Tag Archives: Commodore Records

TREASURE ISLAND, 2011

As a young jazz fan, I acquired as many records as I could by musicians and singers I admired.  (There was an Earl Hines phase, a Tatum infatuation, a Ben Webster obsession among many.)  The impulse is still there, but economics, space, and selectivity have tempered it somewhat.  I’ve written elsewhere about Wanting and Having and Enjoying, and those states of being are in precarious balance.

But these philosophical considerations don’t stop me from being excited at the thought of visiting Hudson, New York, once again — and my favorite antique store, “Carousel,” on Warren Street.

Carousel was once a “National Shoe Store,” as it says on the floor in the entrance way, and it specializes in a variety of intriguing goods — furniture, books, planters, metalwork . . . but in the very back of the store, past the cash register most often supervised by the exceedingly pleasant Dan, is a galaxy of records.  I skip the 45s and go to the stacks of 10″ 78s, the browsers full of 12″ lps and one devoted solely to 10″ lps (where one might find THE DINAH SHORE TV SHOW and BRAD GOWANS’ NEW YORK NINE).

Here’s what I found — and purchased — one day last week. 

Richard M. Jones was a pianist and composer who accompanied blues singers, led a few dates in the Twenties . . . and this one in 1944.  The rarity of this 10″ French Vogue vinyl reissue is evident.  The original tracks (four by Jones, two by the ebullient trumpeter Punch Miller) were recorded in Chicago for the Session label — 12″ 78s — with a band including the under-recorded Bob Shoffner, wonderfully boisterous trombonist Preston Jackson, and the heroic Baby Dodds.  I’d seen these sides listed in discographies for years, and the Sessions appeared on a vinyl issue on the Gannet label (with alternate takes!) but I’ve never heard them . . . and any version of NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES is all right with me.  I haven’t heard the music yet, but have high hopes.

 Decca and Brunswick collected four-tune recording sessions as GEMS OF JAZZ and the more pugnacious BATTLE OF JAZZ.  Zutty didn’t record many times as a leader, and this is one of the rarer sessions: 1936, I think, with hot Chicagoans who didn’t reach great fame.  I had these four sides (once upon a time) on sunburst Deccas . . . gone now, so I anticipate hot music here. 

(The shadow above speaks to the haste of JAZZ LIVES’ official photographer.)

The four sides above have often been reissued, although the most recent Tatum Decca CD split them between Tatum and Big Joe Turner.  No matter: they are imperishable, not only for Big Joe, in pearly form, but for the pairing of Joe Thomas and Ed Hall, saints and scholars.

Now for two rare 78s: their music reissued on European vinyl and CD, but how often do the original discs surface?

Whoever Herman was, he had good taste.  The WAX label was the brainchild of solid reliable string bassist Al Hall in 1946-7: its output might have been twenty sides (including a piano recital by Jimmy Jones) using the best musicians one could find in New York or the world.  Herman bought the first issue!

That quintet wasn’t made up of stars — except for Ben — but they were all splendid creative improvisers.

Is the next 78 more rare?  It might be . . .

I believe these 78s were made especially for purchase at the club — and Eddie Condon might have been under exclusive contract with Decca at the time (on other sides, I recall the guitarist as being the much more elusive Fred Sharp).  I recently looked up Joe Grauso in John Chilton’s WHO’S WHO IN JAZZ and was saddened to find that he had died in 1952, which is why we have so little of him aside from the Commodores and the Town Hall Concert broadcasts.

I love the composer credit.  Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

REASONS TO CELEBRATE at THE FAMOUS EAR (June 19, 2011)

Being alive is cause for celebration.

And being someplace where beauty is being created is even more reason to feel joy.  Last Sunday, June 19, 2011, was a happy time at The Famous Ear (The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) for many reasons.  The EarRegulars knew it was Father’s Day and played one song — you’ll hear it here — to celebrate our Papas (whimsically, mind you).

The EarRegulars that night were co-founders Matt Munisteri (guitar); Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet); Pete Martinez (clarinet); Jon Burr (bass) — with a visit from Andy Stein, often playing his violin with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, but here toting his tenor saxophone for the first set (a surprise!) and his baritone for the second.   

The EarRegulars are not a group of antiquarians, “playing old records live.”  Nay, nay.  But they do honor their creative parents all the time: their jazz Dads and Moms — with great love, in the best way . . . by making something new and fresh and striking out of their own experiences.  Every Sunday at The Famous Ear is a kind of spiritual Father’s Day, because Louis and Bix, Roy and Ruby, Eddie and Django, and a hundred others are remembered and cherished in the solos, the ensembles, the tempos, the swing.

And there was another reason to celebrate: the EarRegulars marked a run of steady gigs — four years of glorious Sunday evening sessions — that June 19.  Was it their fourth birthday or their fourth anniversary?  I can’t tell (someone will surely write in to explain which it was) but it was a sweet occasion, especially in a world where a “steady gig” is usually measured in shorter timespans.

Here are some soul-uplifting performances from that night:

A lilting, sweet SLEEPY TIME GAL that had the pleasure of staying at home with the Beloved in every note:

For Jimmie Noone and all the jam sessions that followed him, a profoundly swinging statement of mutual knowledge, I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW:

From that certainty, a troubling question: HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?

And a cheerful THREE LITTLE WORDS:

Then (a request from JAZZ LIVES), that romantic entreaty — LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART:

A groovy I COVER THE WATERFRONT, suggesting that the waterfront in question was Danish, circa 1933:

For Fathers everywhere (or forefathers?): I’M A DING DONG DADDY FROM DUMAS, with an utterly unexpected vocal chorus by Herr Stein:

Jon Burr, brave explorer, led everyone into a deep IT HAD TO BE YOU:

And there was HAPPY BIRTHDAY (TO US)* — but since that song is only eight bars long, which is rather like a soliloquy of ten words, Matt led the EarRegulars into adding an I GOT RHTYHM bridge, for variety — I thought of Lester Young’s BLUE LESTER, but there was nothing seriously historical in the air, just jubilation, well-deserved:

May the EarRegulars and The Famous Ear prosper and continue to spread joy!

*I called this version on YouTube LET’S GET HAPPY, in honor of the 1938 Commodore recording featuring Bobby Hackett and Leo Watson, a stunning combination.

FOR BIX BEIDERBECKE (The Ear Inn, March 13, 2011)

I do not know what memories Bix Beiderbecke had of New York.  Aside from that terrible apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, where he died, I think that many of them were good: recording for OKeh, jamming in Harlem, playing against the Henderson band, drinking at Plunkett’s.  Bixians can, I am sure, supply more.

Although Bix has been gone a long time, New Yorkers still celebrate him in many ways: a vigil on the anniversary of his death; WKCR-FM plays his music on his birthday, and (this year) the EarRegulars devoted an evening to honoring him.

The EarRegulars were Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet) and Matt Munisteri (guitar), founding members, with Pete Martinez (Albert system clarinet) and Greg Cohen (string bass).  And they played as if Bix was seated at the bar, grinning appreciatively — which, in a way, he always is.

Here’s Hoagy’s FREE WHEELING — later named RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, a wondrous way to start things off.  Catch Jon-Erik’s clarion, flexible lines, Greg’s fervent support.  Pete’s quotation early in his first chorus is a delicious in-joke.  As ALONE, it is the romantic number in the Marx Brothers’ A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.  And his second chorus — only Matt could follow something like that, and how nimbly he does!  Jon-Erik soars; Greg stomps, and the closing ensemble is a triumphant paradox: searing hot and cool to the touch at the same time:

It took me several choruses to recall the name of the next selection — it’s THERE’LL COME A TIME and it’s a tribute to the deep affection and deeper recall that all the editions of the EarRegulars show — not in an academic or pretentious way, but with love.  This version, deliciously, has an easy stroll to it — it could be a 1938 Basie-inspired small group recording for Commodore, couldn’t it?  (Think of Buck, Lester, Durham, Page.)  And wait until the very end — the equine commentary is here and intact:

Pianist and wit Jeff Barnhart says that SAN has the distinction of being the Dixieland tune with the shortest title.  I wouldn’t deny that, but it’s also a rocking composition — especially the way the EarRegulars launch into it, with quartet telepathy all around:

Finally, a song I take as a tribute to my serene and well-establish standing in academia — the JAZZ ME BLUES — which has the immortal line, worthy of Keats, “Professor, come on and jazz me!”  I would have responded but it would have required that I put my camera down, so I couldn’t:

Bix thanks you.  We all thank you, gentlemen of the ensemble!

DON’T BE IN A MIST!  CLICK HERE TO GIVE SOMETHING BACK TO THE MUSICIANS IN THE VIDEOS (ALL MONEY COLLECTED GOES TO THEM):

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

IN SUNNY ROSELAND WITH THE EarRegulars (Jan. 23, 2011)

ROSE ROOM, by Art Hickman and Harry Williams, has a special place in the hearts of jazz fans.  It’s a lovely pastoral song from either 1917 or 1918, but several things raise it above the level of the ordinary pre-Twenties pop hit. 

One is that it is famous as the song Benny Goodman called when that interloper Charlie Christian was sneaked up on the bandstand by the meddlesome but inspired John Hammond.  Legend has it that Goodman thought — not a nice thought — that Charlie wouldn’t know the song or would find the chord changes difficult and either be embarrassed or sneak off the stand in disgrace.  Of course, Charlie had no trouble and he played rings around everyone on the stand.  The rest is too-brief history.

