Tag Archives: Count Basie

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!

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“LITTLE THINGS THAT DON’T GET INTO THE HISTORY BOOKS”: DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS TALES of SYMPHONY SID TORIN, WILLIS CONOVER, ARTIE SHAW, and COOTIE WILLIAMS (June 8, 2018)

I am so fortunate in many ways, some of them not evident on this site.  But JAZZ LIVES readers will understand that my being able to interview Dan Morgenstern at his home from March 2017 on — at irregular intervals — is a gift I would not have dreamed possible when I was only A Wee Boy reading his liner notes and DOWN BEAT articles.

Dan is an unaffected master of small revealing insights that show character: in some ways, he is a great short-story writer even though he is working with factual narrative.  Watching these interviews, you’ll go away with Artie Shaw pacing the room and talking, Willis Conover’s ashtrays, Cootie Williams reverently carrying Louis’ horn back to the latter’s hotel, and more.

About ten days ago, we spent another ninety minutes where Dan told affectionate tales of Jaki Byard, Ulysses Kay, Randy Weston, Kenny Dorham, and more.  Those videos will come to light in time.  But we had a marathon session last June, with stories of Louis, Cozy Cole, Milt Hinton, Coltrane, Roy, Teddy, Basie, Joe Wilder, Ed Berger, Perry Como and others — which you can savor here.  And, although it sounds immodest, you should.  (I also have videos of a July session with Dan: stay tuned, as they used to say.)

Here are more delightful stories from the June session.

Dan remembers Symphony Sid Torin, with sidebars about John Hammond, Nat Lorber, Rudi Blesh, Stan Kenton at Carnegie Hall, Roy Eldridge, and jazz radio in general:

Dan’s affectionate portrait of another man with a mission concerning jazz — the Voice of America’s Willis Conover:

and some afterthoughts about Willis:

and, to conclude, another leisurely portrait, early and late, of Artie Shaw:

with Artie as a “champion talker,” and a gig at Bop City, and sidelights about Benny Goodman and Cootie Williams, the latter reverent of Louis:

Thank you, Dan, for so generously making these people, scenes, and sounds come so alive.

May your happiness increase!

PISMO JOYS (Part Five): “LARRY, DAWN, and FRIENDS”: LARRY SCALA, DAWN LAMBETH, DANNY TOBIAS, CARL SONNY LEYLAND, BILL BOSCH // CHLOE FEORANZO, DANNY COOTS (October 26 and 27, 2018, Jazz Jubilee by the Sea)

One of the great highlights of the 2018 Pismo Jazz Jubilee by the Sea was the small flexible swing groups led by guitarist Larry Scala, featuring the wonderful singing of Dawn Lambeth. Without being consciously imitative, they harked back to the great Thirties and Forties recordings and performances of Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Charlie Christian, Count Basie, Mildred Bailey, Benny Goodman, and more.  But they weren’t ancient artifacts behind glass: they swung and were full of joyous expertise.  Here are three more performances, the first two featuring Larry, Dawn, bassist Bill Bosch, trumpeter Danny Tobias, pianist Carl Sonny Leyland; the third, from the next day, featuring clarinetist Chloe Feoranzo instead of Danny, and adding drummer Danny Coots.

Dee-lightful.

Irving Berlin’s ALL BY MYSELF:

Walter Donaldson’s LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME:

And from the next day, Dawn, Larry, and Bill, with Danny Coots, drums; Chloe Feoranzo, clarinet, for Cole Porter’s YOU’D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO:

Thanks to all these creative people for bringing their own brand of sweet swing to Pismo.  I hope they’ll be brightening the corners in 2019.

May your happiness increase!

THEY CAN REALLY DO THAT THING, AND MORE: FLOYD DOMINO’S ALL-STARS

That’s no idle claim.  Here’s the cover of the band’s new CD, which features Floyd, piano and arrangements; Emily Gamble, vocal; Lauryn Gould, saxophone, arrangements; Ryan Gould, string bass; David Jellema, clarinet, cornet; Brooks Prumo, guitar; Hal Smith, drums.

And here’s a lively audio sample:

and another, with organic Lester-and-Buck flavoring:

I know that there are many excellent small and mid-sized “swing dance” units in operation these days, and if you’ve been reading JAZZ LIVES, you’ve heard my praise of them from New York to Vancouver and Texas.  We live in an age of good music (so those who lament the death of jazz are just wrong) but Floyd’s group has that most wonderful quality, a completely recognizable sound: individuals in solo and in ensemble.  I don’t have to clamber up on my soapbox and say that “When I was a boy you could tell who someone was in four quarter notes: Frank Newton didn’t sound like Charlie Shavers,” and so on.  But you know it’s true.

