Tag Archives: cotton Club

CATLETT, COTTON, ELLINGTON, BIGARD . . . ALSO FEATURING JACK OAKIE.

I’ve been eBaying — looking at the surprises offered for sale.

First, a piece of sheet music tied in to a 1946 record date for the Manor label — with Pete Johnson, Sidney Catlett, Jimmy Shirley, and Gene Ramey.  I had never heard of the Duchess Music Publishers, perhaps an attempt to connect with a hoped-for hit record.  The arranger’s name caught my eye:

ARRANGED BY SID CATLETT

Notice that someone energetically claimed ownership of this sheet.

Then, some paper ephemera connected to the downtown Cotton Club.  I know the name is demeaning, and the club wouldn’t admit patrons of color, but with such music and those prices, one could ignore those facts:

COTTON CLUB front

Don’t forget to give the card to the headwaiter (decades before email):

COTTON CLUB rear

The Perfect Evening, no argument:

COTTON CLUB 2

And Bill Robinson:

COTTON CLUB 4

Did you know Jack Oakie was so talented? This is a publicity still for the 1934 film MURDER AT THE VANITIES, with two very recognizable musicians:

DUKE 1934 front

Ah, show business!

May your happiness increase!

ON THE BACK OF THE FRONT

One of the pleasures of purchasing used long-playing records (as I have been doing) is reading the liner notes.  I offer samples from two recent purchases for your consideration.

From the 1958 Design THE GOLDEN ERA OF DIXIELAND JAZZ 1887-1937 (a Novato hospice thrift shop, one dollar) which features Pee Wee Erwin, Vic Dickenson, Buster Bailey, Claude Hopkins, Milt Hinton, and George Wettling — reverberation free of charge:

Get ready for sheer delight . . . Here is happy music.  Even when you’re listening to the blues themes, you can’t help but feel that this is a music played by men who know and feel their art.  This album was conceived and recorded during those hours that immediately precede the dawn.  I was sitting in Child’s restaurant just off Broadway in Manhattan, one morning at about three-thirty.  Two friends and I were arguing some moot point about the old Duke Ellington Band.  Suddenly, one of them said, “There’s the man who can settle this, Claude Hopkins.”  I’d never met Claude, but I knew his work from the old Cotton Club days and I knew that his background in Dixieland Jazz was as fine as any in the business.  Claude sat down with us and sure enough . . . . He knew the answers and then some.  He regaled us with stories about the races he and Ellington used to have in their thirty-mile an hour hot rods, stories of the greats and near greats from New Orleans, KC, Chicago and New York.  He painted a picture of Harlem when jazz was becoming the language of the low and the lordly.  I asked Claude who he thought were the finest sidemen around today and he came up with a lulu of a list.  On drums . . . there is no one who can drive a band like George Wettling.  Recognized as America’s finest jazz drummer, Wettling makes music on the skins.  On trumpet . . . either Bobby Hackett or Pee Wee Erwin . . . Pee Wee appears here . . . at the time Bobby had his own group at New York’s Henry Hudson Hotel.  Personally I prefer Pee Wee’s sound for dixieland.  It has all of the mellow tones your ear likes to hear plus the mirth and joy of a touch of brilliance.  On trombone . . . glum, sad-faced Vic Dickenson.  Vic gets an old fashioned slush bucket sound and no man alive today can gargle a vibrato into his instrument with more raucus [sic] virility.  Buster Bailey on Clarinet.  Listen to the mellowness that Buster achieves.  A real, honest, woody tone.  On Bass . . . for my money, America’s finest Dixieland bass man, Milt Hinton.  Listen to him get pretty music and a firm slapping sound when he takes off in “Saints.”  You’ve got to jump . . . You’ll have to smile . . . and if you can picture Milt slappng away with a cigar drooped from the corner of his mouth, a big happy grin on his face and all the music in the world coming out of the doghouse fiddle, you’ll have a picture of a true dixieland scene.  Finally, Claude mentioned a group of fine Dixieland pianists.  The guy’s too modest.  Natch, we used Claude.  He set up the session.  We went over the tunes.  It was simple.  I wanted basic dixieland, easy to understand, easy to listen to and primarily music that was indicative of the golden era of this great standard bearer of American Music, the years between the heyday of Storyville in old New Orleans and the Goodman era.  That’s the music we recorded.  The sessions took place at four in the morning, after the boys came off their regular jobs.  They were loose, happy and ready and the music indicates their mood.  I’m glad we got these sessions down on tape.  I’m glad you’re getting to hear them.  I can’t bring myself to believe that you’ll ever hear any better Dixieland.

