Rosene, Michael Bank): he is the poet of archaic music that should never be forgotten — waltzes, stomps, blues, rags, tangos, pop songs — but he also brings depth and richness to any ensemble he’s in.  And Meredith is an unusual combination of demure and passionate, as you’ll hear.

After the set break, everyone settled in for four long sweet performances, which I present here with great delight and pride.  You’ll hear musical jokes, echoes of Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang, the Mississippi Delta coming to Soho, and a great ocean-swell rocking swing . . . music to live for!

They began with the seductively rolling WABASH BLUES — its climbing and descending lines gaining momentum although never getting louder or faster.  Jon-Erik preached through his plunger mute (his sermons are secular but compelling); Pete Martinez showed himself a wonderful dramatic actor on the clarinet, alternating between the primitive and serene; Matt’s lines rang and chimed; Frank brought forth his own brand of casual eloquence.  And Craig played as if sitting on the porch, with all the time in the world:

“Perfect!” you can hear Terry Waldo say — the only thing anyone could say!

After some discussion, the quintet arrived at ROSE ROOM (was it a memory of Charlie Christian or just a good tune to jam on): I savor the conversation between Jon-Erik and Pete in the second chorus, followed by the string section and Pete.  Then there’s Mister Tate, the Abraham Lincoln of the string bass — every note resonating with joy and seriousness.  He knows how to do it, he does!  And then the band, led by Slidin’ Jon Kellso, eases into a rocking motion that would have made the Goodman Sextet of 1941 happy.  (I thought also of the way Ruby Braff slid and danced over his two guitars and bass viol in 1974-5, not a bad memory to have.)  Matt winds and sways in his own fashion — it’s like observing a championship skater improvising on the ice, isn’t it?  And those deliciously playful conversations between Pete and Jon-Erik, then Matt and Craig . . . then some powerful riffing and jiving.  Wow, as we say!

Charlie Levenson, patron saint of informal jazz, suggested SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, and although it was late and ordinary circumstances a closing hot tune would have been the only choice, it was clear that the EarRegulars were having such a good time that no one wanted to end the music a moment too soon.  The EarRegulars and Craig immediately settle into a kind of well-oiled glide that summons up Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Jack Teagarden, and Benny Goodman — or perhaps an imagined Vanguard Records session — swaying sweetly for a good long time.  Soulful is the word for this performance:

For the closing song, Jon-Erik brought Meredith up for MY BLUE HEAVEN — that pastoral / domestic celebration.  Only a very few singers are invited to sit in at The Ear, but Meredith stepped right into the role!  Celebration was what I felt, and I daresay that my joy was shared by many people at The Ear — with more to come because of these videos.  And — since I love cats — Pete’s solo reminds me so much of a kitten with a toy furry mouse, turning it over and batting it around.  He is at the very apex — ask another clarinetist, such as Dan Block!  While the fellows were playing, the political news was on the television above — and Jon-Erik wove DING, DONG, THE WITCH IS DEAD! and YOU RASCAL YOU into his solo — although JAZZ LIVES isn’t about politics but sharing beauty:

This is what Fifty-Second Street must have sounded like.  Only better!  And it exists here and now.  What blessings!

FRANK CHACE, SEEKER

Clarinetist Frank Chace stood very still when he played, his eyes closed.  In the fashion of the true mystic, he looked inwards, seeking something new, beautiful, personal.  His own speech, his own pathways. 

A Chace solo winds around the melody and the chords, hesitant but guided by its own self-trust: “I don’t know the way but I know where I’m going.” 

He didn’t record enough for any of us, and often he seemed to be making his way through his fellow players — yearning to break free.  When he was playing alongside his great friends Don Ewell or Marty Grosz, he knew that they would supply an indefatigable rhythmic pulse, they would lay down the right chords, and he could then soar.

And soar he did.

