Tag Archives: Cool

“MAN — YOU KNOW IT’S THE COOLEST”

The epitome of cool, or “Gone, man, gone”:

WETTLING COOLThis studio portrait of Mr. Wettling, appropriately inscribed, occupied a place of honor in drummer and friend Walt Gifford’s scrapbook.  Two other facets of the very talented Geo. can be found here and .

Don’t let the period percussive gestures from the apparently ancient disc put you off.  To quote an expert jazz drummer I know, “You could play that in any context and it would sound good.  It never gets old.”  In fact, if possible, I would urge listeners to aurally push aside the glories of Fats, Tommy, Bunny, and McDonough, and simply concentrate on the shifting sound-carpets Mr. Wettling creates for us, alive in 1937 and alive now.

And here — magically — brought to you by the invisible forces of the internet — is another pose from the same studio session.  Intent on being cool.  Cool, you know, is serious business:

WETTLING alternate pose

Whether playing drums, painting, writing satiric doggerel, playing at being a late-Forties hipster, George Wettling was a treasure.  Listen, consider, and be uplifted.

Some cultural critics can balance these photographs against THE NIGHT BEFORE BOPMAS and arrive at a point of balance — I think amused masquerade plus affectionate mockery feels right.  And as a personal aside, perhaps a decade after the poem and the photograph, I dressed up for Halloween as a “beatnik,” complete with beret, cigarette holder, and goatee created with my mother’s eyebrow pencil.  I think I had to explain at many doors what my costume was.  Geo. did it better.

May your happiness increase! 

DICKENSON, BALLIETT, AND COOL

An excerpt from Whitney Balliett’s memorial for Vic Dickenson:

Dickenson . . . seemed almost ageless.  As the years went by, he never looked any older, and his playing never diminished. Keeping his cool was essential to him–it was a matter of pride–and perhaps that insulated him. The only thing that visibly gave out was his feet, and their failure left him in his last decade with a slow, leaning-over gait. He had a tall, narrow frame and a tall, narrow head. His arms and hand and legs were long and thin. The expression in his eyes flickered between humor and hurt, and his smile went to one side. He was a laconic man who said he had become a musician because “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook. I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher. I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  (“Vic,” 657-8; Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz).

I read that piece when it first appeared in The New Yorker, and it has stayed with me for almost thirty years.  Both Vic and Whitney remain heroes — their work always sounds new but has the comfort of an unexpected hug from an old friend, met by surprise.  Balliett’s quiet observant power is still my model.

But I am still amazed that Vic could tell an admiring listener that he became what he was because he was so unqualified to do other things. Whether it was a true self-awareness of limitations or an excessive modesty, I don’t know.  But he created singular art for five decades without ever shouting his name in our ears.

I also think Vic’s final lines stay with me because anyone’s cool — that delicate serene balance we strive for — is so fragile, so easily damaged.  Small slights, casual acts, emotions coming upon us unaware inevitably “mess up our cool.”

Vic didn’t like to speak at length.  He didn’t philosophize, but he left us thousands of heartfelt texts to consider.  I refer to Pema Chodron at intervals; I might just as well start the day with a Dickenson solo to learn something about how to proceed through life.

Here he is, playing MANHATTAN — with Dick Cary, Jack Lesberg, and Cliff Leeman — on Eddie’s Condon’s tour of Japan in 1964 (other heroes on this voyage were Buck Clayton, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and Jimmy Rushing):

Vic’s version of serenity and balance seems warm and welcoming, as if he is saying, “Isn’t this melody beautiful?  I want to shine my sound through the notes so that you will never forget them.”

I hope that no one messes up your cool — or, if it happens, you can think of Vic and set things right.

May your happiness increase!

BASIE SAYS YES

Miles Davis has often been quoted as saying, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”

I would never disagree with this. I don’t wish to set up any competition, but I think everyone should give thanks to Count Basie — and not just once. And not just musicians, either.