At least that anonymous writer and apparent record producer has some enthusiasm and feeling for the music.  But — in the forest of ellipses — his prose, mixing side-of-the-mouth slang with an approach to the imagined reader that is a little too chummy for my refined taste.  “Get your hand away from my slush bucket and get back to your own doghouse,” I want to tell him.  “Keep your raucus virility in the kitchen where it can’t do any damage.  Natch.”

Sometimes the liner notes contain a little gem.  On the reverse of the Riverside NEW SOLOS BY AN OLD MASTER, a 1953 Joe Sullivan record, Sullivan was recorded in conversation with Orrin Keepnews, who obviously asked Joe about his artistic influences:

There was Louis Armstrong and there was Bix, and all that each of them stood for.  To this day I love Bix like I love my right arm.  But I go by way of Louis.

To me, Sullivan’s words show an artist deciding, early on, which path to take, not really saying that one musician “was better” than the other, but making a choice.  And when I began to listen to Sullivan’s playing as a reflection of “by way of Louis,” what I have called in an earlier post his “sweet violence” came into even clearer focus.

All praise for Keepnews for asking the artist what he thought — always a fine idea.

Both recordings are superb, by the way.

May your happiness increase.

A TELEGRAM IN JIVE TALK

Where do the fascinating objects of the recent past end up?  Papers decay, shellac discs break, photographs crumble.  It’s either terribly sad or somewhat of a relief — if objects didn’t decay, we would be neck-deep in 1924 newsprint and cereal boxes.

John P. Cooper, my cyber-friend and vintage jazz and pop enthusiast, is wondering about a particular collection — the treasured paper ephemera of the composer and actor Henry Nemo, who died in 1999.  Most of us know Nemo as the composer of DON’T TAKE YOUR LOVE FROM ME and ‘TIS AUTUMN.  And some film buffs will recall him as “the Neem” in THE SONG OF THE THIN MAN.  Below is the only photograph I have been able to find of Nemo online, authenticated by his daughter.

HENRY_NEMO

But until John directed me to Wikipedia, I hadn’t known of Nemo’s holdings — a veritable Alexandria of jive from the late Thirties.  I don’t usually trust Wikipedia, but this sounds enticing enough to be accurate:

Nemo’s rare collection of jazz memorabilia documents 1930s music and his days at the Cotton Club, where he wrote the lyrics with Irving Mills and John Redmond for “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” (1938), with music by Duke Ellington. In Nemo’s historical collection are original photographs which he took at the Cotton Club, plus Cotton Club memorabilia and a 1939 telegram from Ellington to Nemo, written in jive talk.

Calling Western Union!  Do any JAZZ LIVES readers know where this collection might be and if it’s open to the public?  Brush up  your jive talk, please.

WHERE THE PAST AND THE FUTURE MEET

“Heaven on Earth, they call it 211 West 46th Street.”

Last Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011,  at Club Cache in the Hotel Edison, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks did what they’ve been doing every Monday and Tuesday night for many weeks: they made the past come alive.  But last night they also peeked around the corner of the present into the future. 

The future didn’t announce itself melodramatically: it wasn’t a larger-than-life baby wearing nothing but a sash.  It was a young man, sixteen years old, who plays the banjo in the jazz band led by trumpeter Kevin Blancq at New York’s LaGuardia High School.  The young man’s name is ELI GREENHOE, and he sat in with the Nighthawks to play one of the tunes he loves and has learned from his time in the LaGuardia Jazz Orchestra — Duke Ellington’s growly THE MOOCHE.  I’ll have that performance for all of you to see and hear in a future posting. 

To hear about Kevin’s band — rehearsing in a room with pictures of Benny, Hawkins, and Carter on the walls — is exciting.  JAZZ LIVES hopes to pay them a visit, so stay tuned.

