Tag Archives: Connie Francis

GEORGE BARNES COULD DO IT ALL, AND HE DID

"Georgie," youthful

“Georgie,” youthful.  Photograph reproduced with permission from the owner.  Copyright 2013 The George Barnes Legacy Collection.

Alec Wilder told George Barnes that the latter’s music offered “Reassurance, reaffirmation, wit, warmth, conviction and, best of all, hope!”  I agree.

I first heard the magnificent guitarist (composer, arranger) George Barnes without knowing it.  His sound cut through the Louis Armstrong Musical Autobiography sessions for Decca — in the late Sixties. Even listening to Louis — as any reasonable person does — I was aware of this wonderful speaking sound of George and his guitar: a man who had something important to tell us in a short space (say, four bars) and made the most of it.  Not loud, but not timid.

As I amassed more jazz records, George was immediately evident through his distinctive attack.  I believe that I took in more Barnes subliminally in those years, in the way I would hear Bobby Hackett floating above my head in Macy’s. (George recorded with Roy Smeck, Connie Francis, Richard M. Jones, Bill Harris, Anita O’Day, Artie Shaw, Pearl Bailey, Jeri Southern, Connee Boswell, the Lawson-Haggart Jazz Band, Dinah Washington, Coleman Hawkins, George Wettling, LaVern Baker, Earl Bostic, Joe Venuti, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Redman, Little Willie John, Della Reese, Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Hans Conried, Solomon Burke, Sy Oliver, Buddy Rich, Bud Freeman, Tony Bennett, Bucky Pizzarelli, Carl Kress  — just to give you an idea of his range.  And those are only the sessions documented in jazz discographies.)

In the early Seventies I actually saw George and heard him play live — he was sometimes five or six feet from me — in the short-lived quartet he and Ruby Braff led.  And then he was gone, in September 1977.

But his music remains.

George Barnes Country JAzz

And here’s a new treasure — a double one, in fact.

Now, some of you will immediately visit here, bewitched and delighted, to buy copies.  You need read no more, and simply wait for the transaction to complete itself in the way you’ve chosen.  (Incidentally, on eBay I just saw a vinyl copy of this selling for $150.)

For the others. . . . I don’t know what your feelings are when seeing the words COUNTRY JAZZ.  Initially, I had qualms, because I’ grew up hearing homogenized “country and western” music that to me seems limited.  But when I turned the cardboard sleeve over and saw that Barnes and friends were improvising on classic Americana (OLD BLACK JOE, THE ARKANSAS TRAVELER, CHICKEN REEL, IN THE GLOAMING, MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME) I relaxed immediately.  No cliche-stew of wife / girlfriend / woman / dog / truck / rifle / beer / betrayal / pals here.  Call it roots music or Americana, but it’s not fake.

And the band is exciting: George on electric guitar, bass guitar, and banjo [his banjo feature is extraordinary]; Allan Hanlon, rhythm guitar; Jack Lesberg, string bass; Cliff Leeman, drums, percussion; Phil Kraus, vibes on one track; Danny Bank, mouth harp on one track.  The sixteen tracks (and one bonus) come from this 1957 session recorded for Enoch Light — in beautiful sound.  The improvisations rock; they are hilarious, gliding, funky, and usually dazzling. There’s not a corny note here.  And gorgeously expansive documentation, too.

george-barnes_thumb

That would be more than enough fun for anyone who enjoys music.  But there’s much more.  George began leading a band when he was 14 (which would be 1935) but made a name for himself nationwide on an NBC radio program, PLANTATION PARTY, where he was a featured from 1938 to 1942. The fourteen additional airshots on this generous package come from the PARTY, and they are stunning.  Each performance is a brief electrifying (and I am not punning) vignette, and sometimes we  get the added pleasure of hearing announcer Whitley Ford introduce the song or describe George’s electric Gibson as a “right modern contraption,” which it was.

