Tag Archives: Dave McKenna

BORN TO PLAY: THE RUBY BRAFF DISCOGRAPHY and DIRECTORY OF PERFORMANCES

THIS JUST IN (Sept. 8, 2012): BORN TO PLAY is available at a special discount price.  I feel honored — this is the first official JAZZ LIVES promotional code!

JAZZ LIVES SPECIAL PRICE: Available directly from the publisher with 25% discount ($71.25 + $5.00 shipping): https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780810882645 and enter special Jazz Lives promotion code in shopping cart: 7M12BTPRB

I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time, and it’s even better than I anticipated.  It is the latest volume in the Scarecrow Press “Studies in Jazz” series, nearly 750 pages of information about the late cornetist.

Its author, Thomas P. Hustad, knew Ruby, spoke with him, and had Ruby’s full cooperation and enthusiastic advocacy.  Although the book isn’t a biography, nearly every page offers a deeper understanding of Ruby, musician and personality, and the contexts within which he operated.

Ruby would have been a challenging subject for a typical biography.  For one thing, although jazz musicians seem to lead unusual lives (nocturnal rather than diurnal hours, for one thing) they take their work with the utmost seriousness, and their daily responsibilities are not much different from ours.  A diary of what Ruby, for instance, accomplished when the horn was not up to his lips, might not be particularly revealing.  And Ruby’s strong, often volatile personality might have led a book astray into the darker realms of pathobiography: a chronological unfolding of the many times Ruby said exactly what was on his mind with devastating results would grow wearying quickly, and would leave even the most sympathetic reader with a sour impression.

No, Ruby wanted to be remembered for his music, and Tom honored that request.  So there is no psychoanalysis here, in an attempt to explore why Ruby could be so mercurial — generous and sweet-natured to some, vocal in defense of his friends, furious at injustice, fiercely angry without much apparent provocation otherwise.  True, the reader who peruses this book for tales of inexplicably bad behavior will find some, but BORN TO PLAY offers so much more.

Its purpose is to celebrate and document Ruby’s playing and recording over more than half a century.  What a body of recordings he left us!  From the earliest Boston broadcasts in 1949 to his final August 2002 appearance in Scotland with Scott Hamilton (happily available on an Arbors Records 2-CD set), Ruby played alongside the greatest names in jazz history.

Without looking at the book, I think of Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, Nat Pierce, Dave McKenna, Freddie Green, Milt Hinton, Walter Page, Buck Clayton, Buddy Tate, Dick Hafer, Scott Hamilton, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, Dick Hyman, Teddi King, Lee Wiley, Ellis Larkins, Mel Powell, Oscar Pettiford, George Wein, George Barnes, Michael Moore, Ralph Sutton, Kenny Davern, Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Howard Alden, Frank Tate, Jack Lesberg, John Bunch, Sir Charles Thompson, Trummy Young, Bob Wilber, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Dan Barrett, Tony Bennett, Coleman Hawkins, Lawrence Brown, Ernie Caceres, Bob Brookmeyer, Benny Morton, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Rushing, Urbie Green.

BORN TO PLAY is more than a straightforward discographical listing of Ruby’s issued recordings (although even there I found surprises: Ruby’s sessions with the Weavers, a final unissued Vanguard session, work with Larry Adler, Lenny Solomon, and others).  From his earliest appearances, listeners noticed that Mr. Braff was something special.  Jazz critics made much of him as an “anachronism,” someone whose style came out of Louis Armstrong rather than Miles Davis, but such assessments missed the point.

Ruby was one of the great romantics and improvising dramatists: he could take the most familiar melody and find new lyricism in it, singing it out as if he had become Fred Astaire or Judy Garland or Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS rather than “a saloon entertainer with a bit of tin in his hand.”  Ruby’s playing touches some hidden impulses in us — our need to express emotions without holding back — but his wasn’t the “barbaric yawp,” but quiet intensity with many surprises on the way.

His admirers (among whom I count myself) paid tribute to their hero by recording his performances whenever possible — the chronicle of private recordings begins in 1949 and continues to the end.  Those private recordings are  more than tantalizing: Ruby’s encounters with Louis, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Buddy Rich, Danny Moss, Sidney Catlett, Benny Carter . . .as well as his day-to-day gigs with musicians both famous and little-known across the globe.