Two is that it is the harmonic basis for Ellington’s IN A MELLOTONE.

Three is that it is one of those songs that reveals itself in different, beautiful ways whenever the tempo is changed.  I’ve heard it played as a romp, a saunter (the 1943 Commodore version with Max Kaminsky, Benny Morton, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Bushkin, Eddie Condon, Bob Casey, and Sidney Catlett), and as a yearning love ballad (J. Walter Hawkes, in this century, in live performance).

And four is that there is a Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars concert recorded in Vancouver in 1951.  For whatever reason, Louis was (atypically) not onstage when the concert was supposed to begin, so Barney Bigard, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw, and Cozy Cole just jammed ROSE ROOM for a start — an easy hot performance.  Were I Ricky Riccardi of THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG, http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/, I could share it with you right now, but alas . . . you’ll have to imagine it.

But all that is prose.  How about some music?

Last Sunday, the mighty EarRegulars, the reigning kings of small-band swing who appear at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, 8-11 PM on Sundays — except this next week, Feb. 6, because of some large-scale sporting event whose name eludes me) took on ROSE ROOM late in the first set.

The EarRegulars were charter members, co-founders Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet (in a rousing Eldridge mood); Matt Munisteri, guitar; Neal Miner, bass; and the newcomer to The Ear Inn — but not to New York jazz! — tenor saxophonist Tad Shull, who has a laid-back, coasting behind the beat, relaxed Websterian approach that’s very refreshing.  Here’s what they played (with hints of Webster’s DID YOU CALL HER TODAY in the encouraging conversation between Jon-Erik and Tad at the end):

The Ear Inn is dark, but it was sunny Roseland for ten minutes!

REMEMBER: ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!  SO PLEASE CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

SPREADING JOY at THE EAR INN (Jan. 16, 2011)

It’s wonderful to spread joy.  To me, the concept doesn’t mean acting silly or buying someone a greeting card to send good cheer: it means something larger, creating beauty and sharing it so that other people become deeper and more enlightened.

Readers of JAZZ LIVES won’t be surprised when I say that the EarRegulars and friends spread joy splendidly on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011 (from 8-11 PM).  As always, they did it at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City. 

The regular EarRegulars (what pleasure it is to write that!) were Jon-Erik Kellso, trying out a Thirties Conn trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar and vocalizations, both singular.  Then we had Mark Lopeman on tenor sax and clarinet and Neal Miner on string bass — both quietly eloquent, nimble individualists.  Later, the heroic Pete Martinez brought his clarinet!  (In a prior post, I’ve offered the three vocal performances at the end of the evening — by Tamar Korn and Jerron Paxton, with the addition of yet another clarinetist, Bob Curtis.)

But here is some genuine Hot Jazz to warm you up, spiritually and any other way.

WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS is one of those songs that works wonderfully at a number of tempos, from the yearning Bix-and-Tram version (and even slower when performed by Peter Ecklund) to the jogging Kansas City Six (1938) version with Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Eddie Durham or Charlie Christian, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones.  I didn’t bring my metronome, so I can’t tell where the EarRegulars romp fits in, but it nearly lifted me out of my seat.  Hear the four players cascade, each one in his own way:

I associate BALLIN’ THE JACK with the Blue Note Jazzmen — also, oddly, with a vocal version done in the late Forties by Danny Kaye, someone who could swing in his own fashion when he decided to put the clowning aside.  The song — an ancient let’s-learn-to-do-this-dance by Chris Smith — has one of the most seductive verses I know of, and it was a thrill to hear the EarRegulars wend their way through it.  Hear how Jon-Erik balls the jack into his first solo chorus:

Mark, Matt, and Neal took time to consider OLD FOLKS, that loving Willard Robison meditation on a much-loved elder member of the family:

Because Mark Lopeman’s band director was in the house and TIGER RAG was the school fight song (what a hip place indeed!) Jon-Erik suggested it.  This version is compact (four players rather than thirteen) but it growls and frolics just as energetically.  Listen to Lopeman (when is someone going to offer him a chance to do a CD under his own name, please?): he rocks!

James P. Johnson’s OLD-FASHIONED LOVE is, to me a combination of a secular hymn to sweet fidelity given a down-home flavor.  I first heard it on the Vic Dickenson Showcase, so many years ago, and it’s never left me.  And I like the old-fashioned kind, I do, I do — as do the monogamous fellows of the ensemble.  You can hear it in their playing!  (It occurs to me that Matt’s tangy twang evokes not only the Mississippi Delta but also George Barnes, whose single-note lines consisted of notes that snapped and crackled.  And those wonderful exchanges between Jon-Erik and Neal — a bassist whose solos have strength and resonance.)

The irreplaceable Chris Flory (just returning to action after an accident — we’re so glad he’s back, intact!) took Matt’s place for HAPPY FEET, a song that has the distinction of being connected with Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, THE KING OF JAZZ, Fletcher and Horace Henderson, Red Allen, Dicky Wells, Fred Astaire — quite a pedigree (as opposed to “pedicure,” although witty Jon-Erik ends his solo with a kick at TICKLE-TOE!):

And I end this posting with the universal expression of desire (the second movement of the EarRegulars Happiness Suite), I WANT TO BE HAPPY, its delight intensified by a visit from Pete Martinez, who is beyond compare.  And the “Flory touch” at the start is completely remarkable; the riffs behind Pete are pure Louis, always a good thing:

I call that joy, don’t you?

GREAT MINDS THINK ALIKE! — at THE EAR INN (Nov. 14, 2010)

Two reeds and a rhythm section! 

Not the sweet crooning of Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, the jostling-around of Bechet and Mezzrow, or the outright can-you-top-this of Soprano Summit and Summit Reunion.

No.  Dare I say it . . . something better.  Dan Block (clarinet and tenor), Pete Martinez (clarinet), Matt Munisteri (guitar), and Jon Burr (bass).  Cornetist John Bucher looked in for a brief visit, but otherwise it was a reeds-and-rhythm soiree, and a very lovely one at that. 

When I listen to these performances again, I think of songbirds having a deep conversation, or vines intertwining, gracefully and ardently.  Four of the most thoughtfully compatible jazz improvisers, reveling in the sounds they could make together, their lines complementing and completing each other’s spur-of-the-minute inventions, never colliding or overriding.   

Dan and Pete admire each other too much to be competitive, so the ensembles were riffing contrapuntal delights rather than a cutting contest between their Albert system clarinets (thanks to Michael McQuaid for the identification), and when Dan picked up the tenor, it was jazz with a great deal of swinging courtesy: “You play the melody and I’ll improvise around it, and then we’ll switch.” 

And the other members of the quartet were having a wonderful time: Jon and Matt, working hard, creating long lines and rocking propulsion.  Don’t let the darkness of their corner at The Ear make you miss out on the strong melodies they create!

Here’s a sample of the delights last Sunday at The Ear Inn (that’s 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City):

Although the dawn wouldn’t break over Soho for hours to come, Dan suggested MARIE:

Fats Waller’s encomium about his Baby (complete with exultant verse), I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY:

A logical development on the amorous theme, a slow, swaying LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, with nods to its early, memorable singer (Mr. Crosby) and improviser (Mr. Russell):

Hark, a hot cornetist — over my shoulder!  John Bucher joins in for THREE LITTLE WORDS, with riffs that evoke the 1943 Commodore recording with Lester Young and the Kansas City Six:

RUSSIAN LULLABY is a song near to my heart — it works well at so many tempos, and has echoes of Ed Hall, Ruby Braff, Teddy Wilson, Joe Thomas, and Vic Dickenson attached to it (what could be wrong?) — and this version is a classic on its own terms:

And an extra minute, too good to leave out:

Dan Block suggested I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY (or BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES) which turned out to be an excellent idea:

In keeping with the generally romantic repertoire and Dan’s love of Irving Berlin, A PRETTY GIRL IS LIKE A MELODY:

Memorable creative improvisation — with more surprises to come!

FOR EDDIE at 105

That’s Eddie Condon, born 105 years ago today. 

This filmed performance of ROYAL GARDEN BLUES — from the 1964 ABC-TV show, SALUTE TO EDDIE CONDON — doesn’t harm anyone, even though Eddie was present only in spirit.  The celebrants are Wild Bill Davison, cornet; Ed Hall, clarinet; Cutty Cutshall, trombone; George Wettling, drums; Willie “the Lion” Smith, piano, cigar, and derby; Al Hall, bass:

And another fast blues — this one from 1938 with Bobby Hackett, cornet; George Brunis, trombone; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Bud Freeman, tenor; Jess Stacy, piano; Eddie, guitar; Artie Shapiro, bass; Wettling, drums:

To be remembered with affection is a great thing, and it’s how we feel about Eddie and the musical worlds he created.

FLOATING: A MASTER CLASS (The Ear Inn, Nov. 8, 2010)

NPR wasn’t there.  PBS was off covering something else.  Too bad for them.

But last Sunday night, The EarRegulars offered a master class at The Ear Inn.  Anyone could attend. 

Their subject?  Duke Ellington called it “bouncing buoyancy,” his definition for the irresistible levitation that swinging jazz could produce.  I call it floating — the deep mastery of rhythm, line, and invention that one hears in Louis, Lester, Benny Carter, Jack Teagarden, Jo Jones, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, and on and on. 

The audience at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street in Soho, New York City) may not have known what they were hearing, but I am sure it was absorbed osmotically into their very cells.   

