That’s 1929. But here’s 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival — a hot Chicago-style performance (with “surprise vocal”) by the most eloquent Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, who are Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums:
What a gorgeous serving of energies: “infinite propulsion” characterizes the song but also the Cubs, a band I look forward to seeing again . . . soon.
The pandemic brought us many things that we had not requested, and I will forbear listing them here. But it also brought marvelous musical surprises — our jazz heroes are resilient, and many adapted to the challenge of sewing individual creations into a swinging tapestry. You’ve seen the delightful results: musicians in different “rooms,” which might be thousands of miles away, everyone with headphones or earbuds, making delightful swing harmonies although not able to shake hands or hug. Miraculous and there’s nothing else to call it. Many of my friends have made the technological hurdles seem no more than cracks in the sidewalk, but a new and rewarding group effort has been the merging of the superb singer Alice Spencer with Hal Smith’s Overland Swing Express.
A few words about Ms. Spencer of Austin, Texas. Just as the world is full of restaurants, some producing full stomachs and happy satiety, others producing uneasiness, there are many who call themselves “singers.” Alas, only a small percentage know what it means — that it is more than being personable, chipper, good to look at, well-dressed. Singing is the most personal of the arts, with no keyboard or valves to get in the way, the singer has a message to send us, a story to tell, with only her voice, her dramatic sense, her facial expressions: no tenor saxophone to use as a big shiny prop.
Alice Spencer brings to her songs a remarkable emotional maturity that is beyond her years: put plainly, she sings like a Grownup rather than a Cute Teen.
Her voice has shadings, dark and light; she bends phrases stylishly; she lets us know that she knows what the words mean: she’s not copying famous recordings nor is she singing by rote. And her performances are both emotionally dense and light-hearted: hear her little exhalation of breath at the end of T’AIN’T GOOD — as close to a wordless “Gee, that was fun!” as anyone could create, or the way she wends her way through WHAT SHALL I DO IN THE MORNING? — which, in other hands, could have been maudlin, but when you hear her final sixteen bars and note the sign-off of a gently raised eyebrow, you know that Alice has been having a good time “being sad” and then holding it, gently, at arm’s length. Don’t miss out on the cluster of rapid-fire notes in the middle of T’AIN’T GOOD, either, navigated with accuracy and hilarious style: she might well be the Peggy Fleming of Swing Singing.
I first heard Alice on Brooks Prumo’s THIS YEAR’S KISSES, and wrote this:
And a few lines, once again, for the miracle of nature known as Alice Spencer, who takes familiar music and makes it fresh, who makes songs associated for decades with Billie Holiday into her own without warping their intent, who can be perky or melancholy with utter conviction. She is full of surprises — many singers telegraph what they are going to do in the next four bars, but she doesn’t — although her surprises always seem like the right thing once they have landed. I won’t compare her to other singers: rather, she has an aura like a great film actress, comfortable in many roles. Think Joan Blondell or Jean Arthur, and you have some idea of her great personal appeal.
It would be unkind and unfair, though, to ignore the Gents of the Ensemble: Clint Baker, trumpet; Loren Schoenberg, tenor saxophone; Kris Torkarski, piano; Bill Reinhart, guitar on MORNING and tech-alchemies; Nick Rossi, guitar on GOOD; Sam Rocha, string bass; Hal Smith, drums, leader, arranger.
Because the two tunes are associated with Fats Waller (whose birthday was yesterday) there is a jaunty bounce, a reassuring rocking motion. Clint gets hot, as is his delightful habit; Kris summons up not only Fats but that Wilson fellow c. 1938; Loren evokes 1941 Pres in the Victor studios; Bill knows his way around lovely chords; Nick provides just the right mix of enthusiasm and accuracy; Sam keeps everyone honest; Hal rocks the church.
Here’s T’AIN’T GOOD:
and the larger question, WHAT WILL I DO IN THE MORNING?:
If you have any acquaintance with the great swing traditions of the Thirties and Forties — those sessions made for the jukebox by Billie, Mildred, Midge, Teddy Grace, Fats, Lee, Maxine, Connee, Red, Wingy, Louis Prima, Bob Howard, Putney, Slim Green, and a dozen others — you will understand why I say a) I could no more watch these videos a single time and move on to something else than I could leave my sandwich half-eaten, and b) that I have received ethereal texts from John Hammond, Jack Kapp, Eli Oberstein, and Bernie Hanighen, fighting for the right to sign this band and Ms. Alice up to a long-term contract (of course for very little money, but that’s show business, as the elephants will tell you). On the more earthly level, I ask, “Where is the bright festival promoter who wants to sign the Overland Swing Express up for a weekend of gigs?” But since I know that some of them read JAZZ LIVES, I have hope.
I heard (to quote Don Redman) that Alice Spencer will be making a new digital album sometime soon. Stay tuned.
Ray Skjelbred is more than comfortable with taking risks — not hang-gliding or sky-diving, but performing new songs in front of an audience, as he does here. The clues are simple: “Three choruses.” “My favorite Gershwin song,” and he and his Cubs — Jeff Hamilton, drums; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar — take us to another world:
Those of us who follow Ray, and Ray and his Cubs, might quickly associate them with the bedrock of Chicago jazz: dark-blue musings and skyrocket exuberance, and all that would be true. But their deep soulfulness comes out on a quiet but eloquent ballad performance such as this one.