In 1985, when I had only recently encountered the mysterious, elliptical Chace universe, Jazzology Records issued a record of a live session led by pianist Butch Thompson.  I thought it remarkable that here was a new Frank Chace record: it remains a treasure.  Charlie DeVore, cornet, John Otto, clarinet, alto sax, vocal; Hal Smith, drums; Jack Meilahn, guitar; Bill Evans, bass, were the other fellows on the stand.  And the session was full of delights, aside from Frank: Hal’s press rolls and shimmering hi-hat; the solid rhythm section; Otto’s sweet, thoughtful alto; De Vore’s Muggy Spanier-emphases.  But Frank Chace produces marvel after marvel. 

Hear him chart his own paths, his eyes closed, his only goal to create his own speech.  Frank was rarely — if ever — satisfied with something he had recorded, so I can’t say that he was complacently pleased with this or any other disc.  About an early session with the Salty Dogs, he told me, “I was fighting for my life!”  But no strain can be heard here: just beauty, impassioned or quietly subversive.     

Now, the complete session (offering twenty-four selections) is available on a double-CD Jazzology set.  (JCD 373/374), available at a variety of online sources.  I can’t praise it highly enough. 

The selections are I FOUND A NEW BABY / ROSE ROOM / I SURRENDER, DEAR / I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME / SWEET SUBSTITUTE / SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE / ONE HOUR / JAZZ BAND BALL / IDA / I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU / SWEET LORRAINE / THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE / NOBODY’S SWEETHEART / HOME / JELLY ROLL / YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME / BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU / OH, SISTER, AIN’T THAT HOT? / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? / FROM MONDAY ON / S’POSIN’ / SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE / MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS / THANKS A MILLION. 

Frank doesn’t make an obsession out of being “untraditional,” but he won’t play the expected lines, the predictable harmonies.  You might think you know where his next phrase is going . . . but it turns out that he has led us in his own way, eyes closed, finding new surprises.

Listen to his ardor, his courage, his whimsical explorations. 

“THANKS A MILLION”: CLICK HERE.  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!

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VINTAGE MARSALA

Joe Marsala and Adele Girard at the Hickory House. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb

Who remembers Joe Marsala (1917-78)? 

He was a clarinet player (doubling alto), Chicago-born, who made his reputation in the middle Thirties to the late Forties, usually in small improvising groups. 

He had splendid intuitive taste in the musicians he associated with — Wingy Manone, Joe Thomas, his brother Marty Marsala, Pee Wee Erwin, Max Kaminsky, Bill Coleman, Bobby Hackett, and an upstart named Dizzy Gillespie; Eddie Condon, Dave Tough, Dave Bowman, Carmen Mastren, Eddie Miller, Ray Bauduc, Buddy Rich (a kid given his first professional jazz job on Fifty-Second Street by Joe), harpist Adele Girard (who became Joe’s wife) and others.

Billie Holiday told a story of being broke and hungry and coming into the Hickory House and having Marsala buy her a big steak dinner . . . obviously a man whose soul was generous as well. 

To my ears, what distinguishes Marsala from the crop of wonderful clarinetists playing in that period is his combination of tone, phrasing, and the undefinable thing called “soul.”       

Consider this:

and this:

and this, from the same 1940 date:

And another surprise V-Disc effort which suggests that Marsala was deeply aware of the “new jazz” of 1945, even more than simply hiring Dizzy Gillespie for a record date.  (In writing this, I do not raise Marsala above his fellow “Condonites” because he was “hip” enough to listen to Bird and Dizzy — my world is not restricted to bebop.  But I find it intriguing that he made friends across the soon-to-be divided jazz landscape.) 

At first hearing, some might think this performance an unabsorbing piece of early Forties pop.  But wait for Joe’s brief interlude, his warm tone, his delicate phrasing:

And a rare record from the collection of another gifted clarinetist Norman Field:

To learn more about Joe Marsala and his wife — jazz harpist Adele Girard, heard above — visit this site, which contains a lovely extended interview with Adele done by Phil Atteberry, a treasure:

http://www.pitt.edu/~atteberr/jazz/articles/Girard.html

Bobby Gordon, who studied with Joe, keeps his spirit alive.  But perhaps you’d never heard of Joe, so I hope this blog will act as a little gift: there are more wonderful musicians out there, uncelebrated, than you know in your philosophy, Horatio. 