It is fashionable, still, to affect hipness, and that is not limited to people under 30. And some intriguing theoretician has suggested that the qualities we praise as hip — subtlety, originality, a wry way of perceiving the world — were exemplified by Lester Young before Kerouac and the Beats took them as their own. I like this theory, although what Pres would have made of a Williamsburg or Berkeley or Portland hipster is not known.

But I would propose Basie as the original Parent of many virtues we prize. Singularity, although a loving reverence for one’s ancestors (as in Basie’s affectionate nods to Fats Waller), an awareness that joy and sorrow are not only wedded but interdependent (that the blues are at the heart of everything), and a deep emotional commitment to swinging one’s way through life.  Swinging, as embodied by Basie, his peers and their descendants, meant the maximum of grace with the minimum of visible labor.  The style later exemplified by Astaire with a Kansas City world-view. Passion and fun, no less powerful for being streamlined to their essentials. His playing and his approach have been characterized and parodied as “minimalist,” but I think of it more as a Thoreau-inspired simplicity. Don’t need that note, do we? Let it be implied. Unheard melodies and all that. How Basie knew what he knew is beyond us, but the evidence is there for us to hear.

Here’s an audible example of what Basie did. And does:

That’s the 1939 Chicago session, issued in the Seventies as “Basie’s Bad Boys”: Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, trumpets; Dan Minor, trombone (audibly?), Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Basie, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page; string bass; Jo Jones, drums. Yes, the studio sound is foggy and dense, but the music just flies and smiles and rocks.

These thoughts are provoked by two photographs for sale on eBay — from the Frank Driggs Collection (each one for three hundred dollars plus) — of Basie and his colleagues and friends in 1941 and 1943.  Lester had leapt out, but they seemed to be doing fine on their own.  Here’s a rehearsal session at the New York studio of Columbia Records. They are apparently listening to a playback.  Details first:

BASIE IN THE STUDIO 1941 true front

The front:

COUNT BASIE REHEARSAL 1941

What I notice first, always (this is a photograph often reproduced but also often cropped) is Basie’s dreamily unfocused expression which might be deep concentration.  Jo’s nearly angry attentiveness, his thinness (that protruding Adam’s apple), his full head of hair and tidy mustache.  Walter Page’s substantial girth. The handkerchief not quite tucked away in his back pocket.  The way his vest is strained by what’s in it.  The height of Jo’s beautiful trousers, and his suspenders.  The way Page (casually?) is listening to what handsome Buck Clayton is playing.  How beautifully everyone is dressed, in an era before jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and knapsacks.

And a more formal pose, 1943, where cake predominates:BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 back

Jimmy Rushing steals the show, and all eyes are on him (although Buck is somewhat quizzical and Basie — aware of the photographer — doesn’t turn around; Jo’s smile is world-weary).  What, I must know, is Rushing saying to that forkful? “Sent for you yesterday and here you come today,” perhaps? Or “Tell me, pretty baby, how you want your lovin’ done”?  Or perhaps the plainer, “I am going to EAT YOU ALL UP!” 

BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 front

I chose to title this posting BASIE SAYS YES because I believe he always did. Although Basie spent his life “playing the blues,” his approach to them was always life-affirming.  Even on the darkest dirge, there is a slight grin. “Look how sad I can make this music sound.  Isn’t it a lot of fun to play such sad music?”

Cool, swinging, affirmative.  We could follow him, a Sage, for life-lessons.

May your happiness increase! 

A JOURNEY THROUGH “HINDUSTAN”: JON-ERIK KELLSO, DAN BLOCK, BOB HAVENS, JAMES DAPOGNY, FRANK TATE, PETE SIERS (JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011)

In the name of geographers everywhere, here’s an 1835 map showing Hindustan:

And here’s the local paper — if you’d like something to read while travelling:

And here’s the sheet music cover for the song:

But enough of that.  What we’re concerned with today is an amazing extended hot performance of this song at Jazz at Chautauqua (Sept. 16, 2011) by a group led by trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, with Bob Havens (trombone); Dan Block (clarinet); James Dapogny (piano); Frank Tate (string bass); Pete Siers (drums).