The question is asked, and asked with feeling, leaving listeners to invent their own answers. Bless Ray, and all his friends.
I did not take the pandemic lightly, and I spent a good deal of last year scared to bits . . . but I’m going. And I hope you will also, if you can.
Details here — but I know you want more than just details.
Although for those who like it very plain, some elementary-school math: four days, more than a hundred sets performed at eight stages, from intimate to huge. Dance floors. And the festival is wonderfully varied, presenting every kind of “roots music” you can imagine: “jazz, swing, blues, zydeco, rockabilly, Americana, Western Swing, country.”
Off the top of my head — when I was there in 2019, I heard the music of Charlie Christian, Moon Mullican, Pee Wee Russell, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges, Pete Johnson, Billie Holiday, and much more. Bob Wills said howdy to Walter Donaldson, which was very sweet.
And here are some of the jazz and blues artists who will be there: Carl Sonny Leyland, Duke Robillard, Dave Stuckey, Hal Smith, Andy Schumm, Dan Barrett, Jonathan Doyle, Jacob Zimmerman, Dan Walton, Marc Caparone, Joe Goldberg, Bill Reinhart, Joshua Gouzy, Joel Patterson, Katie Cavera, Dawn Lambeth, Clint Baker, Kris Tokarski, Nate Ketner, Brian Casserly, Josh Collazo, Ryan Calloway, and two dozen other worthies whose names don’t yet appear on the site. And of course, bands — ad hoc units and working ones.
For the justifiably anxious among us, here is the RCMF’s Covid update: several things stand out. First, California has mandated that ticket sales must be in advance. And understandably, there will be fewer people allowed in any space . . . so this translates for you, dear reader, as a double incentive to buy tickets early. I know that festivals always urge attendees to do this, but you can see these are atypical reasons.
How about some musical evidence?
CASTLE ROCK, by the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet:
WAITING AT THE END OF THE ROAD, by Dawn Lambeth and her Quartet:
REACHING FOR SOMEONE, by the Doyle-Zimmerman Sextet:
HELLO, LOLA! by Hal Smith’s SWING CENTRAL:
SAN ANTONIO ROSE, by Dave Stuckey – Hal Smith’s Western Swing All-Stars:
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, by Marc Caparone and his “Louis Armstrong All-Stars”:
If the videos don’t act as proof, my words may be superfluous. But to paraphrase Lesley Gore, “It’s my blog and I’ll write if I want to.”
I come to this festival-jazz party circuit late — both late for me and for the phenomenon — September 2004. Chautauqua, California, Connecticut, Newcastle, Westoverledingen, and others. I’ve attended a hundred of them. Meaning no offense to any festival organizer, I think Redwood Coast delivers such quality and such range that it is astonishing. I told Mark Jansen that it was the SUPERMARKET SWEEP of festivals: so much to pick up on in so short a time. And readers will understand that my range is narrow: there is much music on the list of genres above that doesn’t stir me, although it might be excellent.
However: in 2019 I came home with over 150 videos in four days of enthusiastic observation-participation. I slept as if drugged on the plane ride home. I’d been perforated by music of the finest kind.
I also need to write a few darker sentences.
There is a blessed influx of younger people — dancers, often — to music festivals like this one. But festivals are large enterprises, costly to stage and exhausting to supervise. Those of us who want to be able to see and hear live music must know that this phenomenon needs what realistic promoters call Asses in Seats.
So if you say, “Well, I’ll come in a few years when I’m retired,” that’s understandable. But Asses at Home mean that this festival, and others, might not wait for you. Grim, but true.
So I hope to see you there. There are a million reasons to stay at home. But who will come in and dust you?
The Sacramento Music Festival, which we miss, was like a sandwich with the cole slaw coming out of the bread on all sides — tasty but messy, a danger to one’s outfit. Bands of all kinds jostled for audibility both in the open air and in unsuitable venues; the whole weekend had the air of a genial traveling carnival slightly awry.
But wonderful music happened in spite of the distractions. Here are two performances, hidden in the JAZZ LIVES archives for moments just such as this, by Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, mining deep Chicago gold. They are Ray Skjelbred, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal, Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Katie Cavera, guitar. Special effects provided by the winds of fate. (The Cubs should have played BREEZE, but that’s my comic sense, which can be disregarded without harm or wound.)
BULL FROG BLUES:
and that tale of The Ruined Maid, with her new hat and her dubious associations, NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW. And NOW as pronounced by Mr. Cusack is a marvel: young actors at the Old Vic study it but is remains elusive:
These performances are nearly seven years “old” but, as Ray says, “We play in the present tense.”
Julian Barnes has an extraordinary story in his 2005 collection THE LEMON TABLE, “A Short History of Hairdressing,” in which the narrator recounts his life as a series of haircuts.
It amuses me to offer my life in a few lines as a purchaser of recorded music:
Fifty-five years ago, when my mother went shopping in a department store, I ran off and bought a Louis Armstrong long-playing record for $2.79 plus tax. Thirty years ago, I stopped off at Tower Records on my way home from work and bought an Arbors or a Concord CD for $16 and hid it in my briefcase so it wouldn’t be seen and cause an argument. In the past twelve months, although I still buy music from Amazon and eBay and the musicians themselves, the music cornucopia has become Bandcamp.com, where one can hear and purchase all sorts of divinely inspired improvised music — from Bob Matthews to Brad Linde and Freddie Redd, to Gordon Au, Keenan McKenzie, Jonathan Doyle, The Vitality Five, The Dime Notes, Andrew Oliver, Michael McQuaid and two dozen more . . . and now, a wonderful addition to Hal Smith’s catalogue of inspiring music.