Musicians who play so beautifully need to be celebrated in a world that seems to have forgotten them.

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WHAT RAPT CONTEMPLATION LOOKS LIKE

Josh Rushton, the very generous son of bass saxophonist (and clarinetist) Joe Rushton, sent along this photograph of his father — one of our collective heroes:

Josh says:

Hope your new year is starting out OK.  Just came across another shot of dad in rapt concentration, probably to a playback of just recorded track.  Not sure when this taken, could be early 1960’s or thereabouts in LA.  After seeing the PanAm bag in the distance, I might assume this took place after the 1960 good will tour for the US government?  Most of our family’s great B&W shots (including this one no doubt) were courtesy of Bill Wood, Red Nichols’ clarinet player back then, a good friend and frequent visitor to the Rushton household, and an avid near-pro photographer who never went anywhere without his Leica camera.

Making beauty is serious business!

Heartfelt thanks to both Rushtons and Bill Wood for their generous spirits.

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LISTENING TO BIX, 1956

Josh Rushton, son of the late bass saxophonist / clarinetist Joe Rushton, sent this photograph — taken in his family house in Silverlake, California, in 1956.  The three men here are rapt in concentration, listening to Joe’s Bix Beiderbecke 78s.  From the left, they are cornetist Tom Pletcher, happily still with us, his father Stewart Pletcher — no longer alive but brought back to life through an extraordinary audio portrait on the JAZZ ORACLE label, and Rushton himself.  Josh pointed out the very exciting wallpaper (how could anyone miss it?) and the fact that it was used to cover the front of the floor-standing speaker to the right.  And don’t miss the photos on the wall of the Rushton den!  The photograph here gets deeper as you look more into it: the family photograph on the wall echoes the jazz family depicted and the jazz family gathered to listen to Bix. 

To me, casual photography seems devalued these days, with everyone snapping candids of themselves on their smartphones, but a photograph like this captures people, a place, a way of being: you can almost hear the records spinning. 

The photograph appears here courtesy of Josh Rushton, and is reproduced with his kind permission.

KENNY DAVERN: JUST FOUR BARS

Readers accustomed to novels may find most jazz biographies only intermittently satisfying.  Lives, of course, cannot be arranged into dramatic arcs worthy of Trollope or Faulkner — but, just the same, the chronicle of the life and music of your favorite musician often has all its drama in the beginning: attempts to find a personal style, to become proficient, to be recognized. 

Once the musician is reasonably successful, the narrative might become a listing of gigs, concerts, recordings.  Some musicians aid a biographer (unintentionally) by having dramatic or melodramatic lives — drug use, illness, marital and economic strife — but a comfortable musician with a spouse, family, regular income and housing, might offer a biographer a challenge.

It’s a pleasure to write that Edward N. Meyer’s biiography of Kenny Davern’s life and music, JUST FOUR BARS, published by Scarecrow Press and available through Amazon, is a triumphant book on all its many levels. 

Meyer, best-known in the field for his bio-discography of Dick Wellstood, GIANT STRIDES, was the logical one to write about Davern, and although Davern said at first he did not want a biography, he eventually told his wife that Meyer would be his choice. 

Meyer’s coverage of the facts of Davern’s musical life couldn’t be better.  With diligent accuracy, he chronicles appearances, recordings, gigs satisfying and frustrating, the bands Davern led and was part of for more than fifty years. 

If a reader might weary momentarily of the data from Davern’s date book, it should be said that the biographer is writing for two audiences at once — people like me who saw Davern and for whom he is a living presence still, and the Future — those readers for whom it will be crucial to have all this data properly arranged and assessed in one place.  The result is satisfying throughout, especially because Meyer interviewed Davern — making one wish that Davern had written more on his own, for his voice is salty, witty, and precise.  Also invaluable are the voices of Davern’s friends and colleagues: Marty Grosz, Greg Cohen, Dave Frishberg, Warren Vache, James Chirillo.    

