Tag Archives: courage

“THE DAPOGNY EFFECT,” or, PROF. TO THE RESCUE

James Dapogny at Jazz at Chautauqua, September 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman.

I am never sure how closely the audience at a live performance is paying attention to the details of the music being created in front of them.  Because I have spent a long time considering the subtleties of this holy art, I believe I hear and see more near-collisions than those who (happily) absorb only the outlines of the music.

I’m not boasting: my over-attentiveness is like being the person at the movies who can notice that a character went out the door in one scene with a green scarf and when we see her in the next shot — no scarf. . . not exactly like having perfect pitch, but the analogy might work.

Today, I am going to show-and-tell an experience that I happened to capture for posterity (or, perhaps, “for posterior”).  I present it not to embarrass the musicians I revere, but to praise their collective resilience, ingenuity, and perseverance.  In this case, that redemption in 4/4 is because of my hero, Professor James Dapogny, who might have cocked a skeptical eyebrow at what I am doing and said, “Michael, do you really need to do this?” and I would have explained why.

For those who already feel slightly impatient with the word-offering, I apologize.  Please come back tomorrow.  I’ll still be at it, and you will be welcome.

An uncharitable observer might consider the incident I am about to present and say, “Well, it’s all Marty Grosz’s fault.”  I would rather salute Marty: without a near-disaster, how could we have a triumphant transformation?  Or, unless Kitty escapes from her basket and climbs the tree, how can she be rescued by the firemen?  Precariousness becomes a virtue: ask any acrobat.

But this is about a performance of I WISHED ON THE MOON that Marty and Company attempted at Jazz at Chautauqua on a late morning or early afternoon session in September 2008, along with Duke Heitger, trumpet; Dan Block, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Chuck Wilson, alto saxophone; Dan Barrett, trombone; Professor Dapogny, piano; Marty, guitar and vocal; Vince Giordano, string bass; Pete Siers, drums.  The amateurish camera work in bright sunshine is evidence that it was one of my sub rosa escapades: I was using a Flip camera and trying to not get caught by the authorities.

We know Marty as a peerless work of nature: guitarist, singer, wit, artist, vaudevillian.  But many might not be aware that one of his great talents is arranging.  Yes, he can uplift an impromptu session on BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, but he loves the effects that can be created by any ensemble with directions sketched out on manuscript paper and then hastily explained on the spot: “No repeats!” “jump to letter D,” “trumpet break at the start of the last chorus,” and so on.  Marty works hard on these things, and his earliest recordings — although he dismisses them as “‘prentice work” — show him in pursuit of the ideal: swinging, varied, surprising, effective.

But he is happier with pen and pencil than with the computer, so a Marty score is handwritten, in calligraphy that is italic, precise, lovely, but not as easy to read (especially in dim stage light, seen for the first time, without rehearsal) as the printed scores many musicians are used to in this century.

Thus, the possibility of chaos.  Thus, the possibility of triumph.

In the recording studio, when things start to go awry, musicians used to look at each other and break into a sort of Twenties near-hokey jamming, away from the score, and the “take” would end in laughter.  A “breakdown,” the recording engineer would call it.  Or the engineer would give a piercing whistle, to say, “Let’s start over.”  You can hear this on “rejected takes” by Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, and many other jazz heroes, that have been saved over the decades.  They are reassuring proof that our jazz-deities are human, that people get off on the wrong foot, that someone missed a cue or made a mistake.

In performance, though, in front of an audience, musicians do not want to stop and say, “We loused this up.  Let’s start over,” although I have seen it happen: it is the equivalent of Groucho speaking directly to the audience in a film, “breaking through the fourth wall,” and it is always surprising.

But back to our musical and heroic interlude.  I WISHED ON THE MOON is made famous by Billie Holiday, but it is not by any means a classic, a standard, part of “the repertoire” so often played that musicians perform it with full confidence (take AS LONG AS I LIVE as an example of the second kind).  MOON has its own twists and traps for the unwary.  The very expert musicians in this band, however, had at most been given a minute or two before the set to know the tune list and to glance at the manuscripts Marty had given them — roadmaps through the treacherous landscape.  But since everyone on this bandstand is a complete professional, with years of sight-reading and experience, it would not have been expected that they needed rehearsal to play a song like MOON.