One of the surprises in this book is that Ruby worked so often: before he became known for his singular approach to melodic improvisation, he was a diligently gigging musician.  (In print, Ruby sometimes complained about his inability to find congenial work: these listings suggest that aside from some early stretches where it was difficult to get gigs, he was well-employed.)

BORN TO PLAY also contains rare and unseen photographs, and the text is interspersed with entertaining stories: Nat Pierce and the sardine cans, Benny Goodman and the staircase, and more.

What this book reminds us of is the masterful work of an artist performing at the highest level in many contexts for an amazing length of time . . . all the more remarkable when you recall that Ruby suffered from emphysema as early as 1980.  Without turning his saga into a formulaic one of the heroic artist suffering through disabling illnesses, Hustad subtly suggests that we should admire Ruby much more for his devotion to his art than stand back in horrified wonder at his temper tantrums.  And Tom is right.

Ruby emerges as a man in love with his art, someone so devoted to it that the title of the book becomes more and more apt as a reader continues.  I have only read it intermittently, but find it both entrancing and distracting.  Much of this is due to Tom Hustad: a tireless researcher (still finding new information after the book’s publication), a fine clear writer, and someone Ruby trusted . . . so the book floats along on a subtle friendship between subject and chronicler.  And Tom was there at a number of sessions, providing valuable first-hand narratives that enlighten and delight — especially telling are his stories of relationships between Ruby and his champions: John Hammond, George Wein, Hank O’Neal, Tony Bennett, Mat and Rachel Domber, and others.

And the little details that make a book even better are all in place: a loving introduction by one of Ruby’s long-time friends, Dan Morgenstern; a cover picture showing Ruby and Louis (the photographer another great friend of the music, Duncan Schiedt) . . . and orange was Ruby’s favorite color — one he associated with the aural experience of hearing Louis for the first time, his sound blazing out of the radio speaker.  The layout is easy on the eye, all in nicely readable type.

In the interests of full disclosure (as the lawyers and politicians say) I should point out that I admire Ruby’s playing immensely, met him in 1971, spoke with him a number of times, saw him at close range, and contributed information about some private sessions that I recorded to this book.

BORN TO PLAY is a fascinating document, invaluable not only for those who regarded Ruby as one of the marvels of jazz — it is also a chronicle of one man’s fierce determination to create beauty in a world that sometimes seemed oblivious to it.  Many large-scale works of scholarship are thorough but cold, and the reader feels the chill.  Others have adulation intrude on the purpose of the work.  Tom Hustad’s book is an ideal mixture of scholarship, diligence, and warm affection: its qualities in an admirable balance.  I think the only way this book could have been improved would have been for Ruby to continue on past 2002 and the book to follow him.

Click here to purchase a copy.

And here’s something to beguile you as you click — the Braff-Barnes Quartet of 1974 (Ruby, George Barnes, Wayne Wright, Michael Moore) sauntering through LIZA:

May your happiness increase.

MORE CONVERSATIONS: HARRY ALLEN and ROSSANO SPORTIELLO at SMALLS (April 12, 2012)

It was a CD release party — and the CD, a series of duets devoted to the songs for which Johnny Burke wrote the lyrics, is called CONVERSATIONS:

But the conversations weren’t going on among the audience — they were appropriately reverent — nor were they restricted to the round piece of plastic in the sleeve above.  No, tenorist Harry and pianist Rossano were exchanging ideas, sweet and swinging, at the highest artistic and emotional level.

Here’s the second set:

The Rodgers and Hart THIS CAN’T BE LOVE, not too fast:

A wondrous reading of BUT BEAUTIFUL:

In praise of couplehood!  JUST YOU, JUST ME:

A high point of the evening for me — one of those performances that stays in the heart — SOME OTHER SPRING, both melancholy and serene:

A BLUES that summoned up Basie and Dave McKenna, Ben, Zoot, and Al:

And — to close — a positively exuberant RUNNIN’ WILD:

About that CD.

The best way (as I write this) to purchase a copy of the CD is to encounter Harry or Rossano on a gig — pleasure redoubled.  But it’s now also available at iTunes and CD Baby — click here — or, contact Harry here or Rossano there and either gentleman will find a way to get a copy to you.  It is worth it, I assure you.