And the Nighthawks always excite!  Here’s some of the hot music the boys offered last night — that’s Vince on vocals, bass sax, tuba, and string bass; Ken Salvo on banjo; Peter Yarin on piano; Arnie Kinsella on drums; Mike Ponella and Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpets; Harvey Tibbs on tronbone; Alan Grubner on violin; Dan Levinson, Mark Lopeman, and Peter Anderson on reeds.

You can’t go wrong with Benny Carter, who remains the King.  Here’s his 1934 EVERYBODY SHUFFLE (which bears some relationship to KING PORTER STOMP, I believe): the original recording drew on Fletcher Henderson’s men and I recall a typically slippery Benny Morton trombone solo:

The nightly jam session — always a rouser — was BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES (or GAVE, if you’re lucky) TO ME:

Something for Bix and Jean Goldkette and Joe Venuti and a very young Jule Styne, SUNDAY:

Who knew that Ellington had written two compositions called COTTON CLUB STOMP?  This is the later one, from 1930:

In honor of the Bennie Moten band (with Hot Lips Page, Eddie Durham, Count Basie, and Jimmy Rushing), OH, EDDIE!:

And since Vince and JAZZ LIVES always try to bring you something old, new, and futuristic all at once, here’s a Nighthawks premiere of arranger / composer / reedman Fud Livingston’s IMAGINATION (from 1927).  Readers with excellent memories will recall that I posted the piano sheet music for this advanced composition on this site some time back at https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2009/08/21/imagine-this/.  If you can open two windows at once on your computer, why not play along on your piano!

More to come!

DROP A NICKEL IN THE SLOT TO HEAR THE MUSIC PLAY! ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS:

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

“EVERY NICKEL HELPS A LOT” (THREE VERSIONS)

Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin, 1936 — written for Mr. Strong:

Four Boys and a Guitar:

Lester Young, Count Basie, Carl Smith, Walter Page, Jo Jones:

EVERY NICKEL HELPS A LOT!  ALL MONEY COLLECTED GOES TO THE MUSICIANS.

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

A LITTLE SOFTER, PLEASE?

Although I am not traditionally religious, I think jazz and creative improvisation are holy.

One of the great puzzlements for a devout jazz listener like myself is that some people in bars and clubs where musicians are playing talk through performances. 

Given the greater formality (and higher ticket prices) of a concert hall, this is less likely to happen.  Of course, there are the coughers and unwrappers of candy.  I once met an erudite devotee of classical music who told me that coughing in a concert hall was the response of those who could not endure that the artist was on the stage and that they were not.  To him, it was the revenge of the untalented, a belligerent assertion of their egos.

But in a club, where drinks, food, conversations are the rule, the talk flows freely.  This bothers me because I come to hear the music.  

I didn’t come to a club to hear someone hold forth about his diverticulitis.  In another context, I can sympathize, but I’d rather hear the band.  Although I celebrate romance, I don’t want to hear loud flirtations. 

But I know that the world is not my private salon, so I confine myself to eye-rolling and occasional grimaces.  Neither response is subtle or adult, I admit, but they are preferable to direct confrontation.  On rare occasions, when I am videotaping and am entrapped by loud talkers, I have said, as sweetly as possible, “I hate to bother you, but I am doing this for YouTube, and your conversation is going online.”  That usually works.

Some may perceive my behavior as that of a spoilsport, and I apologize if I have ever really ruined someone’s fun.  But I think that some of the rudeness I encounter is cultural ignorance.  If you and your Beloved make a pilgrimage to The Ear Inn or Carnegie Hall at a specific time to hear a particular group of players, that establishes a purpose.  You might not be silent, but you understand what paying attention means. 

But I think that many people are looking for a place to have a beer, a burger, and a chat.  They choose a likely-looking bar.  And — surprise! — there’s live music.  Five or six people are playing jazz.  I imagine the interior monologue, “Live music?  What’s that?  Do I have to stop talking simply because there are people with instruments over there?  Hey, fellows, pipe down so that I can hear what Charles has to say!”

But live musicians are not human versions of Muzak or an iPod, and they deserve respect and love for what they are attempting for our pleasure and theirs.   

I won’t fulminate about the silent yet tangible disrespect afforded artists by those people — not always young — who hunch over their iPhones and text throughout the evening while the players are performing.  I want to ask such people, “Why did you leave your apartment if that was all you wanted to do?”  I know that the club or bar provides — in its lights and population and rustling — a semblance of community hard to find otherwise, which I think is sad — a subject for another meditation.