Where Meyer is even more fascinating is in what he has uncovered of Davern the private man: the child (the painful twists and turns of his childhood are too complicated to be retold here, but they would have ruined a more fragile person), his development as an adult, husband, father, grandfather. 

In his conversations with everyone who knew Davern on and off the stand — including candid passages from his wife and children — Meyer has shown us the man we didn’t know.  And that man is an enthralling study, because the public Kenny was often comically irascible in ways that felt dangerous to onlookers.  But the private man was erudite, deeply-interested in a variety of subjects, generous, and introspective — genuinely lovable and deeply loved. 

The record of Davern’s musical life is equally detailed and rewarding.  We read of his musical apprenticeship with big bands (which he hated), with Jack Teagarden, Phil Napoleon, musical maturity alongside Bob Wilber and Dick Wellstood, Dick Hyman, and his later quartets and quintets.  And through it all we see a man always striving for something beyond the heights he had already scaled — subtlety, emotional connection, mastery of the horn and the idiom.  His life’s goal, he said, was to be recognized in “just four bars.”  And he did just that, and more. 

Meyer’s biography of Kenny Davern is wide-ranging, analytical as well as enlightening, generous to its subject as well as to readers, now and in the future.  It made me want to revisit my Davern collection, and it brought up memories of seeing the great man plain — for which I am grateful.

THE KINGS OF SWING: THE ANDERSON TWINS’ SEXTET (May 19, 2010)

As far as I can see, the Swing Era isn’t coming back any time soon.  Gone are the days when sixteen or seventeen tuxedo-clad musicians (seated neatly behind their individual music stands bearing the bandleader’s initials) played dances, toured the country in a bus for one-night stands.  1938 and 9 don’t seem to be returning.  Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman have been gone for some time.

But their music isn’t dead and isn’t gone. 

The Anderson Twins proved that last night at 59 E 59 (a New York City theatre located at 59 East 59th Street: http://www.59e59.org.) in two sets devoted to the music Artie and Benny and their bands made in their prime.

The Anderson twins are Pete (on clarinet, tenor, and bass clarinet) and Will (clarinet, alto, and flute).  Pete is on the left in the videos below.  Both are expert musicians — although they young, they are deeply immersed in this music, able to improvise nimbly in it rather than just copying the notes.  And they’re also engaging, low-key bandleaders as well as first-rate arrangers, responsible for the wonderful charts we heard. which kept the flavor of the big bands without seeming cut-down or compressed. 

At this concert (with no microphones: how rare and wonderful!), the other players were Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Ehud Asherie (piano), Clovis Nicolas (string bass), and Steve Little (drums).  The premise of this week of concerts was to consider who the real King of Swing was — which one of the rather neurotic, talented Jewish clarinet players from immigrant backgrounds was the reining musical monarch. 

Of course, Will and Pete like each other too much to make it into a dysfunctional musical family onstage: the atmosphere was congenial, and the boys didn’t vie for the limelight.  And it was very sweet to know that their parents were in the audience: we chatted with Will, Pete, and their mother and father after the concert: gentle, unaffected people.   

The series of concerts runs from May 18-23 and again from May 25-30.  The second week’s performances focus on Shaw’s music and to the vocalists who sang with the band — hence the appearance of the charming Daryl Sherman in Week Two, who will sing some of the music associated with Billie Holiday’s brief stint with the band and Helen Forrest’s longer one.  Daryl is a contemporary singer who actually worked with an “Artie Shaw band” supervised by the Master himself — and I am sure she will have good stories.  Incidentally, the second week of concerts celebrates Shaw’s centennial, an occasion for celebration. 

The boys promise that there will be new repertoire throughout the run of the concerts, so that’s good reason for going more than once.  Various musicians will fill the chairs: Charlie Caranicas and Mat Jodrell (trumpet), Steve Ash (piano), and Kevin Dorn (drums). 

Last night, we arrived late and missed AVALON, WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?, STARDUST, CARIOCA, MOONGLOW, STEALIN’ APPLES.  Marianne Mangan (there happily with husband Bob Levin) told us that STARDUST followed the iconic Shaw Victor recording, but that there had been a good deal of impromptu jamming otherwise.