And who are these masters, teaching by example?  The co-founders of The EarRegulars, Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri, on trumpet and guitar, joined by bassist Neal Miner and someone I’d only heard about, tenor saxophonist Alex Hoffman, a young man who’s already playing splendidly.  (Look him up at http://www.alexhoffman.com.) 

Later in the evening a whole reed section dropped by, one by one: Andy Faber, tenor; Dan Block, alto; Pete Martinez, clarinet.

Here are a few highlights.  Check yourself to find that you’re still touching the chair seat:

I THOUGHT ABOUT YOU, that pretty rhythm ballad — most of us know it as “I TOOK A TRIP ON A TRAIN,” and so on:

MY WALKING STICK is a wonderful minor-rock with the best pedigree — an Irving Berlin song recorded once by Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers, then, forty years later, by Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins.  This version is the twenty-first century’s delightful continuation, with Professor Kellso walking with his plunger mute:

Another pretty song that rarely gets played is UNDER A BLANKET OF BLUE — the ballad Frank Chace loved.  I know it from versions by Louis, Hawkins, and Connee Boswell, not a meek triumvirate:

Caffeine always helps focus and energize, as does this version of TEA FOR TWO, with Andy Farber joining in.  I don’t quite understand the initial standing-up-and-sitting-down, but perhaps it was The EarRegulars Remember Jimmie Lunceford:

How about some blues?  Better yet, how about a greasy Gene Ammons blues?  Here’s RED TOP, Dan Block leaping in (top right).  Matt Munisteri’s dark excavations made me think of Tiny Grimes, but Matt goes beyond the Master here:

And here’s the rocking conclusion:

Finally, those singers and players who take on HOW AM I TO KNOW often do it at the Billie Holiday Commodore tempo, stretching out the long notes.  But it works even better as a medium-tempo romper: Pete Martinez, seated on a barstool to my left, adds his particular tart flavorings:

And the final tasty minute and twenty-six seconds:

Seminars held every Sunday, 8 – 11 PM . . . no course prerequisites!

ANDY SCHUMM LEADS THE WAY at CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 18, 2010)

If you’ve been reading this blog even casually, the name Andy Schumm — the hot cornet / piano man from Milwaukee — will not be new to you.  And he continues to offer surprises: his fine, ringing lead; his well-chosen tempos; his deep immersion in the repertoire; the ease with which he melds the heroic choruses of the recordings we’ve all come to treasure with his own improvisations . . . and more.

Here’s the first set he led at the 2010 Jazz at Chautauqua, a fine, compact outing.  It says a great deal about Andy and the respect that his peers offer him that he was so capably able to get all these personalities — these veteran musicians, for the most part, men of strong opinions — going in his direction.  And that says that his direction pleased them and it was right!  

The band had its own delightful reed section in Bobby Gordon, clarinet, and Dan Block, tenor sax and (wonderfully on WHISPERING), bass clarinet; a one-man trombone section in Bob Havens, and a bouncing rhythm team of John Sheridan, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Jon Burr, bass (Jon fits in everywhere!); Arnie Kinsella, drums.

Andy began with CRAZY RHYTHM, properly not too fast, with Bobby in a wailing Pee Wee Russell mood:

He then called WHISPERING, such a pretty melody (I applaud the inventions of Dizzy and Bird but always hear WHISPERING poking through GROOVIN’ HIGH), where Dan Block picks up his bass clarinet and steals the show until Bobby reminds us of late Lester Young — wandering yet hopeful:

What would a a session be without some homage, large or small, to Louis?  Here, Andy’s idea was a rocking WEARY BLUES, with all the strains of this 1927 favorite firmly in place — fine leadership here:

And, to close, the old anthem to the-eyes-are-the-windows-of-the-soul metaphysical conceit, THEM THERE EYES.  Don’t miss John Sheridan’s romping, tumbling stride chorus:

What a band!  I thought of a Hackett group — from any period — crossed with a Condon Town Hall concert with some Keynote spices and a touch of Fifties Vanguard.  And although it might seem immodest, I keep revisiting these video performances, grinning and bobbing rhythmically in front of the computer, no doubt to the astonishment of my neighbors, should any of them climb a ladder to peer into my second-floor window.

BOBBY GORDON, POET-AT-LARGE

Over the past half-dozen years, it’s been a rare pleasure to see and hear Bobby Gordon at Jazz at Chautauqua.  Without making a fuss about it or announcing himself unduly, he has always been one of the poets of jazz — and not simply of the clarinet.  He takes his own unpredictable ways to get where he’s going, and when he arrives you find the journey has been both moving and surprising. 

It’s not surprising that one of Bobby’s clarinet heroes is that rare explorer Pee Wee Russell — but Bobby is too much in touch with his own essence to copy Russell’s leaps and weavings.  Bobby’s approach is also tempered by the deep-blue sounds and thought patterns of the great but not well-remembered Joe Marsala, a consummate melodist who much admired Jimmie Noone.

Here at Jazz at Chautauqua Bobby was joined by the nimble and down-home pianist Keith Ingham (who has wonderful stories of a career that began when he was a mere boy alongside the finest American and British improvisers), the splendidly multi-instrumental Vince Giordano, here toting his aluminum string bass, and the man of mysterious percussive rumbles and swooshes, Arnie Kinsella.  If they sound a little bit like Joe Sullivan / Jess Stacy / Artie Shapiro / Bob Casey / George Wettling / Dave Tough, we don’t mind at all.

Bobby began with a pretty but mobile AT SUNDOWN, a song recorded by an Eddie Condon group back in the halcyon Commodore days:

Another performance with a Commodore pedigree is KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW, homage to Fats as well:

A tribute to the later life of Charles Ellsworth Russell (and his friend Nat Pierce), PEE WEE’S BLUES:

Keith, for his feature, thought of the brilliant and much-missed Mel Powell, who wrote this piece as a tribute to Earl Hines when Mel was with the Benny Goodman band — it’s THE EARL:

And Bobby closed his set with a limpid MY MELANCHOLY BABY, in honor of that pretty tune and of Joe Marsala, too:

Bobby’s style is so thoughtful, his voice so human — jazz poetry that comes straight from his heart.

“MKG and FRIENDS” (Feb. 6, 2010)

Another jazz gift from some brilliant musicians, ably captured by Rae Ann Berry!

MKG and Friends, on February 6, 2010, at the Sounds of Mardi Gras in Fresno, California.

That new acronym, translated, adds up to MARC Caparone, cornet; KATIE Cavera, guitar; GEORGIA Korba, bass; along with Mike Baird, alto sax; Chris Tyle, clarinet and vocal; Ray Skjelbred, trombone; Jeff Hamilton, drums; and Carl Sonny Leyland, piano.

They were intended to perform as a trio, but this happy aggregation just grew, in a friendly way.  The overall ambiance reminds me of a late-Thirties record session (the Varsity Seven with Benny Carter, Joe Marsala, Coleman Hawkins, and George Wettling), or a Lionel Hampton Victor, perhaps a Keynote band — the same loose, groovy feeling.  Two of the musicians are happily and ambitiously playing instruments they aren’t always associated with: Ray is well-known on piano, Chris on trumpet and drums.  But their knowledge and love of the music comes through powerfully.

Speaking of “powerfully,” might I suggest that readers who aren’t on the West Coast or who aren’t familiar with his work need to pay close attention to Marc Caparone, whose hot playing is a highlight of this set and of the New El Dorado Jazz Band.  Rough or polished, intense or pretty, he’s a great trumpet player, subtle or driving.  He loves the obvious Masters, but you’ll hear a good deal of those glorious eccentrics Red Allen and Jim Goodwin in his ferocities. 

And I’ve singled out the nifty Jeff Hamilton for praise at other times in this blog — but he’s having a wonderful time here, getting the sounds out of a drum kit that say Swing Is Here.

Here is a spirited reading of Walter Donaldson’s MY BUDDY, originally written as a lament — but that was before Hawk (in France) and Hamp (in the US) latched on to it.  Wow!

Here’s another lament, defined by Katie Cavera as “the saddest song” she knows — NOBODY CARES IF I’M BLUE.  It’s not true, Katie — we would worry about you if the lyrics were true.  Could we make you some soup or a cup of tea?  

I delight in her girlish angst, as if Annette Hanshaw had somehow found herself in the Vocalion studios circa 1937, and in the ghosts floating through this performance — not only Pee Wee Russell and Red Allen but Sandy Williams or J. C. Higginbotham. 

DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME reminds me of Vic Dickenson, who liked it, and of Jon-Erik Kellso, who continues to do so.  A rocking performance of a sweet old tune, it has the sound of a Condon Town Hall Concert — with Jeff’s splashing cymbal summoning up Mr. Dave Tough, his accents suggesting Wettling or Catlett. 

Here’s something pretty and winsome from the singular Dawn Lambeth, who takes AS LONG AS I LIVE at the easy, convincing tempo she likes (with deep-down work from Marc, who seconds the emotions).  Nobody sounds like Dawn, and the embellishments she creates in her second chorus are delightful:

Time for something slow and romantic, a dance for the lovers, explicated by Dawn: hold your Beloved tight as Dawn and the band do BLUE MOON:

For the pastoral poets among us, a song I associate with Duke Ellington, Louis and the Mills Brothers: IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE.  Dawn brings Nature inside for a few minutes:

A rocking boogie-inflected version of ST. LOUIS BLUES:

Finally, a swinging version of LINGER AWHILE, entirely in the spirit:

“Groovy!” I thought to myself, in its pre-1967 meaning.  You could look it up.