This isn’t a collection of howling, meowing, and hissing: no need to open the window and shout “STOP THAT!” at the feline orgy below. Rather, it’s hot New Orleans dance music. Hal [one of the greatest swinging drummers on the planet, and that’s no stage joke] says, of this brand-new session, “a sound somewhere between Bunk’s band (if Don Ewell had been the pianist) and the 1964 ‘Jazzology Poll Winners.'”
Filet of soul — not canned or freeze-dried. I confess to always entering into an emotional relationship with music — those rare and delicious effusions that make me feel warmly embraced. Hal’s new disc does that.
Here, listen. And I believe that Bandcamp waives its fees on Friday, so the musicians get more of the hot savory pie.
The facts, ma’am (thinking of Jack Webb, if you remember):
Hal Smith (drums, leader); Clint Baker (trumpet, vocal on MY LITTLE GIRL); John Gill (trombone); Ryan Calloway (clarinet); Kris Tokarski (piano); Bill Reinhart (banjo); Katie Cavera (string bass). YOU ALWAYS HURT THE ONE YOU LOVE / ARKANSAS BLUES / BLUE MASK STOMP / HONEY BABE / SAN SUE STRUT / BLACK CAT ON THE FENCE / BLUE FOR YOU, BUNK / MY LITTLE GIRL //
Jake Hanna said — often — “What are you waiting for the last chorus of a tune to swing? Start swinging from the beginning!” and this band does, no matter what the tempo. Twenty years ago, a work-colleague would say, “You ROCK!” as
Before I heard a note, I was happy with the tune list. Occasionally I think, “If I hear one more JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH ME or PLEASE DON’T TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE or SI TU VOIS MA MERE I will bang my head into the wall — don’t try this, it ruins the paint — but the avoidance of tediously overplayed songs was immediately refreshing. Aside from the homage to Bunk Johnson’s repertoire, there are affectionate glances at Messrs. Morton, Manone, Bechet, and others.
It’s a band with New Orleans in their hearts — strong melodic improvisations, a pulsating supportive rhythm section, and a delightfully idiosyncratic front line making SOUNDS. There is a refreshing reliance on ensemble playing, and a return to one of my favorite things: one player offering a straight but swinging melody while the other improvises around it.
I said it was warm — and warming — music. I hear other bands full of players I admire hewing so closely to the recordings that the collective effect is technically dazzling but a little cool to the touch. The Jazzologists know the score (pun intended) but they romp all on their own. And they don’t fall into the reverent trap of imitating the limitations of venerable senior players. They play.
And it’s a triumph of passion as well as technology. Yes, it was created remotely, with players in six cities — but the groove is such that you wouldn’t know it.
Not for the first time in my adult life have I lamented the disconnect between my ears and heart (those parts that receive the music and revel in it) and my rather stiff stubborn legs. But hearing this disc, I would happily dance around the kitchen, not caring how goofy I might look. It’s that inspiring.
To be a good critic, one must find flaws, or so it seems. That was hard with this session — now on its fifth playing as I write this — but I did find one thing to complain about. I wish this had been a digital two-CD set. Maybe in a few months (what is the feline gestation period?) there can be Kittens?
I love this little band, in all its permutations, and I am not alone. When they get onstage, the question posed above becomes completely rhetorical. They most certainly have music, and they share it with us. Here are five lovely (purple-hued) performances from the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest, featuring Ray Skjelbred, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Marc Caparone, cornet; Dawn Lambeth, vocals.
Here’s LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, evoking Eddie Condon and the first Commodore 78, and the swinging Bing Crosby version a few years earlier:
and James P. Johnson’s song, recorded by Henry “Red” Allen:
and a song associated with Lee Wiley, sweetly sung by Dawn Lambeth:
the beautiful Thirties ballad associated with Billie Holiday:
Finally, Dawn’s exposition of swing frustration (thanks to Walter Donaldson):
To celebrate the publication of his book REALLY THE BLUES, Mezz Mezzrow was the star of a concert at New York’s Town Hall on January 1, 1947 as a benefit for the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief.
The basic band was Muggsy Spanier, Sandy Williams, Sidney Bechet, Mezz Mezzrow, Sammy Price or Art Hodes, Wellman Braud, Baby Dodds. Later in the evening Bob Wilber’s Wildcats were added: Johnny Glasel, Ed Hubble, Bob Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Charlie Traeger, Eddie Phyfe. Coot Grant and Kid Sox Wilson also performed. The concert was recorded on twelve-inch acetates on two machines (hooray!) and ten performances were issued on lp — Jazz Archives JA-39 — but what follows was not.
Quite simply, it is an exultant hymn of praise to Louis.
It’s a life-changing performance of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING by Johnny Windhurst, unlisted in Tom Lord’s discography, with Bechet, prominent, and Dick Wellstood on piano. My guess is that the veterans gave place to the Youngbloods, but it’s Windhurst who catches our ears and our hearts. Rather like Hot Lips Page in his prime, Windhurst seems energetically lit from within, and just when you think he might have had enough or done enough, he takes another chorus. Radiantly.