Then there are the people who talk loudly through the whole performance only to whoop loudly at the end.  How much can they have heard, even given their splendid multitasking?

What I’ve written isn’t purely Luddite.  Sixty years ago, when John Hammond, who loathed Hazel Scott, conspicuously read his newspaper while she was playing, it was an equally distasteful, even aggressive act of contempt.

In conversations now and in the past that I’ve had with musicians, I thought, perhaps stubbornly, that they would agree.  Perhaps they would be even more irate.  Improvisers, creating beauty, working hard, deserve respect, and respect was shown in listening: being present, paying attention. 

But I have been surprised.  I submit for your consideration the voices of three respected musicians with whom I’ve spoken in the past weeks about the subject.  My question — or statement — usually runs, “Gee, that woman who insisted on singing along with the band / the couple who were drunk and loud / the guy arguing with his date . . . doesn’t it drive you crazy?”

Musician 1:  “Yes, he / she / they were loud, but that’s OK.  I don’t want to play in total silence.  If I screw up or make a mistake because I’m taking a chance, then it’s not like everyone hears it.  A little noise is OK: it’s relaxing.”

Musician 2:  “I heard the woman singing BLUE SKIES along with me, but that’s fine.  I like people to be talking and having a good time.  It doesn’t bother me.”

Musician 3: “I never let that bug me too much.  They were out to party and didn’t know what we were planning so what the heck.  The other thing I’ve learned — it’s a good thing the clubs don’t count on the spending of the dedicated “listeners” to pay for the band.”

The first comment is self-protective.  The jazz club isn’t a recording studio — silent, nearly sterile, where every inhalation can be heard, every imperfect note saved for posterity.  If the audience is chatting, then Musician 1 is free, relaxed: if no one is listening hyper-closely, it’s easier to experiment, to take chances.

The second comment might sound rueful, reisgned — the jazz player’s version of the Serenity Prayer: adapt to the circumstances you can’t change — but it was said to me with the sweetest of smiles, no irony, no edge.  Music, for this player, creates a loving atmosphere, so it would be futile or unkind to force people into silence.  

The third comment echoes the first two but highlights a truth that many clubowners and bartenders know.  Some jazz-lovers (although there are certainly exceptions) are so intent on the music that they forget or don’t care to spend money on food and drinks.  To Musician 3, reverent silence means less in the cash register and the band isn’t invited back. 

Two small codas need to be stated here in the name of accuracy and candor.  One is that musicians chat among themselves while on the stand during someone else’s solo.  Jokes, everyday chatter about the car repair, about getting one’s horn fixed, about the lousy meal just consumed, are part of the gig, perhaps to break up the long spaces when someone else is playing.  When I went to the last “Eddie Condon’s,” it took me a long time to get used to the undercurrents of dialogue on the stand.  I was hardly about to attempt to shush Ruby Braff. 

And if you listen to the recordings of radio broadcasts: “Dr. Jazz” at Eddie Condon’s; the Ellington band at the Cotton Club; Fats Waller at the Yacht Club, Bird and Diz at the Royal Roost — the audience is not shouting, but they are audible, they’re shifting in their seats, quietly chatting. 

Was there ever a properly hushed environment in which the holy art of jazz could flourish?  Or is my desire for near-silence — the better to hear the glories of the music — unrealistic?  I wonder.  I dream of a club or bar filled with people who love the music as much as I do and are as a result quiet . . . but until that happens I think I’ll have to learn the lesson of patience and save my glaring for the truly egregious cases of high-decibel rudeness.

DUKE ELLINGTON AT THE COTTON CLUB

I’m delighted to report a new 2-CD set of Ellington broadcast material from the Cotton Club — with some new things never otherwise issued, and a good deal of material that only serious Ellington collectors had at their fingertips.  (I know that the music world might seem to some to be awash in Ellington CDs, but I think this set essential.)

The set is called, logically, DUKE ELLINGTON AT THE COTTON CLUB (Storyville 1038415).  It begins with two selections — piano solos — taken from a “Saturday Night Swing Club” broadcast on May 8, 1937, and ends with the Ellington band broadcasting from Sweden on April 20, 1939, as part of an exultant tour.