That Marty gives directions to this crew before they start suggests to me that they hadn’t seen his score before, nor would they stand in front of the audience studying it and discussing it.  Professionals don’t want to give the impression that they are puzzled by any aspect of their craft while the people who have paid to see and hear them are waiting for the next aural delicacy to be served.

Thus, Professor Dapogny, who “knew the score,” plays his four-bar introduction with verve and assurance.  He knows where he is.  But the front line is faced with a score that calls for Dan Barrett, master melodist, to play the theme while the reeds back him up, and Dan Block, another sure-footed spellbinder, plays the bridge neatly.  Marty has his eyeglasses on — to read his own chart — and he essays a vocal, trusting to memory to guide him through the mostly-remembered lyrics, turning his lapses into comedy, more Fats than Billie.  While this is unrolling, the Professor’s rollicking supportive accompaniment is enthralling, although one has to make an effort to not be distracted by Marty’s vocalizing.

I feel his relief at “having gotten through that,” and lovely choruses by Duke Heitger and Dan Block, now on tenor saxophone, follow.  However, the performance has a somewhat homemade flavor to it — that is, unless we have been paying attention to the Professor’s marking the chords and transitions in a splendidly rhythmic way: on this rock, he shows us, we can build our jazz church.  He has, in the nicest and most necessary way, taken charge of the band.

At this point, my next-seat neighbor (there by chance, not connection) decides she needs more lemon or a napkin; her entrance and sudden arising are visually distracting, even now.

But, at around 3:55, the Professor says — with notes, not words — that he himself is going to climb the ladder and rescue Kitty; he is going to turn a possibly competent-but-flawed performance into SOMETHING.

And does he ever! — with a ringing phrase that causes both Marty and Dan Block to turn their heads, as if to say, “Wow, that’s the genuine article,” and the performance stands up, straightens its tie, brushes the crumbs off its lap, and rocks.  Please go back and observe a thrilling instant: a great artist completely in the moment, using everything he knows to focus a group of adult creators towards a desired result that is miles above what would have resulted if he had blandly played an ordinary accompaniment.

And you thought only Monk danced during his performances?  Watch Marty, joyously and goofily, respond to what his friend Jim has made happen.  After that, the band must decipher Marty’s swing hieroglyphics, his on-the-spot directions, “Play a fill!” and someone — to cover up a blank spot — whistles a phrase, and the performance half-swings, half-wanders to its conclusion.  Relief sweeps the bandstand.

These five minutes are highly imperfect, but also heroic: great improvisers making their courageous way through territory where their maps are ripped, unreadable, and incomplete — refusing to give up the quest.

If you need to understand why I have written so much about Professor Dapogny, why his absence is a huge void in my universe and that of others who knew and love him, watch this performance again for his masterful individualistic guidance: Toscanini in a safari jacket.  Completely irreplaceable, modeling joy and courage all at once.

May your happiness increase!

FEAR, OR JOY? YOU PICK.

Someone asked me last week why I wore a Louis Armstrong button, and without thinking, I said, “He taught me how to live my life,” which I was proud of saying. I know that CABARET was written by Kander and Ebb, but I encourage you to take three minutes or so and listen — I mean listen — to Louis’s 1966 version (the one with strings).

That song, and Louis’ performance of it, has a special relevance for me at this moment.  Friends and family are devoting their energies to being afraid of the Coronavirus.  I hear of their buying masks and hand sterilizer, stocking up on food and water for when “the lockdown” comes, restricting their travel.  I can hear their voices over the phone, trying to mask their frightened disapproval, when I say I am getting on a plane in perhaps ninety hours to fly to Monterey for the Jazz Bash by the Bay, which begins March 5.  “You’re getting on a plane, Michael?  Well, be careful not to to touch your face.  You could wear a pair of gloves . . . ”

Their caution might be well-founded.  I could contract the virus, it could turn into pneumonia, I could die.  Or, I could get hit by a Range Rover as I cross the street, even when I have the light in my favor. I’m  not being facetious.  And I hear the voices of my loving over-cautious parents, “Be careful.  Be careful!”