After Mezz’s announcement, the roadmap (to my ears) is one ensemble statement of the theme, one chorus by Bechet; one chorus by Wellstood; one by Eddie Hubble, trombone; two choruses by Windhurst with Bechet and the ensemble joining in. The tape I was working with was a copy of a reel-to-reel tape where the plastic had started to decay, alas, so there is some distortion and tape squeal. But if you can turn away from Windhurst’s shining Louisness because of these flaws, we don’t have much to say to each other.
Incidentally, the question, “How’s your Louisness?” is, I believe, a co-invention of two of my favorite people, Riley and Clint Baker. . . . it is another way of saying, “How’s your internal spiritual compass?” and “Have you spread some joy today?” They do, and certainly young Mister Windhurst does.
It’s been a long time since I wore shoes that needed to be shined, but changes in fashion are less important than music sweetly offering hope. This song’s optimistic bounce has always pleased me, so I am pleased to share with you the most current version, by the group calling itself THE BIG FIVE. And I can now hear the verse, words and music . . . saying that shiny shoes are the key to success. Were it that easy:
I will also list the credits, because they make me laugh:
The BIG FIVE Robert Young – cornet Robert Young – 1st alto saxophone Robert Young – 2nd alto saxophone Robert Young – tenor saxophone Robert Young – special arrangement Robert Young – just kidding Jeff Hamilton – piano Bill Reinhart – guitar Hal Smith – drums Clint Baker – string bass.
The source of all this pleasure is the Epiphonaticchannel on YouTube, full of quiet swinging marvels. This morning, it had 99 subscribers. Surely JAZZ LIVES readers can add to that number.
Now, a little history. Three versions! — by the Rhythmakers, here under Jack Bland’s name, the recording band whose output Philip Larkin and others thought a high point in the art of the last century. Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Tommy Dorsey, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Happy Caldwell, tenor saxophone; Frank Froeba, piano; Eddie Condon, banjo; Jack Bland, guitar; Pops Foster, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums; Chick Bullock, vocal. Oct. 8, 1932. Incidentally, admire Froeba’s playing (he’s gotten slandered because of later pop dross) and do not mock Chick Bullock, the perfect session singer — in tune, delivering melody and lyrics in a clear, friendly voice, which gave listeners the welcoming illusion that they, too, could sing on records:
a different take, where Chick sings “find”:
and a third take, a few seconds shorter since they do not perform the whole closing chorus, but at a less incendiary tempo:
and a duet of Monette Moore and Fats Waller, September 28, 1932 — a test recording that was not issued at the time:
A pity that the record company (I think it was Columbia’s predecessor, the American Record Company, then near bankruptcy) didn’t make a dozen records with Monette Moore, sweetly growling, and Fats Waller, at his relaxed best.
It also occurred to me while tracing this song that it documents a vanished time: when hot jazz and new Broadway songs were in the most effusive gratifying embrace. That current pop hits could be swung by Pee Wee Russell for records that ordinary people bought . . . now seems a dream. But I have the BIG FIVE to console me.
As you might have guessed from my last name (which isn’t LIVES) I grew up looking at Christmas as something to get through. And so there’s very little “official” Christmas music I embrace: Johnny Guarnieri’s SANTA’S SECRET; Mark Shane’s Nagel-Heyer CD, WHAT WILL SANTA CLAUS SAY? Louis’s WHITE CHRISTMAS, with its unusual emphasis on the final word of the lyric. In a pinch, Hampton’s GIN FOR CHRISTMAS, but that’s a stretch.
So I report with pleasure that friends of mine, brilliant joy-makers, created two sweetly rocking versions of this pineapple-scented Christmas song, which I am embarrassed to say I had never listened to until now. But it takes its place as the Official JAZZ LIVES Christmas Performance, and there’s even an alternate take.
“Mele Kalikimaka” (pronounced [ˈmɛlɛ kəˌlikiˈmɐkə]) is a Hawaiian-themed Christmas song written in 1949 by R. Alex Anderson. The song takes its title from the Hawaiian phrase Mele Kalikimaka, meaning “Merry Christmas.” One of the earliest recordings of this song was by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in 1950 on Decca.
The BIG FIVE . . . are Robert Young, tenor saxophone; Jeff Hamilton, piano, arranger; Bill Reinhart, banjo and executive producer; Jessica King, vocal; Mikiya Matsuda, National resophonic lap steel guitar; Clint Baker, string bass.
And before you click: they’re just wonderful — easy tender slightly amused melodic swing. You can hear them smiling.
and the alternate version:
When I look at the new videos on YouTube from “Epiphonatic,” and see that it has only 82 subscribers to this channel, I think, as I often do, “What is wrong with people?” So get there and get your joys. Free, buoyant, and one size fits all. And have a very delightful Christmas. Eat some fresh pineapple.
Yesterday, I posted a video of Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs performing BIG BOY here, and the response was so enthusiastic that I thought, “Let’s have another one right now.”
Ninety-five years ago, people were praising Peter — first instrumentally (Herb Wiedoft, Glen Oswald’s Serenaders, the Broadway Dance Orchestra, Paul Specht, Alex Hyde, Red Nichols) — then vocally (Arthur Fields with Sam Lanin) and the 1932 “Rhythmakers” sessions that Philip Larkin thought the highest art.