Here are seven performances from last night’s concert, beginning with an excerpt from the Sextet’s extended exploration of CONCERTO FOR CLARINET, Artie’s “answer” to Benny’s SING SING SING:

FRENESI was a huge hit for Artie and his band, and this nifty arrangement (with Will on flute and Pete on bass clarinet) not only summons up the Shaw band, but also echoes the Alec Wilder Octet, always a good thing:

BEGIN THE BEGUINE, more evidence of Artie Shaw’s affinity for Cole Porter, became the ironic apex of his career.  No one expected it would be a massive popular hit, and he came to hate it and the people who demanded that he play it.  Here the Andersons offer a bouncy, entirely unironic reading of the song.  Too bad there was no room for dancing:

GOOD-BYE (a treat to hear it before the end of a concert!) was the Goodman band’s closing theme, a melancholy song by Gordon Jenkins.  Goodman fanciers are used to hearing it in fragments, as the broadcast fades away, but the Andersons are generous listeners and players, and offered this beautifully textured and complete arrangement:

When Goodman planned the program for his January 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, one of the organizing ideas was “Twenty Years of Jazz,” beginning with the ODJB and going up to “the present.”  Of course there had to be a tribute to Louis, and Harry James was asked (or asked to?) to perform Louis’s astounding solo on SHINE (or S-H-I-N-E, if you prefer).  Here Jon-Erik plays his own version of the classic explosion, with encouragement from his colleagues:

It might say a good deal about Artie’s approach to his audiences that he didn’t open his shows with something pretty, accessible.  Rather he gave his jitterbugging fans a good dose of their darkest urges and fears in NIGHTMARE:

The evening concluded with a romping LADY BE GOOD — in an arrangement that owed a good deal to the Shaw band, to Eddie Durham’s chart of EVERY TUB for the 1938 Count Basie band, and to Lester Young — although Benny had his own good time playing the Gershwin standard in every conceivable context:

The Kings of the Swing Era may be dead, but long live their successors!

[Just so no one makes our mistake of arriving late, there are no shows on Monday.  Tuesday and Wednesday, the show starts at 7.  Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, it’s moved to 8, and there’s a Sunday matinee at 3.]

ENDORSED BY “PEE WEE” (1939)

And Chester Hazlett, too.

KENNY DAVERN, REMEMBERED

First, some comedy.  The last time I saw Kenny Davern in action was at Sunnie Sutton’s 2006 Rocky Mountain Jazz Party — only a few months before his death.  At the dinner for musicians and friends the night before the party started, Kenny took a napkin off one of the tables, draped it over his arm, and transformed himself into an elderly, mournful New York Jewish waiter, asking each table, “Is anything all right?”

Then, in the middle of a set, he told one of his many jokes.

Jake always wanted to be a professional actor and appear on Broadway, but the fates are against him.  Finally, his agent gets so tired of Jake’s begging, whining, and pleading that he arranges — as a favor — for Jake to have a one-line walk-on in a production far from Broadway.  Jake’s line?  “Hark!  I hear a cannon roar!”  Jake is thrilled and spends every minute before the production practicing in front of the mirror.  “HARK!  I hear a CANNON roar!”  “Hark . . . I HEAR a cannon ROAR!”  The big night comes, Jake is pinned into his costume and stands muttering his one line in the wings.  He’s pushed out on stage; the cannon fires a thunderous blast, and Jake says, “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!”

But Davern was much more than a comedian, although his timing was impeccable — combined with his mobile face, his vocal inflections.

The Davern we remember is the peerless clarinetist, with a heroic top register and a lustrous chalumeau sound — with plenty of “grease and funk,” to quote Marty Grosz, in between.  Luckily for us, a great deal of Davern’s best playing is documented on Arbors record sessions.  (One of my favorites is EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, with a front-line of Dan Barrett and Joel Helleny.)