But the opposite of Fear is Courage, and Courage has as its reward Joy.  If I stay home, I won’t hear these fellows play and sing:

So I’m on my way to Monterey on Thursday morning, and here‘s the schedule, a wondrous hot-jazz version of Ceres’ cornucopia.  You pick: stay at home with those books you’ve been promising yourself to read, and perhaps some takeout as a treat, or venture forth with plans to live joyously.  (I know some of you can’t fly to Monterey, but adapt my encouragements to your own neighborhood.)

Now I have to finish packing.

May your happiness increase!

CONFESSIN’

Muggsy_Spanier

I just acquired the late Bert Whyatt’s bio-discography of Muggsy Spanier, THE LONESOME ROAD.  Published by Jazzology Press in 1995, it feels fresh.

I read non-fiction books haphazardly, especially when I know the shape of the narrative, but for some reason I began this one at the beginning, where Bert wrote of his connection with Ruth, Muggsy’s widow, and her wholehearted cooperation in the book, which combines his research with her unpublished memoir.

I found this passage on page 7 and think it moving beyond simple explanation. (Note: in his last years, the Spaniers lived in Sausalito, California, a town the Beloved and I came to know):

One evening, we [Bert and his wife and Ruth] returned to Sausalito from San Francisco and Ruth asked us to pull the car off the road which runs down from the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We often would stop here for a last cigarette after the Club Hangover had closed for the night,” she said.  “It helped Muggsy to unwind and we would usually sit quietly, saying little.  Sometimes he would seek reassurance that I loved  him. ‘I feel so lonely and afraid,’ he would say. I would remind him of the affection felt for him worldwide, of all his friends who loved him and, of course, that I did too.”

She paused and then said, “If we ever get that book finished, we should call it ‘Muggsy Spanier: The Lonesome Road.'”

My first reaction to this little tale was astonishment, then sorrow.  To think that a man so much at one with his art, after an evening of sharing joy through his music, could feel so desolate and frightened, was nearly shattering.

I then thought wryly that I had been wrong in assuming that playing hot cornet was armor against existential dread. . . . that a plunger mute could keep such essential anxiety at a distance.

But even as I felt sorrow and sympathy for Muggsy, I was flooded with pride and admiration.  He was born in 1901, and it might be cliched to write  that men of that generation were told it was unmanly to reveal their hearts with such openness, perhaps even to their wives.  Being male required staunchness and emotional reserve. Oh, one could say “I love you!” to one’s Beloved, one could woo the person one wanted to be intimate with by using words like those, one could say it to children.  But to say I NEED LOVE and I AM AFRAID was not something men were trained or encouraged to do. Candor like that might have seemed a confession of weakness.

But somehow Muggsy knew that his emotions were the magical element that made him able to play the blues, or the love song that he aimed directly at Ruth in their courtship, I’M CONFESSIN’. Love was at the center of his art.  And such heartfelt candid utterance.  And he found the courage to push aside his expected role and, in the darkness, speak his truths.

I celebrate Ruth also for creating an atmosphere where her husband could confess his inmost heart and receive reassurance and love, not dismissal or mockery.  She must have understood her husband’s need as genuine and commendable.  She didn’t say to him, “What is wrong with you, talking like that?”

Perhaps she knew that it takes a brave individual to openly say, “I am afraid,” an honest one to say, “I am lonely.”

Because of this anecdote, the man I admired as a jazz musician is now enhanced rather than diminished, a figure larger and more beautiful than an anxious man seeking reassurance.  Muggsy Spanier, perhaps an unlikely figure, is the embodiment of our deep need for love — a hero of that exalted emotion.  He seems to have known that without it, we wither.

His own road might have been lonesome, but I find his openness inspiring and brave.

May your happiness increase!