P.S.  Starting on Friday, April 20, 2012, I will be watching and hearing Harry and Rossano and two dozen other jazz masters play and sing at the Atlanta Jazz Party . . . hope to meet some of my readers there!

May your happiness increase.

MR. MASSO CAME TO TOWN (March 6, 2012)

I would have been eager to visit clarinetist Ron Odrich’s monthly session at San Martin on East 49th Street, New York City (it happens the first Tuesday of each month) for his swooping playing — and the lovely work of his colleagues James Chirillo (guitar); Gary Mazzaroppi (string bass); “Cenz” (drums).  But last Tuesday’s session was even more special because it allowed me to hear one of the quiet masters of jazz in person.

I refer to trombonist George Masso: veteran of the late Forties Jimmy Dorsey band (a band whose trumpet section had Charlie Teagarden and Maynard Ferguson!) and then right-hand man to Bobby Hackett, Ken Peplowski, Barbara Lea, Spike Robinson, Harry Allen, Wild Bill Davison, the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, Warren Vache, Ed Polcer, Joe Wilder, Urbie Green, Helen Ward, Al Klink, Scott Hamilton, Ruby Braff, Tom Pletcher, Maxine Sullivan, Mike Renzi, Kenny Davern, Carl Fontana, Dave McKenna, Eddie Higgins, Randy Sandke, Charlie Ventura, Dan Barrett, Dick Hyman, Bob Wilber, Lou Columbo, Ralph Sutton, Jake Hanna, Woody Herman, and the King of Swing himself.

Obviously, if all those people had called upon Mr. Masso, he was special: this I already knew from the recordings: his accuracy and fine, broad tone — his remarkable combination of swing-time and ease with a broad harmonic palette and astonishing technique, always in the service of melody and logical improvisations.

Two additional facts you should know before you watch the videos that follow (featuring superb playing by everyone in the group).  George Masso is one of the most gentle, humble people it will be my privilege to know — so happy that a fan (myself) would make a small pilgrimage to hear and capture him (his lady friend June is a dear person too, no surprise).

Mister Masso is eighty-five years old, obviously one of the marvels of the age.  Cape Cod and Rhode Island must agree with him.  And his playing certainly agreed with everyone there.

They began their set with TANGERINE:

I’M OLD-FASHIONED, taken at a walking tempo:

BLUE BOSSA, lilting and graceful:

A romping I FOUND A NEW BABY:

And — not dedicated to anyone in the room! — George’s ballad feature on OLD FOLKS:

Masterful.

P.S.  I hope George comes back to New York City — with his trombone — soon!  In April, Ron’s guest star will be baritone saxophone wizard Gary Smulyan.

KEITH INGHAM PLAYS BRUBECK, ARTHUR SCHWARTZ, STRAYHORN, and MORE (Jazz at Chautauqua 2011)

Many people know Keith Ingham as a wonderful accompanist to singers — never getting in the way, but always adding so much to their work.  Others have found him a fine band pianist — going back to Stacy and boogie-woogie, forward to a swinging empathy.  But the Ingham fewer people know about is the powerful Mainstream player — someone with strong lyrical tendencies, a poet of songs others don’t play.  But there’s nothing fussy in Keith’s approach, and whether he is tracing a tender love ballad or building an improvisation from clearly-constructed rhythms and harmonies, he’s always in control without losing any essential grace.

Here are two brief recitals from the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua party.  The first finds Keith on his own, exploring songs and composers that some in the audience might have found surprising.  But everything gleams under his fingers, beginning with this leisurely exploration of some songs by Dave Brubeck:

The compositions are IN YOUR OWN SWEET WAY, IT’S A RAGGY WALTZ, and TAKE FIVE.  Like Dave McKenna, Keith often arranges songs whimsically by the themes implied in their titles — so here are HERE’S THAT RAINY DAY, A FOGGY DAY, and SOME OTHER SPRING (although the weather was perfectly pleasant at Chautauqua):

And Keith closed this recital with an Ellington / Strayhorn medley — of PASSION FLOWER, UPPER MANHATTAN MEDICAL GROUP, CHELSEA BRIDGE, and TAKE THE “A” TRAIN — energized, not formulaic:

The next day (Saturday, Sept. 17) Keith asked bassist Jon Burr and drummer Pete Siers to join him for a serious (but light-hearted) exploration of the songs of Arthur Schwartz, including I GUESS I’LL HAVE TO CHANGE MY PLAN, DANCING IN THE DARK, MAKE THE MAN LOVE ME, BY MYSELF, and more.  Here’s that delicious recital:

Craig Ventresco told me some years back that Keith was “a real musician,” and these performances testify to that.  I hope someone lets Jonathan Schwartz know about the recital of his father’s work: I am sure that JS would be very pleased.