In between there are forty-two selections broadcast live from the Cotton Club, from April 17 to May 29, 1938. 

“Why is this essential?” you might ask.  Most improvising ensembles, then and now, might find themselves somewhat confined by the limitations of the recording studio.  It wasn’t always a matter of the time constraints imposed by the 78 rpm disc — two-thirds of the selections in this set would have fit on commercial releases. 

But a recording session brought with it the pressure to make a mistake-free performance, which sometimes stifled the spontaneity so needed for improvisational brilliance.  There is also the indefinable but audible give-and-take between a happy nightclub audience and the musicians on these discs, something that the dead air and clock of the recording studio could not reproduce. 

These broadcasts give us tangible swinging evidence of what the Ellington band sounded when playing for real audiences — and of the variety of its approaches to identical material (three versions of IF DREAMS COME TRUE, for instance). 

The accepted Ellington history is that the band reached a peak in 1940-1 when Ben Webster joined the band and Jimmy Blanton became the bassist, and the Victor recordings in this period are extraordinary.  And the Fargo, North Dakota, dance date of November 1940 (seventy years ago next month!) has a swaying unbuttoned splendor. 

But any history that deals in peaks and apexes is suspect, and if Ellington had disbanded in spring 1938 I think we would be mourning this orchestra as a great accomplishment, a merging of vividly disparate personalities all going in the same direction on the bandstand. 

What we hear in these airshots is the band taking on pop tunes, originals, jamming in small-group contexts, melting Ivie Anderson vocals — a wonderful banquet with extraordinary solo and ensemble work from the Masters: Bigard, Carney, Hodges, Cootie, Rex, Greer, Lawrence Brown, Tricky Sam, and so on. 

The set begins with two Ellington piano solos — SWING SESSION (SODA FOUNTAIN RAG in new attire) and a ruminative medley of two ballads, and it ends with a priceless long airshot from Sweden, where ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM is framed by a mournful, pensive SERENADE TO SWEDEN and a Swedish pop tune, IN A LITTLE RED COTTAGE (BY THE SEA) which Ivie sings most tenderly.  And there’s even a one-minute video clip of the Cotton Club itself. 

Ellington collectors will have known this material (discs were cut for composer / arranger / theorist Joseph Schillinger) when it was issued in part on two Jazz Archives records perhaps thirty-five years ago.  And some of the tracks were issued elsewhere on even more elusive issues.  But the Duke Ellington Society bulletin informs me that several tracks here were never issued anywhere, and it is delightful to have it all collected — in clear transfers with erudite notes by Andrew Homzy. 

As the announcer says, “The Duke is on the air!”   

Track listing:

CD 1
1 Swing Session 2:00
2 Medley: Solitude/In A Sentimental Mood 3:00
3 Harmony In Harlem 3:20
4 If You Were In My Place 3:20
5 Mood Indigo 2:44
6 Theme: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo 1:14
7 Theme: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo 0:25
8 Oh Babe, Maybe Someday 2:58
9 Dinah’s In A Jam 2:12
10 If Dreams Come True 1:45
11 Scrontch 1:49
12 You Went To My head 1:42
13 Three Blind Mice 3:11
14 Solitude 3:28
15 Downtown Uproar 3:12
16 Dinah’s In A Jam 3:26
17 On The Sunny Side Of The Street 4:09
18 Ev’ry Day 2:45
19 Azure 2:46
20 Carnival In Caroline 2:50
21 Harmony In Harlem 3:35
22 At Your Back And Call 2:22
23 Solitude 3:18
24 The Gal From Joe’s 3:06
25 Riding On A Blue Note 2:38
26 If Dreams Come True 2:54

Total time:70:23

CD 2
1 Oh Babe, Maybe Someday 2:51
2 I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart 1:31
3 Birmingham Breakdown 2:38
4 Rose Room 2:10
5 If Dreams Come True 2:34
6 It’s The Dreamer In Me 4:37
7 Lost In Meditation 3:53
8 Ev’ry Day 2:40
9 Echoes Of Harlem 4:40
10 Theme: East St. Louis Toodle-Oo 0:58
11 Jig Walk 2:02
12 In A Sentimental Mood 1:13
13 I’m Slapping 7th Avenue2:50
14 Lost In Meditation 2:45
15 Alabamy Home 3:32
16 If You Were In My Place 2:15
17 Prelude in C Sharp Minor 2:56
18 Rockin’ In Rhythm 3:58
19 Serenade To Sweden 5:38
20 Rockin’ In Rhythm 4:24
21 In A Red Little Cottage 5:13
22 Video Clip from the Cotton Club 1:00