“COMING FROM MY HEART”: JENNIFER JANE LEITHAM’S “I STAND CORRECTED”

Jennifer Jane Leitham is a remarkable musician and a singular person.  I met her for the first time a year ago at the Sacramento Music Festival, and liked her on the spot: she is forthright and sweet-natured.

But I wasn’t only meeting someone who could truly play that cumbersome instrument: I was meeting a woman who had triumphantly made it through a very long and arduous journey.

She’s a brave person, and the documentary about her, I STAND CORRECTED, is something you should see.  Here’s the trailer:

This process of being human, of becoming the person you were meant to be, is not always easy, although those who keep on keepin’ on may find deep rewards.

I STAND CORRECTED has been showing all across the country . . . look for it wherever courageous motion pictures are shown!

And if the trailer moves you, click here to vote for the trailer (it’s number 139, down the page) so that this film can be seen by a wider audience.

May your happiness increase.

IN FRONT OF OUR EYES (Chautauqua 2009)

Here are songs from the very first informal set of music at the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua, where we watched and heard our heroes create. 

People for whom jazz is a foreign language ask, “How do they do that, I mean, without music in front of them?  How do they know what they’re doing?”  The answer, of course, is a mix of skill, experience, and daring, beyond mastery of one’s instrument: knowing the chord changes to YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY is one preliminary step; knowing how to play whatever comes to mind another; knowing what not to play a third; having the courage to follow one’s impulses perhaps the final and greatest step.  No amount of immersion in the jazz tradition, no amount of studying recordings, can make up for an absence of courage and playfulness.

Inspired playfulness was evident all through the first set — with musicians who don’t always have the opportunity to get together and exchange ideas: Andy Schumm, cornet; Andy Stein, forsaking his violin for the baritone sax; Dan Barrett, trombone; Bob Reitmeier, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Vince Giordano, bass; Marty Grosz, guitar; John Von Ohlen, drums.  A close observer will notice a good deal of making-it-up-as-we-go-along here . . . which is not the same thing as uncertainty or tentativeness.  Rather, it is a willingness to invent while the car is in fourth gear, to say, “Let’s try this and not worry too much whether it’s perfect or not.”  That attitude can add up to train wrecks when less inspired players gather; here, it made some great loose playing possible.  You will notice, as a wonderful added benefit, the smiles on the musicians’ faces, their attentive listening to each others’ solos.  Viewers who like their videos uncluttered will have to get used to the backs of people’s heads in front of me — I could identify most of them as friends! — but their rhythmic bobbing and weaving doesn’t distract from the experience: it’s a pleasure to see the audience, attentive and quiet, but having a fine time.   

The first song is an exploration of a Twenties composition, attractive because its twists and turns aren’t overfamiliar: WABASH BLUES.  I admire the rocking motion of that rhythm section, at once intense and cool; Dapogny’s solo (it would have been perfectly in place in a Chicago joint circa 1933), Reitmeier and Barrett, building splendid solos out of logically-connected short phrases; Andy Schumm, rough-housing and tumbling around in his surprising Wild Bill Davison manner, and an especially impassioned Andy Stein — before the ensemble rocks it all out:

A trotting version of THE SHEIK OF ARABY ewcalled a Red Nichols-Jack Teagarden record of 1929, where Teagarden improvised a stirring solo over the band’s humming the straight melody behind him.  SHEIK is sometimes taken much faster; I admire this band’s steady lope:

Dan Barrett, like Duke Heitger, likes to begin performances of YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY with the rather-rare verse, and this performance took off from his outlining the brief melody.  This version tipped its collective cap to Louis and to the Bennie Moten band and its later Kansas City incarnations.  Barrett, suggesting that being driven crazy could be pleasurably romantic, quotes both SAY IT and the verse to LOVE IN BLOOM, with whatever associations imaginable:

I could write more about these performances, but I’m going to watch them again.  You come, too.

O RARE BENT PERSSON (and FRIENDS)!

Last night — Thursday, July 9, 2009 —  I witnessed the kind of jazz creativity and bravery that at times left me with tears in my eyes. 