O KATHARINA!

After reading Hal Smith’s insightful piece on just how Sid Catlett plays on the 1943 record of O KATHARINA, I found myself wondering about this song that Eddie Condon had remembered as a special favorite of Bix Beiderbecke’s.

Or, to put it another way, who was KATHARINA and why did she make someone go OH?  Or “O”?

Online I found the song’s lyrics (courtesy of the Duke University Libraries).  Music by Richard Fall, lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert.  Gilbert is known for WAITING FOR THE ROBERT E. LEE and RAMONA. 

Readers of tender sensibilities will find that the cheerful anti-feminist and “weightist” stereotypes of the time offensive, but right now I am trying to sing along . . . with only limited success.  I believe, incidentally, that the song has three parts — a “patter” section before the verse and chorus.  

 

O KATHARINA

Again we have the Chauve Souris

They come to us from ‘cross the sea

With something new they always do

For me and you

A new contagious melody

The rage of London and Paree

They brought along

And now this song is going strong

For Balieff instructs them all

He makes you sing it with him

Before you go you’re bound to know

The melody and rhythm

And then next day while on your way

You hum and sing and long to play

 

Oh Heinie sailed from Rotterdam

He stopped off first at Amsterdam

To meet his bride then side by side

They took the ride across the sea

To Yankee land

He furnished up a flat so grand

And there she sat

So big and fat

Down at their flat

One night he took his wiffie out

They went to see the Follies

He thought that she was such a queen

Until he saw those Dollies

When they got home

He shook his head

Then to his wife he turned and said

 

Chorus:

 

O Katharina, O Katharina

O Katharina, O Katharina, to keep my love you must be leaner

There’s so much of you and 

Two could love you

Learn to swim, join a gym, eat farina

O Katharina, unless you’re leaner I’ll have to build a big arena

You’re such a crowd, my Katharine

I got a lot when I got you.

(In the second chorus, a summary tells me, Katharina loses weight and gets so appealing that all Heinie can say, admiringly, is “O KATHARINA!”  In the spirit of fairness, we never find out how much he weighs.  The patriarchy set to music and all that, of course.)

Delving deeper into these matters, I asked Lorna Sass — jazz photographer by night, Grain Goddess and Queen of Pressure Cooking by day — for her opinion of farina.  She told me that perhaps Gilbert needed an easy rhyme for the heroine’s name.  “Farina isn’t a diet food,” she said, “but maybe it was healthier than what Katharina usually ate.  But farina isn’t a whole grain — too much is removed in the processing to make it shelf-stable forever.”  (That’s Lorna’s award-winning WHOLE GRAINS EVERY DAY, EVERY WAY.)

I’m surprised and amused that “join a gym” was a common phrase as far back as 1924. 

The sheet music advertises O KATHARINA as an all-purpose song: “Walk-Around One-Step Song or Shimmy Fox-Trot,” which covers all the possibilities.  And since it was part of the CHAUVE-SOURIS (“The Bat”) touring revue supervised by Balieff, this song is an early example of a piece of art referring to itself, very modernistic for the time.     

I can hear Bix and the Wolverines taking this one on, and perhaps Joe Oliver had his own version — Jess Stacy remembered Papa Joe playing UKULELE LADY, so he was not averse to pop songs of the day.  Hal Smith thinks of Doc Cook and Freddie Keppard: the bands must have had a good time with this one.  (There’s a Sam Wooding recording of the tune made in Berlin in 1925, available on the Red Hot Jazz website.)

P.S.  Hooray for “finding-out-new-things,” a gratifying activity that doesn’t stop when you graduate . . . !

SIDNEY CATLETT AT 100

A  jazz blog like this one might easily become necrological– mourning the deaths of musicians and jazz scholars or sadly celebrating players who have been dead a long time.  It’s a battle to tear one’s eyes away from the rear-view mirror and focus on the present.  But since I do not expect to see the celebrations for Big Sid Catlett’s two-hundredth birthday, readers will forgive me. 

Sidney Catlett was born on January 17, 1910 and died before I was born.  I don’t believe in “the best,” but Big Sid might well be The Master — at least Max Roach thought so, as did Jo Jones.  Beyond legend, there is the recorded evidence: he could play propulsively and eloquently with Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Don Byas, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, Mildred Bailey, Art Tatum, Oscar Pettiford, Buck Clayton, Ben Webster . . . and those are only the recorded performances I can call to mind.

Ruby Braff remembered that when he listened to Louis Armstrong’s records with their creator, Louis said to him, “There’s that Catlett again!  Seems like he was on every swinging record I ever made.” 

But being versatile, in itself, is not enough: many musicians have been versatile without being particularly distinguished.  What made Sidney Catlett so special? 

For one thing, his instantly recognizable beat.  Even simply keeping time — using one of his seemingly numberless varieties of wire-brush sweep or playing the hi-hat — his time is identifiable.  Whitney Balliett, who first helped me to listen so closely to Sid, noted that Catlett played a fraction ahead of the beat — many drummers find the best and sit right down on it — but Sid’s time seemed to urge the band forward in the most jubilant way, although he didn’t ever rush.

Along with that beat there is his gallery — or galaxy — of sounds.  His drums sound alive.  The snap of his closed hi-hat.  The seductive come-with-me of his brushwork.  The thump of his tom-toms.  The masterful NOW! of a Catlett rimshot.  Drummers of the Forties and beyond tried to copy him and some came close to capturing the broadest outlines of his style — J.C. Heard for one — but their sounds are somehow flatter, narrower, more monochromatic.  So his sound is immediately identifiable — dance music, no matter what the context. 

As with all the great artists, much of Sidney’s mastery is not just in what he did — but what he wisely chose not to do. 

Many drummers, then and now, play at the same volume as the horns.  Sidney knew how to play very softly — which made his thundering climaxes so impressive.  Some drummers insist on filling up all the spaces.  Or they accent every note, enthusiastically but unthinkingly.  The result gets tiresome before a chorus is over, rather like a forest of exclamation marks or someone with a point to make who emphasizes every word. 

Sidney knew when not to play, when not to dramatize, when not to continue the pattern.  There were exceptions: I think of Lou McGarity’s bridges on Benny Goodman records, where Sidney, either enjoying McGarity’s exuberance or wanting to push him along, drives the rhythm section along with relentless accents that could fell a sequoia.  But Catlett understood space and variety, and surprise.  He was a great dramatist behind his drums. 

So his percussive world sounds undated — springy, elegant, and funky.  The listener says, “That’s Big Sid!” but that awareness isn’t because Catlett thrusts himself to the forefront; rather, it was because he makes his fellow musicians sound better than they themselves thought possible.

I’ve been admiring his playing for as long as I can remember — one of my earliest musical experiences was hearing Louis’s RCA Victor TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, and delighting in the way Sid pushed everyone along on AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’.  Later, I heard him with the Blue Note Jazzmen and every jazz group I could find.  But he continues to amaze.

“Amaze?” you say.    

As an experiment, take any record on which Sid plays a particularly engaging, swinging part (that would be ALL of them) and listen to it once.  Admire the sounds he makes, the comments he provides, the support he gives to the band.  Then, play it again, and try to anticipate his shifts, his accents.  Experienced listeners will be able to divine some of the general motions — here, Sid will shift to the hi-hat; here’s a break coming up.  But if you try to play his accents along with him, it’s nearly impossible.  Sid’s pulsing work, his amazing accompaniment, is never rote.  I would suggest ROYAL GARDEN BLUES by Edmond Hall and the Blue Note Jazzmen — his playing is stirring, as is his work on the recently discovered 1945 Town Hall concert with Bird and Diz. 

His music is amazingly generous.  He lived a very short life and his recorded career is only slightly over two decades.  But he gave so much to his fellow musicians and to us that it seems as if he played more — and at a higher level — than the musicians who lived longer.

And he mastered the problem of being a forceful individualist while serving the community with every breath.  A question of Ego, if you will.  Catlett shouts for joy, but he does it so the band is even more joyous as a result.   

He died backstage at a concert, his arms around Helen Humes, telling her a funny story.  An admirable death, I think.  A a life well-lived. 

Jim Denham, on his fine blog, SHIRAZ SOCIALIST, has just written a tribute to Sidney: http://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/big-sid-b17-jan-1910-d25-march-1951/

Ricky Riccardi really understands the majesty of Sidney: http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2010/01/celebrate-big-sid-catletts-centennial.html

And, or those seeking legal ecstasy, there’s a live ROYAL GARDEN BLUES from 1948:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2009/09/one-hot-garden.html

Ricky also sent this from British jazz drummer John Petters — information about BBC radio programs about Sidney:

 Here are two programmes about this sensational musician this Saturday:
The Late Paul Barnes @ 23:00 on BBC Cambrideshire, Essex, Kent, Norfolk, Northampton, Suffolk & Three Counties. (Paul celebrates the
Django Reinhardt Centenary next week)

The live link on line will be:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/playlive/bbc_radio_norfolk/

and from Sunday until the following Saturday on Iplayer:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p002mhdx

And Alyn Shipton discusses Big Sid with drummer Richard Pite on ‘Jazz Library’ on BBC Radio 3 at 16:00 on Saturday. This is from the Radio 3 website:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ps0sk

The show will be on the BBC iplayer following the broadcast

Big Sid Catlett was arguably one of the most naturally talented percussionists in jazz history. To celebrate Catlett’s centenary in January 2010, Alyn Shipton is joined by drum expert Richard Pite to pick the highlights of a recorded catalogue that includes work with the swing orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the original Louis Armstrong All Stars.