Even though at times I thought I knew what Kenny was going to play next — what variation on a Jimmie Noone passage he was going to use for those particular chords — he never coasted, even on the thousandth version of A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID.

I had seen him several decades earlier — in the very early Seventies — when his partnership with Bob Wilber was beginning.  Soprano Summit was a high-intensity group, and when its two horns got going on the closing ensembles of something like EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY they had the force of the great Spanier-Bechet Hot Four.  I also remember Davern as a regular member of the Sunday jam sessions put on by Red Balaban in 1972 — when Kenny was primarily playing the straight soprano with operatic (if not dangerous) focused intensity.  I remember his overwhelming less assertive trumpet and trombone players — as if saying “Get the hell out of my way, if you please.”

Courtesy of Bob Erwig, here is Kenny’s performance of TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE from the 1989 Bern International Jazz Festival — backed by Howard Alden, Milt Hinton, and Gus Johnson — where Kenny is ardent without being shrill, powerful while playing quietly.  No wonder John L. Fell, who knew about such things, called Davern “the Coleman Hawkins of the clarinet.”  We miss him.

And one more Davern-sighting.  In 1972, friends and I saw Kenny and company at a Sunday afternoon jam session at Your Father’s Mustache and we then went downtown to The Half Note where Ruby Braff was leading a quartet — possibly with Dill Jones, George Mraz, and Dottie Dodgion.  The door opened during a set break and Davern walked in.  I was excited and envisioned a wonderful jam session.  My exuberant college-age self got the better of me, and I greeted Davern with an enthusiastic “Kenny!” then realized that I had perhaps overstepped myself and retreated into a quieter, “Mister Davern.”  With his usual glint of a half-smile, he looked at me and murmured, “Oh, pardonnez-moi,” and turned away.  I’m still decoding that one.

NOTES FROM SAM: CLARINETITIS

clarinetThat’s Leroy (Sam) Parkins, musician, man of letters, raconteur, observer, and frequent contributor to this blog — for which I am most grateful.

The Benny Goodman Festival on WKCR hit home. Remember that the Camel Caravan in ca. ’36, which I listened to because my brother, little knowing what he was doing, pinched me to keep me awake “This is important” quoth he, did me in. So when I got going as a true dixieland player I tried to kill off both my fathers – Benny, and Leon Russianoff, teacher to the stars – like the clarinet section of the NY Phil and the La. Phil, Bob Wilber, who sent me to him – and Jimmy Hamilton*.

I shamelessly worked on a rotten** sound like Johnny Dodds, worshipped Pee Wee*** and Lester Young’s metal clarinet ( a Selmer – I have one). And eschewed Benny – until a few years ago, when said brother sent me tapes of late Mel Powell/Red Norvo sessions, which knocked me out. “Hey – I don’t have to kill off my fathers any more” {my records from the early 60s, when I was just finishing up with Russianoff show a superb, utterly boring clarinet sound}.

With this damned festival I got a bunch of small band records and the classical stuff I didn’t re-issue myself – Columbia – Bartok, Copland**** etc. Plus what I did re-issue at RCA – Nielsen, von Weber etc. And playing along with trios and quartets – I finally figured out how he did it*****. He didn’t tongue. Barefield taught me that years ago but it didn’t occur to me that it translated to clarinet.

**** Copland wrote the concerto for Benny. I’ve heard other great performances, but Benny’s is unique in being almost casual. He doesn’t play it with great care like a full time classical player. In a way he just knocks it off – which means in this case the true human feelings shine through.

* In later years Leon was unhappy about the way Hamilton worked out. Leon, a Goodman worshiper himself, would have liked it better if Hamilton really blew out stronger. But once in awhile – like at Newport…

** In the ear of the behearer. Dodds was and is great.

*** Pee Wee was actually a well schooled clarinetist. Shows in ensemble work with Wild Bill et al. Clean as a weasel. He did what he did because he meant to. The first modern jazz player.

***** It helps immeasurably to have a totally accurate, hard charging rhythm section at hand. Playing along with, say, Mel Powell and Dave Tough, you CANNOT go off the rails. Hard to find if at all now.