JOHN SHERIDAN KICKS IT (Sept. 5, 2011)

Underestimate pianist / composer / arranger John Sheridan at your peril.  Neatly dressed, apparently serious-minded, he is really a volcanic eruption of swing just waiting for the proper moment.  Yes, he can play the most delicate traceries behind a soloist or our Becky Kilgore, and when he sits down at a new piano he is more likely to venture into IN A MIST than HONKY TONK TRAIN BLUES (although his version of the latter song is peerless).  But he’s a Force of Nature when seated at the piano.  No cascades of notes; no violent runs up and down the keyboard; no “displays of technique”: John simply starts plainly and builds and builds — at these times, the pianist he summons up most is the much-missed Dave McKenna, without consciously aping the Woonsocket, R.I. master’s locomotive patterns.

Sheridan remains Sheridan, and that’s a good thing.

Here he is (with Richard Simon, bass; Dick Shanahan, drums) in the final set of the final afternoon of the 2011 Sweet and Hot Music Festival.  All the musicians and the varied audiences were in a state of Jazz Satiety: whatever could have been played or heard was in the preceding four days.

So wily Mr. Sheridan eschewed his stride extravaganzas and tender ballads: instead, he suggested something both elementary and profound, Sonny Rollins’ calypso ST. THOMAS.  And from those simple chords and potentially repetitive rhythmic patterns he built a powerful edifice — a masterpiece of variations on themes, of creative improvisation.  And it rocked the house there — as I think it will do for yours now:

Another winning play from John Sheridan, man of many surprises!

MICK CARLON RECALLS RUBY BRAFF, BEAUTIFULLY

Reprinted from JAZZ TIMES, May 2011:

05/04/11 • By Mick Carlon

Ruby Braff: The Beauty in Music

It’s 1999 and I’m watching a PBS special on Mark Twain. The phone rings. It’s Ruby Braff. “Are you watching the show about Twain?” he asks. “It’s superb. The man was one of our nation’s greatest geniuses.”

I agree. “Too bad Twain didn’t live to be one hundred,” I say.

“Why?” asks Ruby.

“Because then he could’ve heard Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings and we’d have Twain’s reaction to them.”

I hear an intake of breath. “Why the (bleep) would you care about that? Why would anyone want to know how Mark Twain felt about Pops? What a (bleeping) stupid thing to say.”

Not taking Ruby’s insults personally (for some reason, I never did), I reply, “Well, I think it would have been interesting.”

“That’s because you’re a (bleep),” and, once again, Ruby Braff hangs up on me.

For the past quarter century, I’ve lived on Cape Cod. Believe it or not, this sandy peninsula, about an hour south of Boston, was once a garden of jazz delights. Although his fans in Japan and Denmark stood in line to buy tickets to his gigs, Dave McKenna’s local gigs were ridiculously easy to attend. My wife and I would simply stroll into Hyannis’ Road House Café to delight in the world-class sounds of Dave on his “saloon piano”—for free.

And we could hear Ruby Braff, playing the most gorgeous cornet in the world–with a sound redolent of summer dusks and autumn wood-smoke—often with McKenna and bassist Marshall Wood.

I met Ruby through Jack Bradley, his old friend who had once actually saved Ruby’s life. In the depths of a three day coma, Ruby was responding to nothing and nobody. Deciding to visit Ruby at Cape Cod Hospital, Jack brought along a cassette player and a Louis Armstrong tape. He pressed play and the sound of Pops playing “I’m In the Mood For Love” filled the hospital room. Amazingly, Ruby’s eyelids began to flutter. The color returned to his cheeks. A few moments later, his eyes opened. “Hey,” he said in his Beantown Dead End Kid voice, “that’s not the 1935 version.”