Because the song has very simple harmonies — “chord changes” — and perhaps for the sake of variety, Jon-Erik had made HINDUSTAN into a key-changing exercise in swing on the superb CD, BLUE ROOF BLUES, that he created in 2006 with Matt Munisteri, Evan Christopher, and Danton Boller.  There’s something about key changes that’s inherently dramatic: the audience might not know that the band was in C for the first chorus and Eb for the second, but we feel it — even when (as is the case here) the band and the soloists keep shifting from one key to another . . . it seems exciting rather than mechanical.

This band is special to me because of its wonderfully paradoxical nature: they make it look easy, but you know their playing is the result of decades of study; it looks like great fun, but it’s very hard work (let the critics pick up a trumpet and try it sometime); they get hot but stay cool.  My heroes!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go check on my desert caravan.  The last time I unwittingly left it in a NO PARKING zone on the Upper West Side, I got a $65 ticket.

OH, DIDN’T THEY RAMBLE!

I spent a few glorious hours last night (Sunday, May 24) at the Ear Inn — absorbing the sounds in two long sets by New Orleanian Evan Christopher (clarinet), Scott Robinson (trumpet, C-melody saxophone, and tenora), Matt Munisteri (guitar), and Danton Boller (bass) — the EarRegulars minus co-leader Jon-Erik Kellso, who was working his plunger mute at the Breda Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.

Candor compels me to say when I walked into the Ear, I found it noisy and crowded — as expected on the Sunday of a four-day weekend.  Finding no place to sit at first, I even entertained the cowardly thought of turning tail and heading back uptown.  But when I saw friendly faces — Jim and Grace Balantic, whose amiable presence I’ve missed for some time, Doug Pomeroy, jazz acupuncturist Marcia Salter, Conal and Vlatka Fowkes — I calmed myself and prepared to stay.

However, throughout the evening I kept noting the newest weird phenomena: photographers who have not yet figured out how to shoot without flash, thus exploding bursts of light a foot from the musicians.  Even more odd, I counted many young male faux-hipsters who now sport hats with tiny brims, rendering their skulls unnaturally huge.  Will no one tell them?  In my day, being Cool didn’t automatically mean looking Goofy.  But I digress.

The Ear Inn, incidentally, never turns into a monastic sanctuary — commerce, food, and drink are part of the cheerful drama of the evening . . . so one of the two hard-working waitresses was forever imploring the bartender (not Victor, alas for us), I need two Boddingtons, one Stella, two vodkas, one grapefruit tequila with salt!” In earnest near-shouts.

A word about the musicians.  Evan is one of the finest clarinet players I will ever hear: his command of that recalcitrant instrument from chalumeau to Davern-like high notes is astonishing, and he has a fat woody New Orleans tone, rapturous in the lower register, moving to an Ed Hall ferocity when he presses the octave key.  He is a fierce player in intensity and sometimes in volume, but he can murmur tenderly when he cares to.  And, although he is fluent — ripping through many-noted phrases — he doesn’t doodle or noodle aimlessly, as so many clarinetists do, filling up every space with superfluous rococco whimsies.

Scott Robinson, wearing his OUTER SPACE shirt, made by his multi-talented wife, Sharon, was in fine form: doubling trumpet and C-melody saxophone in the space of a performance, playing three choruses on the trumpet and then — without pause — going straight to the saxophone, magically.  Few payers (Benny Carter, Tom Baker, Smon Stribling) have managed to double brass and reeds; none of them have made it seem as effortless as Scott does.  And the tenora . . . a truly obscure Catalonian double-reed instrument that he had brought to the Ear on May 10 — which has an oboe’s insistent tone and timbre — is gradually becoming a Robinson friend.

Matt Munisteri was in fine form, even though the Ear gig was the second or third of the day (a concert for the Sidney Bechet Society in the early afternoon, then a 1:30 jam session with Evan in honor of Frankie Manning); he burned throughout the performance, with his humming-along-to-his-solos particularly endearing.

Young Danton Boller, quiet and unassuming, seemed to play his string bass without amplification, but swung heroically, reminding me at points of Milt Hinton or George Duvivier — his melodies ringing, his time flawless, his spaces just right.  One could transcribe a Boller solo for horns and it would be mightily compelling.  He is someone to watch, if you haven’t caught him yet — on CD, he is a delightful presence on the Kellso-Christopher-Munisteri CD, BLUE ROOF BLUES (Arbors).