Here, as a historical benchmark, is a 1924 version by Glen Oswald’s Serenaders (recorded in Oakland, California) — a varied arrangement, full of bounce:
“Peter” remains a mystery – – but we do know that he was “so nice,” as proven by four versions of this secular hymn of praise to his romantic ardor recorded in April and May 1932 by the Rhythmakers, a beyond-our-wildest-dreams group featuring Henry Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, Joe Sullivan, Jack Bland, Al Morgan, Zutty Singleton. If you don’t know the Rhythmakers sessions, you are honor-bound to do some of the most pleasurable research.
But here we are in 2014, with Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs at the one-day al fresco jazz party held at Cline Wineries in Napa, California. This wondrous little band — having themselves a time while making sure we do also — is Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums. Members of the Cubs have been known to burst into song, but this time Peter’s praises must be imagined or implied. However, Ray and the Cubs are clearly nice and more: no ambiguity there.
The Cubs continue to delight me for the best reasons. They don’t wear brightly-colored polo shirts; they are humorous but not jokey; they play hot and sweet music — honoring everyone from Frank Teschemacher and Eddie Condon to Jimmie Noone and Jeni Le Gon — without putting on the kind of show that more popular “trad” bands get away with. They are what Milt Hinton called GOOD MUSIC, and I celebrate them. Tell the children that such a thing exists, please.
And a digression (what’s a blog for if the CEO can’t digress?) — OH PETER — no comma in the original — was composed by Herb Wiedoft, Gene Rose, and Jesse Stafford. Wiedoft played trumpet and led his own orchestra, where Rose played piano and wrote arrangements; Stafford played trombone and baritone horn. And hereis the original sheet music, verse and chorus.
I take a deep breath and point out that “peter” has been slang for “penis” since the mid-nineteenth century. . . . so “When you are by my side / That’s when I’m satisfied,” and “There’s nothing sweeter, Peter, Peter,” in the chorus, has always made me wonder, and the verse, new to me, contains the lines, “I’m missin’ / Your love and kissin’ ? And lots of other things too.” The lyrics do state that Peter is a real person who has been “stepping out,” but if the song were titled OH SAMMY, would it have the same effect? (What of Morton’s 1929 SWEET PETER, by the way?) Perhaps you will propose that I need a more virtuous life, but I wonder if this song was sung with a wink at the audience, even though it’s clearly not a double-entendre blues of the period. Do think on it. And please admire my superb restraint in not titling this post IS YOUR PETER NICE?
Note: any connections between BIG BOY and OH PETER that readers might perceive are their own responsibility.
Ray Skjelbred is one of my favorite artists — his scope is too large to be confined to “pianist,” and his Cubs are a favorite band of mine. I can’t say that the pandemic has brought an onslaught of pleasures, but the absence of real-time gigs has sent me back to my archives, and I find many unseen video-recordings of Ray and his Cubs, which it is my pleasure to share with you.
The Cubs are a winning team, although they don’t employ the usual sporting goods: rather, they create uplifting music no matter where they are or what the tempo is. This performance of a song associated with Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines took place during Ray’s mid-summer 2014 California tour (here, they are playing for the Napa Valley Dizieland Jazz Society). The Cubs — bless them! — are Ray, piano, occasional vocal, ethical guidance; Jeff Hamilton, drums and slyness; Clint Baker, string bass, occasional vocal, moral rectitude; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar, occasional vocal, warmth; Kim Cusack, clarinet, occasional vocal; whimsical sagacity. If you know Claude Hopkins, you’ll get the reference to THE TRAFFIC WAS TERRIFIC, but the Cubs’ vibrations come right through.
Speaking of “big boys,” a story of dubious relevance. Decades ago, my friend Stu (who reads this blog) and I went to lunch at a kosher delicatessen. I was hungry and ordered a good deal of food; Stu had eaten and said to the very theatrical woman holding her pad and pencil, “I’ll just have an order of fries,” which we did as a matter of course then. She looked aghast and said, mixing mock-horror and mock-solicitude, “Such a small portion for such a BIG BOY?” but Stu resisted the Sirens’ song.
All I will say is that this performance — by the clock — is a small portion; it would fit on a V-Disc, but it is a tableful of joy. And there’s more to come.
Take a deep breath, see that your eyeglasses are clean, ask your neighbor to take a break from leaf blowing . . . and get ready to admire.
What follows is a wonderful assemblage of rewarding details that make a performance soar and shine. Everybody knows EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, ninety years old in 2014, and the song flexibly lends itself to many approaches: a slow-drag tempo with the verse (think: Blue Note Jazzmen) or delightedly skittering around the room, making all the turns (any Fifties Eddie Condon performance).
The creators here are Ray Skjelbred, piano and imagination; Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar, and this took place at the one-day jazz festival at Cline Cellars Winery in Sonoma, California.
The pleasures of this al fresco performance are double: first, the joy of hearing Ray and his Cubs do anything, and second, the little architectural details that delight and surprise, throughout. Ray says this performance takes some of its inspiration from the 1929 Earl Hines Victor recording of the tune, but it’s clear that the record is a leaping-off place rather than a model to be copied.
The DETAILS I celebrate here are Clint’s arco string bass work, Jeff’s tom-toms, Kim’s magical ability to sing and play at the same time, or nearly so, the duet scored for Cusack and Skjelbred; evocations of Jess Stacy’s 1938 “A-minor thing” even if it’s not in A-minor, and the delicious surprise of the bridge of the last chorus:
I so admire the romping large-scale scope of this performance — people confident and joyous in the sunshine — but the details that poke their heads through from below I find thrilling.