“Nope,” replied Jack. “It’s from ’38—Pops with the Dorsey band.”

A few minutes later, now fully awake, Ruby said, “You know, that’s the second time Pops saved my life.”

“When was the first?” asked Jack.

“The first time I heard him.”

Ruby, of course, was a graduate of the Louis Armstrong School of Music. “It doesn’t matter what instrument you play—you’re supposed to be listening to Louis Armstrong. It doesn’t matter whether you write, sing, dance, or anything. If you haven’t listened to Louis Armstrong, there’s nothing, nothing going to come out of your playing that will ever please me. I can tell you that.”

And Ruby would tell you. When I once mentioned a young hot-shot trumpeter, Ruby scoffed, “He can’t play (beep). And you know why? He’s never listened to Louis. I can tell.”

However, one time the young hot-shot trumpeter I admired was Ruby himself. “I love those albums you made with Dave McKenna in 1956,” I said.

“What? Are you nuts?” Ruby thundered. “Do you have ears? I couldn’t play worth crap back then. Only an ignorant fool would like that playing. Dave’s the only reason to listen to those pieces of (beep). I thought you had more sense than that!”

I guess I didn’t. I stand by my high opinion of Ruby’s 1950s music. But his later work, recorded when he was often breathless with emphysema, is among the greatest jazz of the past thirty years: On the Arbors label: Variety is the Spice of Braff; Being With You (Ruby’s lovely Pops tribute); Live at the Regattabar; Music for the Still of the Night; Controlled Nonchalance at the Regattabar I and II (with Dave McKenna and Scott Hamilton). On the Concord label: Ruby Braff and His New England Song Hounds I and II (once again with McKenna and Hamilton, along with Howard Alden; Frank Tate; and the immortal Alan Dawson). I also have big eyes for The Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet Live at the New School album (Chiaroscuro) and (sorry, Ruby!) his 1956 duets with Ellis Larkins (Vanguard).

My friend rarely had a good word to say about anyone—myself included—but I never heard him say anything negative about a fellow he had known since boyhood in Roxbury: Nat Hentoff. “That man,” said Ruby one evening, “has never written one phony word in his life. God knows how many bum notes I’ve hit over the years—but as a writer, Nat has never hit a bum note.”

When illness struck again, in the autumn of 2002, I visited Ruby often at Cape Cod Hospital. Strangely, amazingly, he was now always kind, with never a negative word for anyone. It worried me. “I don’t think I’ll ever play my horn again,” he said one rainy November afternoon. I kept quiet. With Ruby, phony optimism would’ve rung false—a bum note.

He died on February 9, 2003, a month short of his 76th birthday. Cape Cod has been one quiet place since.

I’ll let Ruby himself take one last word-solo. In 1979 he told Wayne Enstice: “I believe in beauty, and there’s got to be nothing but beauty in music. And if you’re not playing beautiful music that takes people to another plane, to a delicious place that they can’t ordinarily get to in their own lives, then you’re producing nothing. I want delicious sounds…that’ll take me away on a dream.”

Thanks, Ruby. You gave the world countless such delicious sounds.

P.S.  I hope that neither JAZZ TIMES nor Mick Carlon mind my reprinting this delicious piece that catches Ruby whole.  I, too, loved his music and followed him around with a camera (once) and a cassette recorder (many times) to be closer to the source of that wonderful sound.  And who’s Mick Carlon, aside from being a good friend and a fine writer?

Mick Carlon is a 27- year veteran public school teacher.  His young adult novel, Riding on Duke’s Train, starring Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, will be published in December by Leapfrog Press.  Says Nat Hentoff: “I knew Duke Ellington for over 25 years.  He was my mentor.  The Ellington in Carlon’s book is the man I knew.”  In 2014, Leapfrog will publish Carlon’s young adult novel on Louis Armstrong, Little Fred and Louis.  Carlon lives on Cape Cod with his wife Lisa and his daughters, Hannah and Sarah.

SUE, EDDIE, and CHRIS: “HOW THEY HYPNOTIZE!” (Hidden Valley Music Seminars: March 4, 2011)

I had an extraordinarily good time at Dixieland Monterey 2011 (March 4-6) which took place at the Convention Center and other venues.  For those who might quail at the word “Dixieland,” there wasn’t a sleeve garter in sight — at least not among the musicians.  And there was plenty of soaring hot jazz, as my videos will show.