I can’t say that it’s “about time” for people to acknowledge George as a brilliant guitarist and musician, a stunning pioneer of the instrument — because the jazz and popular music histories should have been shaken and rewritten decades ago. But I’d bet anything that Charlie Christian and a thousand other players heard PLANTATION PARTY, and that a many musicians heard George, were stunned, and wanted to play like that.

I’m writing this post a few days before July 4, celebrated in the United States with fireworks.  George Barnes sounds just like those fireworks: rockets, stars, cascades, and explosions.  I don’t know that fireworks can be said to swing, but with George that is never in doubt.

To buy the CD, visit here — and at the George Barnes Legacy site, you can learn much more about George, his music, his family, his career.  Worth a long visit.

May your happiness increase!

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WITH DISPATCH AND VIGOR (Thursday Night at Chautauqua)

Seven months ago, when I edged into blogging and sat down to write my first post, I was immensely pleased that I could tell people that Jazz at Chautauqua would be held, once again, in September.  It came to pass!  And last Thursday night, we heard four sets of informal, joyous jazz.  The setting was as close to ideal as anyone could want: a well-lit room full of cheerfully listening people, with the musicians set up, informally, on the same level.  No stage, no suits; buffet food and a well-stocked bar.  Outside this room in the Athenaeum Hotel was a wooden porch with comfortable chairs, from where you could see an expansive lake.  And the staff at the hotel was happily always at the ready.  (Here they resemble a barbershop quartet, although they never burst into song.)

Things began in a sly, understated way when the “faux frenchmen” took up positions at one end of the room.  They are an earnest, supple quartet of players from Cincinnati who model themselves after the Quintette of the Hot Club of France.  Yes, the quartet follows Django and Stephane in their love of beautiful melodies and hot rhythm, but they aren’t committed to reproducing cherished records note-for-note, a good thing.  After an ambling “Bye Bye Blackbird,” they eased into a sidling, slow-drag “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and romping versions of “I Saw Stars” and “Limehouse Blues.”  Jazz party promoters here and abroad should take note: they’re a fine group.

The second set made me think I had died and gone to Heaven — no, strike that — to Jimmy Ryan’s, circa 1942, for one of Milt Gabler’s Sunday afternoon jam sessions photographed by Charles Peterson.  Led by Marty Grosz, guitar, vocals, and raillery, the band included Randy Reinhart, Duke Heitger, and Bob Havens on the brass, Dan Block and Bobby Gordon on reeds, Jim Dapogny on piano, and Arnie Kinsella on drums.  Generously filling a vacancy in the rhythm section, Andy Stein, most well-known for his Venuti-inspired violin capers, strapped his baritone saxophone on and took up a chair next to the piano, providing Rollini bass lines and climbing solos.  Marty was in good spirits, happy to be surrounded by friends, and took us back to 1936 with a jolly “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” which mixed a little Bing Crosby in Marty’s hot crooning with some Condon touches.  Usually sets are assembled so that the second song is slower than the opening rouser, but Marty kicked off a fast “Them There Eyes,” again singing the sweet, silly lyrics — inspiring Duke to great early-Louis flights of passion.  The Beloved, who had never seen Duke play before, leaned over and said, “His playing is clear as a bell!”

A trotting “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” followed, and the set concluded with a song Marty explained as the band’s tribute to Connie Francis, who, he said, had recorded a “maudlin, mawkish” version of it in her heyday.  I was momentarily mystified — Connie Francis isn’t usually hailed at jazz parties — but then the band swung into a ferocious version of “Who’s Sorry Now?” that owed its heart and soul to the Blue Note Jazzmen, nothing at all to Connie.  The soloists were so fine that it would take a whole page to celebrate them, but I still marvel at how Arnie’s thundering accents drove the band, how Dapogny’s right hand evoked the glories of Stacy and Hines, his left some of the magic of James P.  And the band worked hard — on the way out after the last song, a listener got up to shake Randy Reinhart’s hand, and I heard Randy say, “Now I can relax.”