Big Sid Catlett – born 17 January 1910, Evansville, Indiana, USA, died 25 March 1951.

Coda: A word or two about the audio-visual aids.  The Drumerworld video (posted on YouTube, of course) brings together Sidney’s three main filmed appearances (leaving aside JAMMIN’ THE BLUES) — two quickly-made films from 1946-7, SEPIA CINDERELLA and BOY! WHAT A GIRL, with a guest shot by one Gene Krupa, as well as a Soundie of YOU RASCAL YOU by Louis.  I treasure these film clips but find that they need to be absorbed on two levels.  Since musicians were required to pre-record their music and then mimic playing it for the camera, what one hears and what one sees are always slightly out of step . . . so one must be able to adapt to this.  But the games Sidney and Charlie Shavers play . . . !  I have also liberally seasoned this blogpost with what might seem an odd phenomenon: YouTube videos of famous jazz records a-spinning.  For those who did not grow up with vinyl or shellac records, what could be more dull?  But I find it nostalgic in the best way — because I spent so many hours of my childhood and youth staring at the spinning label in a kind of happy trance while the music poured out of the speakers . . . very life-enhancing, and a way of getting Sidney’s sound into this post.

JAMMIN’ AT NICK’S: Jan. 11, 2010

On January 10, 2010, the energetic Rae Ann Berry captured these performances by the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Staff and Directors Band — jamming at Nick’s at Rockaway Beach in Pacifica, California.  It wasn’t the Nick’s of “sizzling steaks” and fabled memory, where Eddie Condon and his friends played before Eddie decided to open his own club in 1946, but the ambiance was the same.  In fact, both selections — SUNDAY and AM I BLUE? — are played at those nice medium tempos that musicians of a certain age and musical education associate with Condon.  And the solos — compact and eloquent — would have pleased him greatly. 

The players are Bob Schulz, cornet; Bill Carter, clarinet; Marty Eggers, piano; Bill Reinhart, bass; Scott Anthony, guitar; and Virginia Tichenor, drums.  It’s possible, if you get into the right mindset, to imagine — in your mind’s ear — that this is a session for Commodore or Decca, with Bob’s serious, flexible lead (Marsala, Max, or Muggsy), Bill’s curlicues (reminiscent of Pee Wee, Cless, or Marsala) and a strong rhythm section driven by Scott’s swinging guitar and Marty’s Stacyish piano.  And — with apologies to the dozen fine trombonists I know — the simple two-man frontline is eager, dancing, and light on its feet.

Ignore the dancers; ignore the conversation: the music’s delightful.  No one was embarking on a studious repertory recreation: they just got in the spirit and stayed there.  All hail!  (And Rae Ann has posted another substantial handful of performances by this band with guest singer Pat Yankee, doing old favorites and Hot Five tunes.  Rewarding stuff!)

“THE RECORD RACK”

About ten days ago, the Beloved and I took a day trip to Lambertville, New Jersey — a town known to some for its proximity to Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

But the Beloved and I like flea markets, and although we have never made it to Lambertville’s flea market at the right just-after-sunrise time to see all its wares spread out at once, we enjoy walking around through the tables of what must now be called “mid-century American vernacular furnishings,” which sometimes translates to the objects you recall from the Fifties and would not want to have in your house, and sometimes it means McCoy pottery, sheet music, and . . . recordings.

The outdoor flea market had little we wanted, so we found ourselves in one of the buildings that surround it, which was called “the Golden Nugget.”  In it, I wandered through an autograph dealer’s shop and poked through bookshelves.  Finding little to interest me on the first floor, I went upstairs, and there, at the end of the corridor, I encountered

THE RECORD RACK

“Vinyl From All Eras”

I’ll say

I saw a great number of neatly arranged 78 rpm records.  Early Pathes.  Albuns of twelve-inch jazz 78s.  Crosby reissues on mid-Forties Brunswick.  A bin full of Commodore recordings from that same period.  Many many swing and dance band and vocal recordings from the late Twenties on to the Fifties.  All of these delights were reasonably priced (a rare record went for eleven dollars; the Commodores were two dollars).

I was thrilled, and although I bought only two items, they were enchanting.  One is a Swaggie vinyl recording of an Australian jazz group — Roger Bell and His Pagan Pipers — featuring Bell’s originals, one of which is fetchingly titled ALL SHE WORE WAS A HECTIC FLUSH. 

The other had a rim crack which had been neatly repaired: it was a 1939 Vocalion by a Johnny Hodges small group.  Incidentally, I believe “goon” comes from a Popeye character, Alice the Goon, which might explain Sammy Price’s THE GOON DRAG.

What was equally delightful was that the young man in charge, Brooke Sudlow, was enthusiastic and well-informed.  We got into conversation about the music I was excited by, and it led to Brooke’s pleasure in listening to and playing Maxine Sullivan — so he is more than a purveyor of old records. 

I do not ordinarily use this blog to plug businesses, but I think that Brooke’s business (he runs it with Pat Doron) deserves your attention.  Here is what we now call “contact information,” and I know if readers are also looking for a mint copy of a Buddy Holly recording, they have a very good chance of finding it through Brooke and Pat . . . fairly priced, too.

Brooke’s phone is 609.712.2751; Pat’s is 609.462.2894.  Someone’s email is footmoon59@yahoo.com., and the Record Rack itself is located at 1850 Route 29, Lambertville, New Jersey 08530.  And those Commodores might still be there . . . !

LISTEN TO GEORGE WETTLING!

The history of jazz is full of musicians, both reliable and inventive, who don’t become stars.  Drummer George Wettling is one of the most neglected, although he had a recording career that lasted more than thirty years, finding him alongside Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, Milt Hinton, Wild Bill Davison, Coleman Hawkins, Wingy Manone, Frank Teschmacher, Joe Thomas, Herman Chittison, Bobby Hackett and a hundred other first-rank players. 

Here’s a film clip of Wettling, playing ROYAL GARDEN BLUES in an all-star Condon group (minus Eddie, who was recovering at the time), featuring Davison, Ed Hall, Cutty Cutshall, Willie the Lion Smith, and Al Hall. 

The cameraman was fascinated by the front line, so we get to see Wettling only intermittently, but we certainly hear his pushing accompaniment, although his playing is anything but overbearing.  Wettling’s style focused on his snare drum, and his rolls and accents, his rimshots and commentary, are drawn from the drummers he heard in Chicago and the Midwest in the Twenties: Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton.  But the style is fluid, not a relentless two-beat, and Wettling continually changes his accents and volume while pushing the band along exuberantly, playing differently behind the full ensemble, behind the Lion, with Hall, propelling the end of Hall’s chorus and playing tag with the emphatic Wild Bill.  Wettling doesn’t demand the listener’s attention by volume or pyrotechnics.  Rather, his drums seem to say, “Listen to us.”  And when we finally get a chance to focus purely on Wettling, in his brief exchanges with Al Hall, it is over too soon — but we can admire his conciseness (not an extra stroke or beat, nothing wasted or superfluous) and his swinging embrace of pure time — he never speeds up or slows down, or loses the thread of the music.  And although his four-bar break is simple, it is a Wettling trademark: how much percussive variety and energy he could put into sixteen beats! 

It’s odd that in jazz, where drummers become stars, Wettling didn’t get his share of attention and adulation.  Musicians knew him and hired him — Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Paul Whiteman, Muggsy Spanier, Jimmy McPartland, Miff Mole, Billy Butterfield, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and he was a first-call studio and recording drummer.  But Wettling didn’t want to lead bands; I sense that he was happy to let someone else handle the audiences, the payroll, the clubowner: he wanted to play, and play he did.  I also suspect that being associated for so long with Eddie Condon, someone with a strong personality, made have put Wettling in the shadows . . . although Condon said once that all he needed for a romping band was Wettling.  And the magnificent drumming that lifts Berigan’s Victor recording of I CAN’T GET STARTED is Wettling’s; hear him, as well, on perhaps seventy-five percent of the Commodore Records classics.

But he’s not well-known these days, which is a pity.  Hear him on the Commodores, on the Doctor Jazz broadcasts, on the Condon Town Hall concerts, on the magnificent Fifties dates Condon did for Columbia.  Put all your preconceptions about formulaic “Dixieland drumming” aside and listen to Wettling — fluid, energetic, responsive, fully engaged and lively.

Here’s that rare thing — three minutes of Wettling solo in the middle Fifties, titled IT AIN’T THE HUMIDITY (IT’S THE BEAT).  No fireworks, no crashing “technique.”  Timeless and hot, the drums singing their own melodies.  

Should you ever encounter Hal Smith, Kevin Dorn, Jeff Hamilton, Chris Tyle, or Nick Ward — ask them, “What do you think of George Wettling?”  And stand back!

I’ve been listening to Wettling for forty years now — he’s on many of my favorite records!  But what made me write this post was a little anecdote I just heard.  A musician I know, now in his seventies, told me that his older brother had been in the audience for Louis Armstrong’s 1947 Town Hall concert, where the drummers were Sidney Catlett and Wettling.  When it was time for Wettling to play, the musician’s brother (seated in the balcony) saw Catlett come upstairs and take a seat — the better to delight in what Wettling was doing and how beautiful it sounded in the hall. 

If it was good enough for Sidney Catlett and Eddie Condon, it should be good enough for all of us!