But the weekend started off in a more lovely pensive fashion: Sue Kroninger (vocals, commentary, washboard); Eddie Erickson (vocals, banjo); Chris Calabrese (hot piano) gave a lighter-than-air presentation on five great American songwriters — Irving Berlin, Walter Donaldson, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, and Hoagy Carmichael.

All this took place at the Hidden Valley Music Seminars in Carmel Valley, California — in a beautiful room with wood walls, a lovely piano, a delighted audience.  Click here for more details: http://www.hiddenvalleymusic.org/.

Here is the whole precious program (I couldn’t bear to keep a note of it to myself).  Catch the wonderful interplay, wit, and feeling.  Unlike other programs of the sort I’ve seen, this one is beautifully balanced among the three players, who obviously like each other a great deal.  And Sue knows her stuff without being stuffy!

(A note to the suspicious, something perhaps superfluous.  Some of my readers will see a woman with a washboard and two whisks to keep time, a banjo player, a pianist . . . and they will think, “Oh, no . . . ” and skip these videos.  I understand their terror — their primeval fears.  But this trio makes such beautiful swinging deeply-felt music that nothing they do could scare off anyone.  I promise.  Or your money back.)

Sue began the program with a 1913 Irving Berlin tune, AT THE DEVIL’S BALL — which features both hilarious vaudeville lyrics and a tune that, once heard, is impossible to extract from your cortex.  And Sue is having the time of her life.  And ours:

Then, Eddie took on a wonderful song (I associate it with Louis and the Mills Brothers — can you blame me?) from 1927, THE SONG IS ENDED.  It might seem an odd choice for the second song of a program, but it’s such a good song!  And Eddie, dear Fast Eddie, sings it so beautifully:

Finally (for Berlin), Chris took a wonderful turn at ALWAYS — with hints of the Master, Dave McKenna:

Less well-known than Mr. Berlin was Walter Donaldson (but think of AT SUNDOWN, MY BUDDY, and fifty others).  Sue called for Eddie to perform a hit from the early Twenties — nothing could be sweeter than Eddie singing CAROLINA IN THE MORNING.  Hear the variations he brings to his timbre and delivery — and how Chris rocks:

Then a rollicking rarity (a bit of social commentary) that Sue explains, with the irreplaceable title YOU HAVE TO PUT A NIGHTIE ON APHRODITE TO KEEP THE MARRIED MEN HOME (or words to that effect).  I think hearing that song was worth the airfare from New York.  Hope you agree.  Sue is a born entertainer who grabs any audience as soon as she opens her mouth to sing:

And what might be the best-loved song in America (easier to sing than STARDUST), MY BLUE HEAVEN — with the lovely verse, delightfully played by the quiet man Sue calls “Mr. Excitement”:

Onward to the deservedly famous — and short-lived — George Gershwin, with an old favorite, SOMEBODY LOVES ME, winningly sung by Sue.  She isn’t Lily Pons or Sarah Vaughan when it comes to a four-octave range, but this is all to the good: her casual, understated delivery comes from the heart:

STRIKE UP THE BAND shows off Chris (and friends) without ever being militaristic:

Then, a high point for me — Eddie’s rendition of EMBRACEABLE YOU.  Eddie gets terribly embarrassed when I praise him, so I’ll go easy in print here (but I might just say very quietly that I’ve called him “our Sinatra” and I mean it).  Chris’s subtle traceries make me think of Tommy Flanagan:

Changing the mood, here’s Johnny Mercer’s cheerful life-affirmation, AC-CEN-CHU-ATE THE POSITIVE, always good advice:

From a title that’s nearly impossible to spell to one of the simplest — Chris leads the trio through a jaunty version of DREAM:

And as a special favor to me (I had said that I would like to hear Sue “unplugged”) she indulged me with an acoustic JEEPERS CREEPERS, happy as the day is long:

The trio’s version of RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE calls to mind the young man from Davenport, Hoagy Carmichael’s pal Bix — note the funny little personalizing Sue does with the bouncy lyrics (after Chris makes sure that the joint is entirely jumping):

LAZY RIVER (not UP A) shows off the easy grace of Mr. Erickson, Louis-inspired without a bit of gravel in his hopper:

And — instead of the more hackneyed Fourth of July closing — Sue chose one of the most tender songs in the last century, the Carmichael-Loesser TWO SLEEPY PEOPLE, where the melody, the lyrics, and the loving wit come together exquisitely for Sue, Eddie, and Chris:

My weekend at Dixieland Monterey was off to the most gratifying start: these three dear artists already had me floating with pleasure, and it wasn’t even lunchtime.