The band began with a nearly slow AT SUNDOWN (perhaps in honor of the still light-blue evening sky?) which did that pretty tune honor, and then, perhaps in honor of togetherness to come, romped — and I don’t use that word lightly — through TOGETHER (“We strolled the lane to-geth-er,” etc.) in suggesting a modern version of Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, with Scott riffing behind Evan, the two horns creating a rocking counterpoint.  A blistering THEM THERE EYES followed, with Evan and Scott swapping the lead in their opening choruses (this quartet showed it knew the value of old-time ensemble playing, something that some musicians have unwisely jettisoned in favor of long solo passages).  Evan, who has a comedic touch, then discussed the business of making requests of the band.  He laid out three conditions: the band had to know the song; the band had to be interested in playing the song; the band would be most knowledgeable and willing to play the request if some financial support was forthcoming.  A man sitting at the bar asked for the very unusual Bing Crosby JUNE IN JANUARY (1934) which Evan taught the band in a matter of moments, and the band learned it in performance, with its final choruses recalling the glories of Soprano Summit in years gone by.

At the end, Evan said, “That was a SPECIAL request!” — and some member of the quartet, primed to do so, asked, “Why was it SPECIAL, Evan?” to which he said, full-throttle, “Because it was PAID FOR!”  Making himself clear, you understand.

SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET followed, beginning with hints of Johnny Hodges, then moving into Louis-territory, with Evan and Scott using the Master’s passionate phrasing and high notes in their solos.  And something unexpected had taken place: perhaps because this jazz oasis is called the Ear, the noisy audience had gradually changed into a room (mostly) full of listeners, who had caught the group’s drift.  Of course, there were still people who talked through each song and then clapped enthusiastically at the end because everyone around them was doing so — but I could sense more people were paying attention, always a reassuring spectacle.  And the set ended with a joyous JUNE NIGHT — with laugh-out-loud trades between the two horns, and a jovial unbuttoned vocal by Evan (a little Fats, a little Louis Prima) which surprised everyone.  Then the musicians retired to the back room to eat some well-deserved food.

Emboldened by the idea of JUNE IN JANUARY, before the second set started, I approached Evan with an appropriate portion of currency unsubtly displayed, and asked him, “Excuse me, Evan, would that buy me some SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE?”  Evan took in the bill, said, “SWEAT-HOGS ON PARADE?  OK?!”  And that’s how the set began, the band rounding the corners in wonderful style, Scott even beginning his trumpet solo with a nod to LOVE IN BLOOM, Matt playing a chorus of ringing chords, the band inventing one riff after another to close.  Scott, brave fellow that he is, took up the tenora for a feature on THE NEARNESS OF YOU — which had plaintive urgency as you could hear him getting more comfortable with his new horn.  (At the end of the night, when I talked with him about the tenora, he said, “I know it has a pretty sound, but I haven’t quite found it yet.”  He will, I know.)

HINDUSTAN was a highlight of the BLUE ROOF BLUES CD, with the nifty idea of shifting from the key of C to the key of Eb for alternating choruses, something I’ve never heard another band do, raising the temperature considerably; this performance ended with a serious of ecstatic, hilarious, and knowing phrase-tradings, with quotes from I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT, PAGILACCI, leading up to an urgent, pushing counterpoint, mixing long melodic lines with fervent improvisations, savoring the many textures of the quartet.  A waltz-time NEW ORLEANS cooled things down, beginning with a duet for clarinet and guitar that sounded like back-porch music for a warm night.  A riotous THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE took us back to Noone, to Soprano Summit, with Scott’s rocking solo pleasing Evan so much that he was clapping along with it.  Finally, a down-home MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR mixed operatic fervor and hymnlike unison playing, ending with the band getting softer and softer, as if they were walking slowly into the distance.

It was lovely music, fulfilling and fulfilled, and it has filled my thoughts a day later.  You should have been there!