SWING with NEVILLE, HAL, and TOM!

NEVILLE is the splendid stride and swing pianist Neville Dickie.

HAL is the swinging drummer Hal Smith.

And TOM is Tom Warner — dedicated videographer who caught them at the 2009 West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento, California.  These clips originated on YouTube, where Tom’s channel is “Tdub1941,” a jazz and ragtime cornucopia.   

The marvels of technology — and the marvels of Hot. 

This duo’s interplay reminds me of James P. and Sidney Catlett, of Tut Soper and Baby Dodds, of Joe Sullivan and Zutty Singleton, of Jess Stacy and George Wettling, of Willie the Lion Smith and Jo Jones.  In the ideal world, I’d want all the young pianists to study Neville’s left hand and the rollicking interplay between his treble and bass lines.  I’d want all the young drummers who think that surrounding themselves with mountains of cymbals and tom-toms is the answer to observe the marvelously varied sounds Hal gets out of his snare, wire brushes, sticks, and cymbal.  Less is indeed more!

Here’s STRUT MISS LIZZIE, a song I associate with late Bix and early Commodores:

IF I HAD YOU (with verse) becomes a gliding rhythm ballad with hints of eight-to-the-bar:

CANDY LIPS (whose subtitle is “I’m Stuck On You”) is from the Clarence Williams repertoire.  Here, Hal switches to sticks:

Finally, here’s STREAMLINE TRAIN — an answer to our mass transit problems!

Thanks so much to the players — generous in their creativity and swing — and to Tom, for sharing these treasures with us.  Rock that thing!

CHARLES PETERSON: HACKETT and RUSSELL

image0000007A_007To have the man you consider one of the greatest photographic artists capture your heroes at work and play . . . what could be better?

I am happy to present three of Charles Peterson’s on-the-spot portrait studies of Bobby Hackett and Pee Wee Russell in their native habitat.  Hackett met Russell when Bobby was quite young, and, much later, credited Pee Wee with “teaching him how to drink,” not the best lesson. 

But if you listen to their playing — captured on records for more than twenty-five years — they were busy teaching each other more salutary things.  Standing next to Russell on a bandstand would have been a joyously emboldening experience: “Here, kid, close your eyes and jump off.  Nothing to be afraid of!”  Pee Wee’s willingness to get himself into apparently impossible corners was always inspiring.  “What could possibly go wrong?”  And, for Russell, having Hackett nearby, that sound, those lovely melodies, that sensitivity to the harmonies, would have been soul-enhancing: “Listen to the beautiful chorus the kid just played!” 

The portrait above was taken at one of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s, January 19, 1941, and it presents another Ideal Moment in Time and Space that Peterson captured.  It’s possible that Brad Gowans (playing his “valide,” a combination slide / valve trombone of his own manufacture). Bobby, and Pee Wee are doing nothing more adventurous than holding whole notes behind someone else’s solo: they seem remarkably easy, effortless.  But that would have been enough for me. 

They all look so young.  And — adopting the slang of the period — spiffy.  Pee Wee’s crisp suit, folded pocket handkerchief; Brad’s bowtie; their hair, neatly slicked back.  Of course, the combination of Pee Wee’s height and the low ceiling — as well as the angle of Peterson’s shot — makes the three men seem too big for the room.  Which, in terms of their talent, was always true.

As always with Peterson’s work, I find the details I didn’t catch immediately are as enthralling as the big picture.  There’s another musician on the stand — a drummer I can’t immediately identify.  Is it Zutty Singleton?  He is hidden behind Gowans, both the man and the instrument, and less than half his face is visible.  But from what we can see, he is taking it all in, delighted. 

This photograph, with Eddie Condon’s taciturn caption, “TRIO,” appears in the irreplaceable EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, assembled and edited by Hank O’Neal — one of the many things we have to thank Mr. O’Neal for.

The next view comes from a rehearsal for a Commodore Records date a few years earlier — I believe in the rather claustrophoblic Brunswick studios.   (It seems that every studio of that time except for Victor’s Camden church and Columbia’s Liederkrantz Hall stifled both the sound and the musicians.  That so much stirring jazz was captured in such circumstances makes me agree with Norman Field who said, “Can you imagine what those guys sounded like live?”).  The recognizable figures are again Bobby and Pee Wee, with Bud Freeman to the right.  The man I didn’t recognize until Don Peterson identified him, second from left, is jazz enthusiast and amateur drummer Harry Ely.  This is a rehearsal rather than a jam session, so it’s possible that the three men are trying out chords for a background,  Russell and Freeman are intent, but Hackett is at his ease.  His shirt-sleeve is neatly rolled up (revealing his boyish, thin arm), he holds the horn casually.  Musicians dressed beautifully for recording sessions even when no photographers were present — their habit and custom! — thus the neckties and suspenders, the fresh white shirts. 

image0000008A_008

Here, again, the photograph can’t convey the sound these men made.  And if you were new to the art and had been handed the photograph, it would just seem reasonably antique: three men in archaic dress with instruments to their lips, a metal folding chair, its paint worn off in spots, in front.  But look at Ely’s face!   Head down, a mild smile, eyes closed to block off any visual distraction — although he never got to make a record, he is IN the music, serene and thrilled.

Finally, a photograph from one of the “Friday Club” sessions at the Park Lane Hotel, circa 1939, with an unusual lineup.

image0000009A_009

Of course, that’s Eddie Condon on the left, Hackett, Zutty Singleton at the drums, Jimmy Dorsey on alto sax, left-handed Mort Stuhlmaker at the bass, and the intrepid Mr. Russell on the far right.  Condon is exhorting as well as strumming, and everyone else is floating along (Dorsey watching Condon to see what will happen next). 

Pee Wee has struck out for the Territory, jazz’s Huckleberry Finn, and where he’s going is not only uncharted and exciting but the journey requires every bit of emotional and physical effort.  I can hear a Russell wail soaring above the other horns.  And — perhaps as a prefiguring? — Russell’s face, almost cavernous with the effort, is an unearthly echo-in-advance of the famously skeletal man in the hospital bed in 1951, when Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong came to comfort and solace him. 

After Russell’s death, Hackett wrote of his friend, “Pee Wee and I were very close friends for many years and what little musical knowledge I may have I owe plenty to him.  He was truly a great artist and a very honorable man.  His music will live forever, along with his wonderful spirit.  I’m sure we all miss him, but thank God he was here.”

I feel much the same way about Charles Peterson, who saw, recorded, and preserved marvels for us.

CHARLES PETERSON’S VISION

This is the second part of what I hope will be a long series on the jazz photography of Charles Peterson, who mystically saw the essence of jazz.  00000005

Here’s Peterson the documentary photographer — his casual, offhanded shot of a quartet led by Sidney Bechet, who is characteristically both in command and absolutely at the service of the music he is creating, the experience ecstatic and powerful.  What I find fascinating are the expressions on the faces of his sidemen: Cliff Jackson (whom I remember seeing in later photographs as white-haired) looks up at the Master to see where the currents of music are going; Eddie Dougherty, a wonderful and little-known Brooklyn-born drummer, seems anxious, although he may have only been caught in mid-comment, and Wellman Braud is quietly gleeful, rocking in rhythm.  They seem small objects drawn into Bechet’s vortex.  The photo suggests that any cohesive jazz group forms itself into a unit, but each musician retains his or her essential personality, and in this picture we see the quiet tension between the Selves and the Community.  And this photo brings up another of Peterson’s unintended gifts to us: how many people ever were fortunate enough to be at the Mimo Club in Harlem to hear this quartet, much less at this moment on February 16, 1942?  But — with a substantial record collection, some memory and imagination — we can invent the music that this band is creating. 

00000004

This is a new split-second capture from a famous jazz session and photo shoot: the Commodore Records session of April 20, 1939, where Billie Holiday recorded STRANGE FRUIT, YESTERDAYS, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, and FINE AND MELLOW.  The musicians are bassist Johnny Williams, trumpeter Frank Newton, altoist Stanley Payne, and tenorist Kenneth Hollon.  Billie is holding a long-noted syllable; is it the “Yes” in YESTERDAYS?  And she is very young, very beautiful, also giving herself up to the music, her hands folded, her eyes almost-shut, Peterson’s lighting capturing her mouth, chin, and throat.  What distinguishes this portrait from others at this session is Billie’s lovely and obviously-treasured fur coat.  I find it ironic, seventy years after the session, that there is such a gap between Billie in her fur — which she deserved more than anyone — and the material she sings with such deep emotion.  One song, most famous, describes lynchings in the South; another describes a “fine and mellow” lover who doesn’t treat his woman well; a third and fourth describe bygone happinesses, all gone now, and the blues one sings when one’s lover has left.  And Billie sang these four songs as if her heart would break . . . wearing that fur coat.  Later in the session, of course, she got warm and took it off.  And no doubt the irony didn’t occur to her and she would have laughed it off if someone pointed it out, “Lady, you look too good to be singing those blues!”00000010

Hard at work is all I can say.  The caption states that this is the Summa Cum Laude band — led in part by Bud Freeman, arrangements by valve-trombonist Brad Gowans — performing at Nick’s in December 1938.  The band must be negotiating some serious ensemble passage, for they all look so intent.  Bassist Clyde Newcome stares out into space, as does Pee Wee Russell; Gowans and Freeman, especially Brad, are watching the band warily, or perhaps Brad is reading the music off the stand in the center.  I would guess that the drummer is Al Sidell, but I would hope that it is Stan King* — drummers shuttled in and out of this band.  The rather somber effect of this picture suggests to me that the band is playing one of its medleys of current hits (you can hear them on the airshots in 1939-40 from Chicago’s Panther Room at the Hotel Sherman . . . grown men of this artistic stature playing SIERRA SUE, but what can I say?)  Serious business indeed.  (In his later comment, Mike Burgevin points out that I left out Max Kaminsky.  How did I do this?)  *Don Peterson confirmed that the drummer is indeed Stan King — one of jazz’s entirely forgotten men. 