A somewhat more pastoral set followed, with the front line of the inestimable Joe Wilder (now eighty-six!) on fluegelhorn and Bob Reitmeier on clarinet, whose easy lines complemented each other beautifully, making the most familiar pieces of jazz repertory, “Lady Be Good,” “Fine and Dandy,” and a ballad medley come alive.  Wilder continues to amaze: it’s not the simple matter of his age — playing a brass instrument is difficult for anyone — but the surprises he unfurls as he plays, his dancing, leaping phrases never going in predictable ways.  And he got the highest praise: when Joe was playing, Bob Reitmeier grinned at particularly felicitous inventions.

In one of those odd turns that jazz parties and jam sessions often bring, the elder statesman of the party (and of the brass world) was followed in the closing set by two immensely talented youths — Bix-inspired fellows from Wisconsin: Andy Schumm (cornet and piano) and David Bock (trombone), 22 and 20 respectively.

They were joined by players we know well: Rossano Sportiello on piano, Pete Siers on drums, and Dan Barrett on trombone.  Jon Burr, who had packed his bass, was prevailed upon to stay (another good thing!) and the session began.  It’s one kind of pleasure when a listener hears someone fine and familiar, another entirely when someone you’ve never heard steps onstage and proceeds to shine.  Schumm reveres Bix and can easily reproduce the nuances of that style, but he isn’t playing copies of the records.  Rather, he has somehow gotten inside the Bixian thought patterns, so that what comes out, alternatively hesitant and plunging, sounds like what Bix might have played had he been allowed to live into 1939.  On the one song the band played that was outside the Beiderbecke canon, “In A Mellotone,” Schumm drew upon a nicely tailored Mainstream approach, somewhere between Hackett and Harry Edison, always a reassuring combination.  His trombone playing friend, wearing a Gennett Records t-shirt, was more energetically rough-hewn, but he was no tailgater: his solos made Dan Barrett smile and applaud.  And Barrett was in fine form: not only playing smoothly and exuberantly, but taking an unexpected vocal, plaintive and casual, on “Louise.”

As the set was nearing its end, two moments happened that seemed to echo the great Hollywood fictions about jazz players in clubs — recall the scene in THE FIVE PENNIES where Danny Kaye, playing Red Nichols, comes back from drunken embarrassment to play extravagantly glowing phrases from the back of the speakeasy — phrases so compelling that he nearly steals the spotlight from one Louis Armstrong?  While the Wisconsin Bixians were playing, a once-exhausted Jon-Erik Kellso sat down next to me, put his horn together, and joined them, from the audience, moving on to the stage, on a very fast “Somebody Stole My Gal,” then leading the troops on an affectionate “Sugar,” and closing the set with “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”  At the same time, Dan Block was standing behind the piano, assembling his clarinet, joining the band in mid-chorus.  Wonderful additions to an already gifted band!  I had yet another occasion to note Kellso’s gentle, intuitive leadership.  He never says “Do this,” but he shapes a performance by suggesting riffs, backgrounds, and solos.  He is a great soloist with an architectural sense of the jazz band as small, flexible orchestra.  It’s the kind of thing Count Basie and Ruby Braff did so splendidly, and a band with Kellso in it has a certain loose-limbed intelligent order that it wouldn’t have otherwise.  When one player is soloing, the musicians don’t lean against the wall or tell jokes.  They become a living organism, and the music soars.

I’ll write about the highlights of the next three days (and there were plenty) in future posts.

P.S.  The inexplicable title?  That’s one of Marty Grosz’s stage jokes.  “We’ll do the next tune with dispatch and vigor,” he says seriously.  Gesturing to the left and right, to two musicians standing nearby, he then says, “That’s Dispatch, and that’s Vigor.”  English music-hall or Twenties vaudeville, I don’t know, but it makes me laugh every time.