Again, if you’ve been paying attention, you know these musicians — or the two videos have offered convincing evidence of why you should.  But rather than write a handful of enthusiastic character sketches, for once I want to say something about the band, which has all the glide and grit of a working unit.  Smooth, but hardly decaffeinated.  What I hear in these performances is a kind of easy rhythmic intensity — think of a Forties small unit that has understood that shuffle rhythm, never heavy or obvious, gets the dancers on the floor.  (Although RIFF BLUES and the powerful MESS AROUND are solid exceptions: house-rocking music.)

The arrangements, as well, often feature Floyd’s groovy piano, but he isn’t always all alone. Rather, in the fashion of Basie and McShann, the piano often works against horn backgrounds (although the first choruses of HONEYSUCKLE give a nice simulation of Basie-time without any of the patented cliches, and DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS starts off with a honeyed sixteen bars of piano-and-rhythm before some pretty horn solos.  For the rest, you’re on your own, with notepad and pen if you please).

This CD is a homage to the music of another age, but it’s not imitative, although I now know the new lyrics to BLUE SKIES come from Slim Gaillard and the Royal Rhythm Boys; ‘WAY DOWN YONDER bows low to the Kansas City Six.

I will break with what I wrote earlier to say that Ms. Gamble is a wow: begin with her EXACTLY LIKE YOU and AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  “Tonation and phrasing” in abundance!

The preponderance of “standard repertoire” on the disc, incidentally, should not drive any listener away.  Yes, you’ve heard TEA FOR TWO countless times, but this band makes even the most ancient song seem fresh and vivid, and, yes, that is a little cap-tip to Tatum.  I know also that the phrase “little arranging touches” is so overused that I should banish it, but in this case it’s true: the balance of ensemble and solos is so very pleasing, novel without being ostentatiously “innovative.”

How can you bring this joy into your own life?  Ideally, if you’re at one of Floyd’s gigs, bring money and buy a cluster of CDs.  The holidays are coming, and so much holiday merchandise is designed to be obsolete the next morning.  This CD won’t be.  Or visit here and spread some joy.  But don’t give all the copies away: you’ll be sorry.

All I can say — for those who get the joke — is that if this band had existed in 1947, Jack Kapp or Herman Lubinsky would have signed them to disastrously corrupt contracts and they would be absolutely legendary.  How lovely it is that they are alive and well in our own century.

May your happiness increase!

SWEET LESSONS IN MELODIC EMBELLISHMENT (1946)

I woke up yesterday morning with the melody of SHE DIDN’T SAY YES in my head — as performed in 1946 by Joe Thomas and his Orchestra for Keynote Records — and that performance insisted that I share it and write a few words in its honor.  The song comes from the 1931 Jerome Kern – Otto Harbach musical comedy THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE, and it is limited in its ambitions (words and music) but it is also irresistible.  The steplike melody is difficult to get rid of once one hears it, and the coy naughtiness of the lyric — raising the question of being “bad” when badness seems so delightful, but tossing the moral question back at the listener — combine in a kind of musical miniature cupcake.

Here is a video clip from the 1934 film version of the play — Jeanette MacDonald, looking lovely, sings SHE DIDN’T after a large clump of cinematic foolishness, including post-Code dancing, has concluded. (My contemporary perspective makes this scene slightly painful to watch, as Jeanette is bullied by the crowd into declaring a love that she seems to feel only in part.)

The song was recorded a number of times in the early Thirties (by Leo Reisman and Chick Bullock, among others) but may have surfaced again with the 1946 film biography of Kern, who had died suddenly the year before, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY.  However, since its performance in the film by the Wilde Twins goes by quickly, I think other reasons may have led to its being chosen for this Keynote Records date.  Did Harry Lim hear something in its melody — those repeated notes that Alec Wilder deplored — or did Joe Thomas like to play it?  We’ll never know, but it is a recording both memorable and forgotten.

The band was “Joe Thomas And His Orchestra,” itself a rare occurrence.  Lim had used Joe on many sessions for Keynote (the Forties were a particular period of prominence on records for him, thankfully — where he recorded alongside Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries).  The band was  Joe Thomas, trumpet; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Hy White, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Lee Abrams, drums, and it was done in New York on August 16, 1946.  I don’t know who did the backgrounds and introduction, but the recording is a small marvel of originalities.  I listen first for the soloists and their distinctive sounds and then consider the performance as an example of what one could do with texture and small orchestral touches with only an octet.