Total time: 66:28

For more details, visit http://www.storyvillerecords.com/default.aspx?tabID=2633&productId=27279&state_2838=2

LOUIS and FATS, by SAMMY CAHN

Sammy Cahn

When I was a young boy Louis Armstrong was already a legend.  All these rumors that he was not allowed in the country, that he was a junkie, that he’d married a white (gulp) woman.  Louis Armstrong?  There was no Louis Armstrong.  He was a trumpet and a voice you heard on a record in the middle of the night.  I would listen and listen to those records.

One day Connie Immerman of the Cotton Club — also famous for Immerman’s Hot Chocolates — said he wanted to introduce me to Louis Armstrong.  Connie took me to the Cotton Club, and when I walked in and saw Louis I just gasped.

The first thing Armstrong said to me was, “When were you born?”  I said June 18.  He whipped out this book he had and flipped through the pages to that date.  He turned the book around and showed me the names of other people — famous people — who had been born on June 18.  I hoped some of it would rub off on me.

I found out that Louis was terribly weak at memorizing lyrics.  His wife would place lyrics all over the house — in his socks, in his shoes, any place he couldn’t miss and so at least would have to look at them a lot.

At the Cotton Club most of the songs were written to help work out a piece of business in the show.  They had a little boy for an act and needed a way of getting him into the show.  I had the idea of a shoeshine boy coming forward through the tables — which is how “Shoe Shine Boy” got written.  I wrote a number for Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “I Bring You Religion On A Mule.”  They hired a little white mule.  She came riding in on it.  Two days later Connie Immerman said to me, “You and your ideas!”  I said, “Isn’t the song stopping the show?”  Connie said, “Sure it’s stopping the show.  Everybody’s quitting.  Somebody found out the mule is getting more than the chorus girls.”  I’ve never suggested an animal act since.

I became close to Louis Armstrong.  One night we covered ten joints in Harlem, and each place somebody was doing Louis Armstrong.  In the tenth and last one it was a really terrible imitation.  I said, “Louis, why are we here?  This man just tries to do everything you do.”  Louis said, “He may do somep’n I don’t do.”

I learned that Armstrong’s solos never varied, and I asked him why.  He said, “Is it good?”  I said yes.  “So?”  No argument.

Once I saw Fats Waller at a rehearsal with a quart of gin on the piano.  “That’s a funny way to run a rehearsal,” I primly said.  He answered just fine: “Hey, I get four arrangements to a quart.”

Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller.  Can you top them?

[From I SHOULD CARE: THE SAMMY CAHN STORY, by Sammy Cahn, pp. 223-24.]

MY MOTHER AND THE COTTON CLUB

Sometime before 1928, my mother, a curly-headed child, is leaning out of a window, fascinated by the passers-by on — let us say — 135th Street in Harlem. In that same year, in a different part of the city, my father, dressed in a suit and a shirt with a painfully high collar, but having trouble hiding a smile, sits in the photographer’s studio, his mandolin on his lap. 

My mother’s image exists only in my imagination; I can pick up the framed photograph and stare at it.  These are my parents as the children I never knew, well before I was even an idea.  But music ties these memories together, and ties them to my life.   

At this late date, with my adolescence forty years gone, I think of how many hours I spent in my upstairs room in the suburban house my mother kept tidy, my father maintained.  I was constantly playing jazz records, surely too loudly.  The archaic but thrilling music of the 1920s and 1930s.  Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Eddie Condon, Bessie Smith. 

My mother died in 2000, my father in 1982.  What do I recall of their stories of their own childhoods? 

She told me about wanting a dog as a child and her grandfather bringing her “a white ball of fur” when she was sick in bed with scarlet fever, a dog that grew up to be a beloved chow. 

My father told me of his (entirely unaggressive) gang of Brooklyn boys – all with nicknames.  I remember only that one was Doc, another pair Itch and Scratch.  And their joke — perhaps beloved in his generation, his neighborhood? — to go under the window of your apartment and holler up to your mother, “Ma!  Throw me down a roll and a glass of water!” 