Here’s Earl Hines, playing, leading, and scat-singing:
I couldn’t close this blogpost without commenting that Benny Hill used to announce this song on his television show as EVERY BABY LOVES MY BODY, which works also.
Ten years ago, this band changed my life. Because of RaeAnn Berry’s videos of the Reynolds Brothers, I urgently wanted to visit California, to hear and see them, which I did in 2011. I’d already admired Marc Caparone’s work on records with Dawn Lambeth as far back as 2003, so it was a natural development.
I had visited California once before, but that was in utero. There, no bands were playing, although my mother had a swinging 4 / 4 heartbeat and my father certainly knew how to arrange two-part harmony.
Back to our subject: here are four glorious jam-session styled performances, previously unseen, by the Brothers and Friends from March 1, 2013, at the Jazz Bash by the Bay, in Monterey, California, by John Reynolds, resonator guitar, vocal, whistling; Marc Caparone, cornet; Katie Cavera, string bass, vocal; Ralf Reynolds, washboard, and guests Bob Draga, clarinet; David Boeddinghaus, piano; later, Clint Baker, resonator tenor guitar.
Every jazz festival should have at least one Lillie Delk Christian tribute. Katie Cavera sings TOO BUSY with a band and guests never too busy to swing:
A riotously fast CHINA BOY, Clint Baker joining on resonator tenor guitar, in honor of the many Mike McKendricks:
Something tender to follow, EMBRACEABLE YOU, sung by John:
and a romping SOME OF THESE DAYS to close off this segment:
The next Jazz Bash by the Bay is planned for 2021, and we live in hope that such gatherings can happen again, and I can return, if not to the land of my birth, to the closest thing, for more joy. I know “you can’t go home again,” but you can park across the street and take phone pictures.
Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs: from left, Clint Baker, gazing skyward; Kim Cusack, arms folded; Katie Cavera, instantly recognizable; Ray, with blue cap, inviting us to come along; Jeff Hamilton, thinking his thoughts.
I’m honored to share the planet with Ray Skjelbred, who turns eighty today.
At the piano bench as well as elsewhere, he is a poet, a teacher, an inventor and then revealer of secrets, a writer of mysteries populated by velvet moles, eagles, and dogs, where no one gets killed. Tenaciously yet delicately, he walks through walls as if they were beaded curtains.
Ray Skjelbred calls his Cubs “my favorite band,” and it’s easy to see why — a lovely combination of Basie and Bobcats, illuminated by a sweet lyricism at once on-the-porch and Milt Gabler-joyous.
We salute him; we salute his Cubs, who are Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. These performances took wing at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2015.
OH, BABY, DON’T SAY NO, SAY MAYBE:
Kim swears he’s KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW, but the jury is still out:
something for the Apex Club Orchestra, EVERY EVENING:
If my wishes aren’t enough, here’s a HAPPY BIRTHDAY (March 10, 1938) from Bobby Hackett, Pete Brown, Joe Marsala, Joe Bushkin, Ray Biondi, Artie Shapiro, George Wettling, Leo Watson. Since it’s mislabeled below, I also offer the nostalgic maroon Commodore label, a jazz madeline:
as it appeared on turntables:
To borrow Whitney Balliett’s words, “Bless Ray Skjelbred. And may he prosper.”
Were you to call me a “hoarder,” I would be insulted, but I have been hoarding lovely treasures — previously unseen performance videos — since March 12, 2020, which was the last jazz gig I attended. One of the treasures I dug up recently is a set played and sung by Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs at 2015 the San Diego Jazz Fest: Ray, piano and vocal; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums, Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar, with a guest appearance by Marc Caparone, cornet, on the closing song.
I’d held off on these because my place in the room didn’t allow me to see Ray at the keyboard — a pleasure I always want — and the lighting person, believing that jazz is best played in semi-darkness, had made everyone purple. Whether it was allegiance to the Lake Isle of Innisfree or a secret love of Barney the dinosaur, I didn’t ask, but it was visually unnerving.
The music, however, was and is delightful.
I missed the first bars of James P. Johnson’s AIN’T ‘CHA GOT MUSIC? — but such lapses are, I hope, forgivable:
Many vintage jazz fans know YOU’RE SOME PRETTY DOLL in George Brunies’ UGLY CHILE — but this version has no mockery in it:
Ray loves the optimistic song LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY (from the 1935 KING OF BURLESQUE, and so do we. Bring back the New Deal!
Marc Caparone, cornet, always welcome, joins in for I FOUND A NEW BABY, what George Avakian would call “the final blow-off”:
I know I’m out of my depth when I resort to sports metaphors, but these Cubs always win the game. Bless them, and I hope to see a Reunion.
The words “2020 has been a year of losses” are a painful understatement. One such human loss was the sudden death of the joyously energetic guitarist Little Charlie Baty, whom I met for the first and only time at the Redwood Coast Music Festival in Eureka, California, in early May 2019.