I first heard this record coming out of my radio speaker when Ed Beach did a show devoted to Joe Thomas — perhaps in 1969 — and then I got to see Joe both on the stage of Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls (with Benny Carter and Eddie Condon, consider that!) and at much closer range in 1972-74, thanks to the kindness of my dear Mike Burgevin.

I don’t want to subject this recording to chorus-by-chorus explication, but I would ask listeners to hear the individual sounds and tones these players had: Joe, Tyree, Hilton, Jerry — each man singing his own distinctively recognizable song — and the perky unflagging rhythm section, with Leighton beautifully doing Basie-Wilson-Guarnieri, and the lovely support of Billy Taylor, Sr., who had kept the Ellington band swinging.

“We had faces then!” to borrow from SUNSET BOULEVARD.

I keep coming back to the gleaming warm sound of Joe Thomas — in the first chorus, outlining the melody as if nothing in the world were more important; in the closing chorus, flavoring and shading it as only he could.  And the rest of the band.  As a friend said to me recently, “They were pros.  They really knew how to do it.”  And bless Harry Lim: without him, we would know such things happened but they would now be silent and legendary rather than tangible and glowing.

This music says YES, no hesitation.

May your happiness increase!

OUR MAN DAN: DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS TALES of COZY COLE, BENNY CARTER, MILT HINTON, LOUIS ARMSTRONG, TEDDY WILSON, COUNT BASIE, JOHN COLTRANE, ROY ELDRIDGE, JOE WILDER, ED BERGER, and PERRY COMO (June 8, 2018)

Dan Morgenstern, now 89, is so full of wonderful stories — sharply-realized, hilarious, sad — that my job as a visitor with a camera has usually been to set up the video equipment, do a sound check, ask a leading question, and sit back in bliss.  Here’s the first half of my June 2018 visit to Dan’s nest.  Beautiful narratives are all nicely set out for us.

I’d already posted the first one — a total surprise, a heroic reaction to injustice — but I would like more people to hear and see it:

More about Cozy Cole and friends, including Milt Hinton, Cab Calloway, and a hungry Benny Carter:

More about Milt Hinton, with wonderful anecdotes about Louis and Joe Glaser, Dizzy Gillespie, Cozy Cole, and Mel Lewis:

And some beautiful stories about Count Basie — including Dan’s attendance at a Town Hall concert with Basie, Roy Eldridge, and John Coltrane:

Finally (for this posting — there will be a continuation) memories of Joe Wilder, Ed Berger, with a comment about Roy Eldridge:

That we have Dan Morgenstern with us to tell such tales is a wonderful thing.  As Louis said to the King, “This one’s for you, Rex!”

May your happiness increase!

PISMO JOYS (Part One): “LARRY, DAWN, and FRIENDS”: LARRY SCALA, DAWN LAMBETH, MARC CAPARONE, BILL BOSCH, DANNY COOTS (October 26, 2018, Jazz Jubilee by the Sea)

Only a few days ago, I had my first immersion in the pleasures of Pismo — not the sunsets or the salt-water taffy, but the musical joys of the Jazz Jubilee by the Sea, which combines congenial people and seriously uplifting music.

What finally got me to Pismo (aside from the immense kindness of Linda and John Shorb and other helpful folks) was the chance to hear and see some friends and heroes in new combinations: Larry Scala, guitar; Dawn Lambeth, vocals; Marc Caparone and Danny Tobias, cornet and trumpet; Dave Caparone, trombone; Carl Sonny Leyland, piano and vocal; Danny Coots and Jim Lawlor, drums; Steve Pikal and Bill Bosch, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar and vocal; the Au Brothers; and — new to me in person — the Shake ‘Em Up Band and Jeff Beaumont’s Creole Syncopators.  She didn’t play an instrument, but I was also able to be dazzled by my Facebook friend Brettie Page.

But first on my list was “Larry, Dawn, and Friends,” a group that delighted me throughout the weekend.  Readers will know how much I admire Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, and Danny Coots, but it was a pleasure to see Larry — with his nice mixture of the blues, Basie, and Charlie Christian — lead a small group.  His long-time friend Bill Bosch also impressed me because Bill is a purist who plays without amplification and has a lovely sound.

Here are three highlights from the first set I caught.  First, the rarely-played swing tune COQUETTE, yes, by Carmen Lombardo:

Dawn’s lovely version of the Gershwins’ THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME:

And a lightly swinging THAT OLD FEELING that has a truly feeling coda:

More to come!  (I’ve already been invited back to Pismo for next year, and it took a long pause of several miliseconds for me to say “Yes!”)

May your happiness increase!