In my childhood, years later, while my father was working around the house, he sang the pop hits of his adolescence — in snippets, so that I didn’t know that they were real songs until I heard Bing Crosby and others sing them, twenty years later: “Lullaby of the Leaves,” “A Faded Summer Love,” “I Faw Down and Go Boom,” and more. 

cotton-club1

Some years after my mother died, my sister said, casually, “Did Mom ever tell you about the Cotton Club?”  I know I said, What?” and stared at her.  “Mom said that when she was a little girl — they lived in Harlem, you know — she would look out the window or sit out on the front stoop and watched the beautifully-dressed black people — so beautifully dressed with fine hats and gloves — on their way to the Cotton Club.”  I imagine one of them might have looked like the beautiful woman in this James Van Der Zee photograph.

vanderzee pretty girl

It pains me now that I did not know this, and that my mother (even with those Harlem rhythms of my records, years later, pounding above her head in her suburban kitchen) never thought to tell me.  I could have said, “Mom, what did those people look like?”  “Did you ever walk by the Cotton Club in the daytime?  The Savoy Ballroom?  The Renaissance?” and on and on.  I console myself that what is now critically interesting to me might not have occupied a great deal of space in her memory.  I didn’t think to ask my father, “When did your family get a radio, and what programs do you remember listening to?  Did you ever see any swing bands live?”   

Of course, my mother’s story is a myth, easily punctured and brought down to earth by facts.  I gather that the audiences at the Cotton Club were white.  And did the entertainment start so early that she was able to sit on the steps, perhaps on a hot summer night long after little girls were supposed to be asleep, watching the people?  Was she up early in the morning watching them come home?  Did she see musicians and dancers on their way to other clubs?  Could she have unwittingly seen someone whose music I now revere?  What details was she unwittingly misremembering?  But none of those details truly matter.  The fuzziness, the half-wrongness of the story is essential to its charm, its enchantment. 

That story is one of only a few windows I have into the life of my parents before I was born, before I saw them as My Parents, In Charge Of Everything.  I recall with cinematic force those rare moments when they gleefully revealed something of their youthful romantic selves.  Once, because of a record I was playing, they broke out of Being Parents to show me, in the living room with its gray rug, how they danced the Shag in the mid-forties.  That bit of unexpected choreography lasted no more than twenty seconds, but it is indelible today. 

There’s no moral to this tale, no implicit suggestion to readers, whether they are parents or children.  Many of the questions that we want to ask we can no longer ask, and the dead take their past lives and their untold stories with them.  But the glimpses they give of what it was like Before The World Was Made are tantalizing, lovely, elusive.

AURELIE TROPEZ / PAUL ASARO (July 12, 2009)

Near the end of the Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival, I left one session featuring a medium-sized band, preferring to be in a corner in the lobby of the “Cotton Club” bar. 

What awaited me there was a half-hour set of duets between clarinet goddess Aurelie Tropez (of the Red Hot Reedwarmers) and soft-spoken stride monarch Paul Asaro.  Their brand of chamber jazz was more than rewarding — but what amused me was the streams of people, leaving the “Cotton Club,” who paraded along while the music was playing, oblvious to the music or perhaps sated by what they had just heard. 

I wanted to call this post WALK ON BY or WALK THIS WAY, but decided that an excess of whimsy might be . . .  excessive.  So the first two performances here are punctuated by headless torsos ambling across the screen.  Viewers who are easily distracted by such things might choose to turn away from the monitor — but don’t be swayed, because the soundtrack is too good to pass by. 

They began with a slow-medium reading of SHOE SHINE BOY, much closer to Louis than to Jones-Smith, Inc.:

To change the mood, Aurelie suggested THEM THERE EYES:

A nearly ominous BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GAVE (or GIVES?) TO ME, a la Jimmie Noone:

HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, for Tom Waller:

And, finally, SHINE (or (S-H-I-N-E), depending.  They stomp it off, don’t they? 

 

Two players having a good time, listening to one another, with nary a cliche in sight.  Paul made that slightly recalcitrant piano sing, and Aurelie is long overdue for her own CD.  What tonation and phrasing! 

P.S.  This post is for Bridget Calzaretta, Martin Seck, Stompy Jones, and Boris, of course . . .