Here is one set of facts, as presented by the Sacramento Bee on March 15, 2020:
CHARLES ERIC BATY 1953-2020
Charles passed away suddenly on March 6, 2020 at age 66. He developed pneumonia and died of a heart attack while hospitalized in Vacaville. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he moved to California in 1961. He was preceded in death by his wife Sylvia, sister Paige, and mother Patricia. Charles, a well-known Blues guitarist, taught himself to play the harmonica and guitar at the age of twelve. After graduating from U. C. Berkeley with a degree in mathematics in 1975, he worked for many years at U. C. Davis while performing music at night. In 1976 Charles and Rick Estrin formed the group Little Charlie & the Nightcats. The group signed with Alligator Records in 1987. Charles retired from the group in 2008 but continued to perform in numerous venues. Services will be held Monday, March 16, 11 am at Klumpp’s Funeral Home, 2691 Riverside Blvd. Sacramento CA 95818, followed by interment at St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Those facts are useful — coordinates for us to locate ourselves in relation to Little Charlie’s sudden absence — but they are just facts.
Charlie (I find it hard to think of his gently imposing presence as “Little” in any way) was a precise, powerful player, but his appeal to me and to others was emotional. He created melodies that, even when phrased with delicacy, felt strong; his rhythms caught us; we swayed to his pulse and his lines.
So here is the story behind the performance and the performance videos I present now. I had an extraordinarily gratifying time at the Redwood Coast Music Festival, listening to bands that might otherwise have been fantasies I’d dreamed of — now in the flesh, playing and singing. Most of the music I heard was in small venues (the Morris Graves Library) and a few larger halls. I walked to the cavernous Eureka Municipal Auditorium (thanks to Derral Alexander Campbell for supplying the name and also agreeing that it was “a sound man’s nightmare”) — a huge hall with a balcony running around its upper level — but a band led by Carl Sonny Leyland, piano and vocal, and featuring Little Charlie; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jacob Zimmerman, alto saxophone and clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums, was scheduled to appear there.
I got to the hall early, and found an energetic band, not to my liking, more rock than jazz or blues, pummeling a rapt audience who had filled the front half of the hall. It was loud. When they had mercifully (to me, at least) finished, I looked for a seat in the front from which to video, but the happy listeners had no intention of leaving, and I climbed up to the balcony to catch my friend-heroes in action. I set up my camera (small) and my microphone (sensitive but also small) and settled in to video-record the performance.
The sound people at this festival were generally superb — and what follows may reflect my predilection for small halls and almost-or-completely unamplified sound — but whoever was running the board for this set wanted a good deal of volume to fill the hall. I have never been to a rock concert, but this sounded like rock-concert volume. The music was splendid, but I felt like a pineapple chunk in a blender, and after a few selections I left. As I walked to the next venue, I could hear the music from far away. I write this long prelude to explain the unusual sonic ambiance. I thought these videos were unusable, and when I sent them to a few of the musicians and heard no comment, I felt as if they agreed.
But this year — the desert of music as well as so much else — I thought, “Let me listen again. These are precious documents: Charlie isn’t going to play anymore,” so I offer them to you — loud, funky, good and greasy. (“Greasy,” for the timidly scrupulous, is praise.)
47th STREET JIVE, a series of life-instructions and exhortations:
CHERRY RED, a color Big Joe Turner found in life, not in a Crayola box:
FISHERMAN’S BLUES, for my pescatorian readers:
INDIANA BOOGIE: “the moonlight on the water” never sounded like this:
As I wrote yesterday here in a post featuring Dave Stuckey and the Hot House Gang performing CLEMENTINE (From New Orleans) at the Redwood Coast Music Festival, it’s been postponed to September 30 – October 3, 2021, and I am looking forward to being there. I’ll tell you more as those months approach, but I have already purchased a 2021 wall calendar and marked off those boxes. It’s never too early to anticipate joys.
So you took your pills this morning with your coffee and you don’t feel any different? You walked past the bed and it said, “Come back to me until March 2021,” and you heard its call? A good friend texted you I HAVE GREAT NEWS! and you didn’t read the message? Do you feel like an elderly carrot at the back of the crisper? If you were a quart of milk, would you be lumpy and sour?
Before you call your doctor to see if she can see you today, ask yourself: “Could my Swing levels be low? Have I been neglecting a flowing 4 / 4? Have I been reading the news far too much too early in the day?”
If so, I have the cure for you. No co-pay, no long list of side effects, no waiting room with tape across the chairs. Just sit still and prepare to receive the healing infusions through ears and eyes. Several repeated immersions will be helpful. When you find yourself moving rhythmically in your chair, the treatment will be working.
I saw this video last night on YouTube (my faithful companion) and watched it four times in a row before posting it on Facebook. But I think it’s my moral duty as an upstanding American to share it as widely as possible. Here’s what I wrote:
When it’s good, you know it. And what I am going to share with you is light-years better than good. It’s what Marty Grosz would call “the real breadstick”: BLUE LOU, created by HAL SMITH’S OVERLAND SWING EXPRESS. That’s Hal, drums / leader; Clint Baker, trumpet; Loren Schoenberg, tenor saxophone; Kris Tokarski, piano; Nick Rossi, guitar; Bill Reinhart, string bass. I watched it four times in succession before writing this. Now I have to stop: Jack Kapp and John Hammond are squabbling in the next room over whether the band will sign with Decca or ARC. But judge for yourself:
Here‘s the first part of a wonderful set at the San Diego Jazz Fest, where the Yerba Buena Stompers play and sing MILENBERG JOYS, SOME OF THESE DAYS, and THE TORCH. The Stompers are John Gill, banjo and vocal; Kevin Dorn, drums; Clint Baker, tuba; Tom Bartlett, trombone; Orange Kellin, clarinet; Duke Heitger, trumpet; Leon Oakley, cornet. And what fine noises they make.