00000011

This photo lets me imagine a time before I was born when James P. Johnson could wear his pin-stripe suit and play the piano, which is what he was meant to do.  It was taken in 1946, on a “Jazz on the River” cruise organized by Rudi Blesh and Art Hodes to go up and down the Hudson River.  From left, there’s the hand of an unidentified bassist, James P., Baby Dodds, Marty Marsala on trumpet (with the appropriate handkerchief) and guitarist Danny Barker — some of the same crew who turned up on the THIS IS JAZZ radio broadcasts.   But my secret pleasure in this photograph comes from the pretty woman whose head seems (although much smaller) in the same plane as James P.’s.  She is tidily dressed; her cardigan, pulled together at the collar, reveals a neat floral blouse beneath; we sense that she wears a neat wool skirt.  Her eyeglasses gleam in Peterson’s flashbulb; her hair is demure; her modest lipstick is in place.  Her hands are decorously in her lap.  Yet it’s clear — although she is prim, restrained, the last person to whoop and knock over her highball — that she is deeply pleased by what she hears.  As much as Bechet or James P., she is in the grip of the music, wanting it to go on forever. 

00000012

Berenice Abbott told Hank O’Neal that most of photography was having the patience to wait for the right moment.  I’ll end this series with a superbly right moment — with only two musicians, Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett, playing at the “Friday Club” jam sessions held at the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan — this one on February 17, 1939.  Hackett here is much as I remember him, up close, in 1972: a small, slender man, neatly dressed, dark eyebrows, thin wrists with black hair on them.  Here he is all of 24, and so small that while standing he is only inches taller than Condon, sitting.  The expression on his face might be a smile or it might be that he is working hard to bring off a particular nuanced phrase.  But our attention is drawn to Condon, also young and healthy.  Condon called Hackett “The Impostor,” because — with his peculiarly ornate wit, he said “Nobody can be that good.”  The teasing compliment almost slips away, but you get the point.  What is more important in this picture — more than Condon’s neat attire — is his grin, his head turned in delight and pleasure and admiration towards Hackett, who is clearly playing something marvelous, inimitable, lovely.  Condon is astonished by what he’s hearing, but he’s expected no less from Bobby.  This photograph captures the joy (and the labor) of this music better than any prose. 

Thank you, Charles Peterson!

P.S.  It didn’t surprise me that Peterson’s offspring were particularly talented in music, film, and writing.  His daughter, Karen Yochim, a successful country-and-western songwriter, lives in Louisiana, has written extensively about Cajun culture for newspapers and magazines — and is branching out as a crime novelist.  Peterson’s granddaughter Schascle “Twinkle” Yochim (her name is Cajun, pronounced “Suh-Shell”) is a professional singer with several CDs, concentrating on soul, rock, and to a limited extent, country-and-western. She’s also a songwriter, with songs accepted in feature films currently in production.  

After a career in the Navy, Peterson’s son, Don, worked for the Navy Department in Washington, DC, doing motion picture & television scriptwriting.  Don also wrote scripts for many film and television productions.  He retired in 1986 and now concentrates on marketing his father’s photographic legacy, most lavishly accessible in the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.

CHARLES PETERSON, JAZZ VISIONARY

Jazz owes a great deal to people who never take a chorus: Milt Gabler and Lucille Armstrong, Norman Granz and Helen Oakley Dance.  And Charles Peterson. 

Long before I knew anything about Charles Peterson, I admired the photography and artistic sensibility.  Because photographs get reprinted without attribution, I had seen much of his work without knowing it was his.  That is, until the fine book SWING ERA NEW YORK: THE JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES PETERSON (Temple University Press, 1994) appeared, with priceless shots by Peterson and commentary by W. Royal Stokes.  (The book is now officially out of print, but copies are available from the usual online sources.)  

Between 1935 and 1951, his camera and flashbulbs ready, Peterson went to jazz clubs, parties, concerts, and recording sessions.  That in itself would be enough, but he also approached his subjects in subtle, ingenious ways.  He avoided the formulaic full-frontal studio portraits or the equally hackneyed poses that jazz musicians are forced into.  He saw what other photographers didn’t. 

Granted, he had wonderful visual material to work with.  Many jazz musicians are unconsciously expressive, even dramatic, when they play, sing, or listen; many of them have eloquently unusual faces.

But who was Charles Peterson?

His son, Don, who takes such good care of his father’s invaluable prints and negatives, told me about his father’s fascinating life.  And, not incidentally, the photographs that follow are reproduced with Don’s permission. 

Charles Peterson wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, just off Fifty-Second Street.  Rather, he was born to Swedish wheat farmers in Minnesota on January 3, 1900.  On a trip to New Orleans while he was still in high school, he bought himself a banjo in a pawnshop.  Musically self-taught, he spent his college years playing local dance halls and summer resort hotels.  By 1926, he was such an accomplished jazz player on guitar and banjo that he was part of a band with a residency at the Dacotah Hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The band was so good that its stars were raided for big bands as far away as Chicago — bands whose leaders were alumni of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

Peterson had what they called “pluck” in those days, and drove his Mercer Raceabout to New York City to interview for job in publishing.  But once there he followed his love of music, and he met Pee Wee Russell and many of Russell’s Chicago colleagues and friends — including one Eddie Condon.  He and Pee Wee shared a room and Peterson worked with first-string hot jazz players including Wingy Manone.  But hot jazz didn’t pay well, and Peterson found steady employment with Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees, a successful but much more staid group.  Married and with a son, Peterson looked for a steady job instead of one-nighters on the road.  With the money he had saved from Vallee, where he had been earning $300 a week in the Depression, Peterson took a year off to study photography at the Clarence White School — on the recommendation of Edward Steichen (Peterson had met Steichen when Steichen was photographing the Connecticut Yankees for Vanity Fair. 

Peterson’s knowledge of the music business and his friendship with musicians were invaluable, and he was at the right place and moment in history — not simply because he took rooms above the Onyx Club.  He began with portraits and publicity shots, then moved to capturing jazz players and singers in action — Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and dozens of others in big bands and small, jam sessions and apartment get-togethers.  His photographs were prominently featured in multi-page spreads in LIFE and other glossy magazinesDon remembers that while he was a fifth-grader at the progressive Walt Whitman School, his father assembled a jazz band to play for the students and their families in an informal concert that began at 1 PM and went on into the evening.  The participants?  Only Louis Armstrong, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton — all Peterson’s friends. 

During the Second World War, Peterson’s jazz photography came to a halt, and after the war, although he photographed Ella Fitzgerald and Terry Gibbs, Buck Clayton, Joe Bushkin, the Red Norvo Trio, and his friends at Eddie Condon’s club, his career gradually came to a close in 1951.  Peterson wasn’t fond of modern jazz and had moved, with his wife, to a small farm in Pennsylvania.  He had many interests outside music and photography, and devoted himself to them — from farming to literature to metalwork and boats — until his death in 1976.   

Here are photographs by Charles Peterson that have not been published anywhere else — the first of several installments.

The first one isn’t a classic photo, but we need to the man himself — in the best company.  Peterson sometimes liked to include himself in the shot, so he would set up his camera, arrange the photograph, and ask a competent anonymous amateur to press the button.  He did just that on December 29, 1940, capturing himself and Pee Wee Russell at a private party in what I assume is a New York City apartment.  It is a candid snapshot: I imagine Peterson saying to someone, “Hey, take a picture of Pee Wee and myself,” and the person holding the camera has waited a beat too long.  Pee Wee’s amused expression is beginning to freeze; surely he would rather have lit the cigarette in his hand.  Peterson himself is caught in the middle of saying something perhaps under his breath, which I imagine as “Press the button already.”  A professional photographer wouldn’t have made this a trio of Peterson, Rinso, and Russell, either.  But we see Peterson in his natural surroundings, someone who could have been taken for a handsome, sharply-dressed character actor in a current film.  

00000008

The next photograph moves both Peterson and readers away from boxes of crackers and detergent to a much more emotionallycharged space: the recording studio used by the newly-hatched Blue Note record label for the Port of Harlem Seven session on June 8, 1939.  Peterson was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of recording sessions — his friends were playing and everyone hoped that a Peterson photograph might be published in a major magazine.  (One of his most famous photographs is of drummer Zuty Singleton at a 1938 session for the Hot Record Society, featuring Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, and Freddie Green!) 

Peterson captured the whole Port of Harlem Seven — including Frank Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Williams, Teddy Bunn — in action, but he chose in this shot to concentrate on Sidney Bechet, who would eventually give up the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, and Sidney Catlett.   

00000001

 In this photograph, it is June, and although musicians typically kept their suits and hats on while recording, Catlett has come prepared to exert himself, dressed for hot work in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt that seems more country than town, with suspenders that pull his suit trousers up beyond what we might think of as comfortable.  If there was any doubt as to why he was called “Big Sid,” this photo should act as silent testimony to breadth as well as height: his shoulders, the solidity of his upper arms, even though the fingers of his right hand are holding the drumstick gracefully and delicately, the suggestions of Native American bone structure in his face. 