The occasion was a concert organized by the Swedish trumpeter / cornetist / Louis Armstrong scholar Bent Persson, one of my heroes, in tribute to his hero Louis: “YOUNG LOUIS,” which — in two hour-long sets — demonstrated much about Louis’s first six years of recordings as well as the majesty of players now alive. 

The band was a stellar international crew: Mike Durham, tpt, joining Bent at the start and finish, as well as being a most adept and witty master of ceremonies; the gruff trombonist Paul Munnery; the brilliant reedman (clarinet and alto this time) Matthias Seuffert; the nimble pianist Martin Litton; the remarkable plectrist (banjos and guitar) Jacob Ullberger; the very fine brass bassist Phil Rutherford; the frankly astonishing percussionist Nick Ward.  The concert took place at the very modern Sage Gateshead in Newcastle, UK — lovely acoustics and a sound engineer at the back who was truly paying attention!  I attempted to videotape the whole thing (being a man of daring but not much discretion) but was stopped by an usher who whispered ferociously that there was NO photography of any kind allowed and I would have to leave if I continued . . . so I stopped.  But I did capture the band’s second song, a stately rock through King Joe Oliver’s WHERE DID YOU STAY LAST NIGHT? — much as it might have sounded in Chicago, 1922-23.  My video doesn’t capture everything — but you can see the graceful arcs of Nick Ward’s arms behind his drum set: I had a hard time taking my eyes off of him.   

Lovely as it is, that performance can’t summon up all of what I found so moving in this concert.  It wasn’t a pure repertory performance, where musicians strive to reproduce old records “live”; no, what was fascinating was the fervent interplay between the Past and Now, between the Great Figures and the living players onstage.  Everyone in this band knew the original records, but they were encouraged to dance back and forth between honoring the past by playing it note-for-note and by going for themselves.  Thus, Bent created solos that sounded like ones Louis might have — should have! — recorded, and his bravery and risk-taking were more than heartening.  I have never seen him in person, and he would give the most timid of us courage to learn the craft, to shut our eyes, and to make something new.  His playing on POTATO HEAD BLUES was immensely moving — watching him dare the Fates and declare his love for Louis in front of our eyes.  Bent also sang in several performances — mostly scatting, but once or twice delivering the lyrics in a sweetly earnest way — another example of an artist going beyond the amazing things we’ve already come to expect.  It was also delightful to watch the musicians grin broadly at each other as the beautiful solos and ensemble work unfolded.   

The concert moved briskly from Louis’s sojourn with Oliver to his work with Clarence Williams small groups, his own Hot Five and Seven, an evocation of Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards, Louis’s duet with Earl Hines, his Hot Choruses (as reimagined by Bent over a thirty-year period), with more than a few surprises.  One of them — gloriously — was the appearance of bass saxophone titan Frans Sjostrom for a version of BEAU KOO JACK by the trio called, so correctly, the Hot Jazz Trio (their one CD is under that name on the Kenneth label): Bent, Jacob, and Frans.  Wonderful both in itself and as a reinvention of that brightly ornate recording.  Sjostrom stayed around for the final ensemble celebration on HIGH SOCIETY, which brought tears to my eyes.   

I am posting this on Friday morning, hours before the Whitley Bay extravaganza — some 130 bands playing in rotation for three days in four simultaneous locations — is scheduled to begin.  There’ll be more magnificent, moving jazz, I am sure!  It promises to be both uplifting and overwhelming.  (And, as an extra delight, I am joined here by two of my three Official British Cousins — Bob Cox and John Whitehorn — men of great humor, generosity, and sensibility — whom I first met at Westoverledingen, Germany, in 2007, when we were rapt attendees at another Manfred Selchow jazz festival.  Always nice to have friends nearby!)

A postscript: at the concert, copies of an otherwise unknown compact disc were for sale — a recording of a similar YOUNG LOUIS concert from 2002, with many of the same players.  I snapped up one copy (paying for it, of course) and by the end of the concert, the CDs were all gone.  Let us hope that Bent and Co. choose to reissue that one and other versions.  I’m going to treasure it, as well as my memories of the concert I experienced.