“More!” the crowd shouts.
Here’s the ODJB’s CLARINET MARMALADE — as John Gill says, “For the kids”:
To the NORK, for TIN ROOF BLUES, with John’s down-home vocal:
A G minor vamp starts the BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME:
and the Louis Hot Five ONCE IN A WHILE:
Alas, we won’t have a reunion in person this November, but I permit myself to hope for one in 2021.
For their first set at the San Diego Jazz Fest (November 28, 2019), the Yerba Buena Stompers did what your bank or insurance company requests — they “went paperless” and had a fine time playing some good old good ones. Here are the first three songs from that set, to remind you how solidly that band can rock. They are John Gill, banjo, vocal; Leon Oakley, cornet; Duke Heitger, trumpet; Tom Bartlett, trombone; Orange Kellin, clarinet; Conal Fowkes, piano; Clint Baker, tuba; Kevin Dorn, drums.
NORK + Jelly = JOYS:
One of the most durable pop songs of 1920 — I remember Sophie Tucker on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday-night television show:
and a genuine TORCH song about the sorrow of what happens when the gang goes home . . . sung with special ardor by John, in fine voice:
More delights to come from this very durable band: people who know their stuff.
“Don’t be afraid,” Clint says to some audience members, timidly straggling in to this session at the Jazz Bash by the Bay, and I would echo his words. I know that “seminar,” to some, will mean a dry academic exercise . . . heaven forbid, a lecture. But that isn’t the case here. Clint guides us through the subject, so I don’t have to write much, but this set is a joyous exploration into music that we take for granted, and players unjustly neglected in the rush to celebrate the newest and the most photogenic. Take your seat: the fun’s about to begin.
This dapper young man spent eight years studying Albert-system clarinet under the tutelage of Professor Baker, and you’ll hear the delicious results. (More musical than my doctoral orals.) Clint plays trumpet here; Riley Baker, trombone; Hal Smith, drums; Jeff Hamilton, piano; Katie Cavera, string bass; Bill Reinhart, Jess King, banjo.
JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE, for Willie Humphrey:
PERDIDO STREET BLUES, for Johnny Dodds:
ORIENTAL MAN, for Dodds and Jimmy Blythe:
JUST TELEPHONE ME, for Tom Sharpsteen and the New Orleans revival players:
WOLVERINE BLUES, for Jelly Roll Morton and his clarinetists:
ST. LOUIS BLUES, for Larry Shields and the ODJB:
BURGUNDY STREET BLUES, for George Lewis:
HIGH SOCIETY, for Alphonse Picou and all the giants who play(ed) it:
I didn’t deceive you. That was fun, and you’ve gotten some post-graduate music and education also. Hail Ryan Calloway and his bandmates, and Professor Baker!
This band was a real treat at the March 2020 Jazz Bash by the Bay — their enthusiasm, their willingness to get dirty, their skill, their passions, and in a repertoire that went comfortably from Ellington to a Buck Clayton Jam Session to Johnny Dodds. I’m speaking of Clint Baker’s New Orleans Jazz Band, which in that weekend’s incarnation, was Clint, trumpet; Riley Baker, trombone; Ryan Calloway, clarinet; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano [for this set]; Jess King, guitar, banjo, vocal; Bill Reinhart, banjo; Katie Cavera, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. And today I want to share only one performance — because it knocked me out, as they used to say and still do — the groovy Ellington blues, with Rex Stewart certainly a co-composer, SOLID OLD MAN. (I worry about the punctuation of that title, but you should hear the music first.)
SOLID OLD MAN is perhaps most famous as a tune that Rex, Barney Bigard, and Billy Taylor brought to Europe for their recording session with Django Reinhardt — a recording session that is completely ingrained in my heart for perhaps fifty years. Note the more accurate composer credits!
But two postscripts. I taught college English for a long time (a LONG time!) and I know that punctuation makes a difference. I can see the recording supervisor at Brunswick or Master Records, after the session, saying to Ellington, “Duke, what do you call that one?” and Ellington answering in the common parlance of the time, “Solid, old man!” in the sense of “Great work!” or “I totally agree with you, my friend!” or “You and I are brothers.” But it always has had an implicit comma, a pause, as it were. And certainly an explicit exclamation point. So, to me, its title is lacking and perhaps misleading: when I see SOLID OLD MAN, I think of someone over six feet, weighing over three hundred pounds, who has been collecting Social Security for years. Perhaps a security guard at the mall.
The second postscript is not a matter of proofreading. Last night I was on Facebook (my first error) and reading a controversy in a jazz group about who was good and who was bad (my second) that got quite acrimonious. Facebook encourages bad-mannered excesses; I was uncharacteristically silent. But I noted one member of the group (an amateur string player) made a snide remark about “California Dixieland,” and when a professional musician of long-standing asked him to define what he was mocking, the speaker — perhaps having more opinions than knowledge — fell silent. Unnamed adjudicator of taste, I don’t know if you read this blog. But if you do, I suggest you listen to SOLID OLD MAN ten or twenty times to get your perceptions straight before you opine again. And those of us who know what’s good can simply enjoy the performance many times for its own singular beauties.