Catlett’s mouth is part-open, and unlike the first photograph, where it seems that Peterson is inadvertently caught speaking, here Catlett is clearly exhorting, cheering Bechet on.  “Yeaaaaaahhh,” he says, quietly intent.  Bechet’s eyes are half-closed; his necktie seems a montage of mock-neon letters; he holds the clarinet at a distinct angle.  His arm, or perhaps the clarinet, casts a dark shadow across the canvas that is his white dress shirt.  (The angle itself is suggestive: Bechet said that he gave up the clarinet because the vibrations hurt his dental work.  Does this picture capture him in pain, working hard to play that most difficult of single-reed instruments?) 

What Peterson understood, even in the restrictive confines of the recording studio, where the photographer has no control over what his subjects are doing — this is obviously the very opposite of a “posed” shot — was the possibilities of shadow and light.  Figuring out what the camera and the flashbulb would make bright, half-bright, dim, or black, determined much more about the total effect of the shot. 

Look closely at Catlett’s three cymbals — from the left, a Chinese cymbal, then in right foreground a ride cymbal, and apparently submerged beneath it, the top of his hi-hat: three pieces of  round metal, all except the Chinese tapering down from a center cap to their edge.  Without noticing it at first, the viewer takes in the different visual textures of the three: the Chinese cymbal, its surface not flat but rather a series of small convexities, appearing dark and light, “like gold to airy thinness beat”; the top of the ride bymbal, although not grooved, reflecting light much like the grooves of a 78 rpm record; the hi-hat, darkly hidden beneath it.  The viewer senses the shadowing of Catlett’s face, highlighting the texture of his skin, the solidity of his skull, and the dark shadow on the studio wall.  

Peterson’s photographs have resonant depth, unlike our modern digital snapshots of groups of people that make their subjects look like cardboard figures flattened against the wall.  Nothing is blurred, even though these two men are in motion; one imagines the exultant, gutty sounds they make.   00000002

Many photographs of trumpet players catch them straight-on, their faces wracked with the effort of hitting a high note.  Foreshortening makes them look tiny behind the bell of their horn.  This June 1939 photograph, taken from the side, catches Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom as he takes a breath between multi-noted phrases.  Taking in air, he appears to be smiling, and it’s a good possibility he is.  To his right, tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson is clapping his hands, an arranged routine — the band marking time rhythmically as Eldridge, in the best Louis manner, hits some high ones at the climax of a hot number.  The bassist, who may be Ted Sturgis, is concentrating, as is the guitarist.  Jackson’s section-mate in the reeds is also keeping time enthusiastically.  Peterson has framed his shot so that Eldridge and his horn are central, an upturned capital letter L, with all the light focused on that silvery mute, where all the energy was focused.  Luckily for us, this band broadcast on the radio, and airshots were issued thirty-five years later . . . . so one could play these exuberant performance while burying oneself in this photograph — the nearest thing possible to going back in time.        

00000003

In 1945, Sidney Bechet formed a quintet for an extended run at “Boston’s Hot-spot of Rhythm,” the Savoy Cafe.  This photograph captures the band when Bunk Johnson was the trumpeter; bassist Pops Foster stayed throughout the run.  Bunk had a hard time keeping up with Bechet, who seemed to have limitless energy and stamina.  Bechet also shared the front line with the rather introverted Peter Bocage; finally, the only trumpeter who could stand alongside Sidney and not be swept away was the 18-year old Johnny Windhurst, whose golden tone and youthful verve come through on airshots of the band’s “Jazz Nocturne” broadcasts. 

In this photograph, it’s hard to imagine the tempo that the band is playing, but we feel the unstated contest of wills.  Bechet is fierce: his head and eyes revealing the effort.  Pops Foster is smiling at what Sidney is playing; one side of his shirt collar is trying to break free.  Bunk is sitting down, his horn pointed downward, its shadow a dark arrow.  His face is serious, even pained.  Were his teeth bothering him?  Was he feeling the strain of trying to equal Bechet?  Was he only playing a quiet countermelody?  It’s impossible to tell, but the picture is a study in masterful power: Bechet has it, Pops Foster is riding in its wake, and Bunk looks nearly exhausted, defeated by it. 

 00000006

This photograph, taken at a Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday afternoon jam session on November 9, 1941, is the emotional opposite of the struggle bwetween Bechet and Bunk.  There is no struggle for mastery between trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Al Morgan.  Rather, the bell of Vic’s horn is close to Morgan’s ear.  Through that length of metal tubing, Vic is telling Morgan something important and gratifying.  What’s the secret?  Is it a characteristically deep meditation on the nature of the blues, or is it exactly why all the boys treated Sister Kate so nice?  We’ll never know, but Morgan hears it, and his smile shows that he gets it, too. 

And Peterson got it: the joy and the stress of the soloist trying to have his or her say, and the urging, happy community of jazz players bound together in common for expression and exultation.  When SWING ERA NEW YORK appeared, the best assessment of Peterson’s work came from another photographer-musician: bassist Milt Hinton, who wrote, “I saw it, lived it, Charles Peterson captured it.  His visual imagery of the swing era in New York is authentic, intimate, and filled with emotion.”

More photographs to come — including Billie Holiday, Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and some surprises. 

LOVELY TO LOOK AT

People who have never held an original 78 rpm recording from the great jazz past might not understand why these pictures are so exciting, but they are.  I’ve heard this music for almost forty years now, and I’ve got the digital versions on my iPod and on CDs, but when I saw these pictures of records for sale on eBay, I thought it would be worth sharing them with my readers:

KC 6 two

KC 6 one

Commodore509b

Commodore509A

KING JOE / KING LEAR

King OliverMy iPod isn’t always a subject for philosophical contemplation.  More often it’s merely a calming talisman in my battle against airplane claustrophobia and tedium.  But recent experiences have made me think about it as more thought-provoking than a twentieth-century version of the transistor radio and cassette player of my past. 

It began when I unintentionally erased not only the contents of my iPod but also my iTunes library.  How that happened is not a subject for this blog, but I erased eight thousand tracks.  (Or, to use “the male passive,” I could write “eight thousand tracks had been erased,” but no matter.)  Preparing to go off on vacation far from my CD collection, I began to stuff compact discs into my iTunes library.  This, as readers will know, is a nuisance, and at times I wished for a youthful niece or nephew to whom I could say, “Want a hundred dollars?  Put each of the CDs in that bookcase into iTunes for me, will you?”  The computer did its job well, but it required me to check on it every six or seven minutes.  I began with the tail end of my collection — that’s Lester Young, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Ben Webster, Lee Wiley, and so on, and worked my way back to the Allens, Harry and Henry Red, in the space of ten days. 

And a King — Joe Oliver, pictured top left.   

This combination of obsessiveness and diligence resulted in an iPod with more than fifteen thousand tracks on it — the Hot Fives and Sevens, the Basie Deccas, the Lester Verves, the Billie Vocalions, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Fats Waller from 1922 to 1935, Mel Powell on Vanguard, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins . . . all I could desire, more than a hundred full days of music.

But I kept silently asking myself, “What do you need all this music for, knowing that you couldn’t listen to it all in the space of the next twelve months?”

King LearAnother King kept insisting that I pay attention to him.  He didn’t play cornet; he would have been out of place at the Lincoln Gardens.  I had taught a course in Shakepearian tragedy this summer, and ended it with KING LEAR — adding a few scenes from the 1982 Granada television presentation with Sir Laurence Olivier.  

Early in the play, when Lear still thinks he has imperial powers (even though he has renounced the throne), he bargains with his daughters about whose house he shall stay at first, casually letting them know that he will arrive with a hundred knights.  Although Goneril and Regan are cruelly inhuman, I always feel for them at this point, as they ask their father, with some irritable reasonableness, why he, no longer King, needs a retinue.  Lear responds:    

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.

In the most commonsensical way, I take these lines to suggest that the difference between a reasonably privileged person and a Maltese terrier is that the person, when the impulse strikes, can go to the kitchen cabinet and have another cookie or pretzel.  Choice is at work here, unlike the dog who has to wait for the owner to fill his bowl.  “Need” is constricting; luxury is the freedom to transcend mere needs.  Or, in other terms, to have merely “enough” — the spiritual equivalent of eight hundred calories a day — is emotionally insufficient.

I knew that I didn’t “have to have” Ella Fitzgerald singing MY MELANCHOLY BABY (Teddy Wilson, Frank Newton, Benny Morton, 1936) in the same way I need food and drink.  I could capably replay most of that performance in my mind.  But not having it accessible provokes feelings of inadequacy, of being separated from my music.  To some, this will seem like an exercise in superfluity: I know there are people in other countries who don’t have clean water, let alone alternate takes of the Albert Ammons Commodores, and I feel for them, but the sensation of having more music than I can possibly listen to is luxuriant bliss.  It means that if, upon awaking, I really NEED to hear Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman play SWEET SUE . . . there it is.

Which leads me to the most brilliant feature of the iPod — not the ability to reproduce album cover artwork (!) but the ability to shuffle songs.  I plugged it in here and started it up . . . so that Dizzy Gillespie followed Mamie Smith who followed the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings who followed Hawkins . . . . a floating Blindfold Test, full of surprises and gratifications.  And no worrying about the hundred knights drinking up all the milk in the refrigerator. 

iPod

Olivier and Oliver, in perfect harmony.