CELEBRATE THE LIVING MUSICIANS: CLICK HERE!

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

HIS FATHER’S VOICE

Even if you don’t know Sidney Catlett (1910-1951, possibly the greatest percussionist in jazz) and his living son — a famous basketball player — you owe it to yourself to read this very touching article about son and father finding one another in ways that transcend the ordinary. 

Here are two links to the Washington Post article — and jazz fans will find the name of the author a special bonus.  I’m going to go through my day hearing in my head the sound of Spencer Clark (bass saxophone) in a trio with Erroll Garner and Sidney. 

Imagine what it feels like to hear your father’s voice for the first time when you are in your fifties:

And Sidney’s musical voice still reverberates for the rest of us:

http://bit.ly/eROa0t

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/40429/what-brought-big-sid-and-little-sid-catlett-together/

WHAT WOULD BIG SID DO?  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS.

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

REMEMBERING LARRY WEISS by RAY CERINO

Larry Weiss, the New Jersey-based cornetist and pianist, has died at 83, after a long illness.  His friend and mine, the jazz aficionado, popular music scholar, and amateur tenor saxophonist Ray Cerino, sent these lines at my request:

Larry Weiss, a good friend of mine, and an extraordinary musician, died over a week ago. Because I had played with Larry for several years in a pro-bono quartet at a life-care facility, the writer of this blog asked me to provide my thoughts on Larry the musician.

The first thought that comes to mind is a word in the title of a book by his friend, Warren Vache called “The Unsung Songwriters”. Although Larry was well-known and respected by all the famous musicians he played with, the majority of jazz concert-goers never heard of him. In that regard, Larry was unsung, and his special, musical ability went largely unrecognized.

The way I like to describe Larry is as a self-taught, natural, supremely gifted musician. When Larry soloed on a song, he did not simply play the notes of the chords underlying the melody, nor did he play the scales in the modal form of the harmony, as is frequently offered as an improvised chorus by younger players today. Larry created a new, beautiful variation, under which the original melody could always be heard. And often he would substitute an altered chord of his own devising, especially audible on the piano, which would introduce a new, intense feeling to the music. He did this all without ever referring to a printed note. The music came from his heart, to his ear, to his hands, seamlessly. And the music that emerged contained original, surprising passages that could move the astute listener deeply.

As a friend of Larry’s for over twenty years, we spent a lot of time together at my house, playing and listening to music. Larry was always gracious in offering to play piano accompaniment to my pedestrian tenor sax solo efforts, never making harshly critical remarks about my playing. He had a good many live recordings on cassette tape that he had acquired over the years, and we would play and listen to these on my stereo system. I recall how he would listen intently to a particular passage of which he was proud, and point to the speakers to underline his high regard for the music. When I asked him how he created so noteworthy a phrase of music, he would just shrug, and say “that’s what I heard”. Like I said, a gift.

As I mentioned above, other well-known and knowing musicians were well aware of the quality of Larry’s musicianship. Larry told me once that he was on the stand with Bob Haggart, bassist and composer of “What’s New”. Larry had just finished a solo of that tune when he felt a tap on the shoulder. He turned around and saw Bob smiling and giving him a big “thumbs up”. Many times as we listened to other famous musicians, Larry would say “I played with him”. He was never boastful: in fact he was modest to a fault. In talking about his solos, he would often say “I’m not claiming this is great, but I am rather proud of it. (And if Larry was proud, you know if it had to be good).

Unfortunately there are only a few commercial recordings of Larry’s work on cornet available, two with a group led by his friend, Warren Vache,and one CD, on piano, with Joe Licari.

That’s Larry, the unsung musician. I was lucky to have been his friend, and to have spent time discussing and listening to the music we both love.

A few words from Michael Steinman:

I am glad that Jim Balantic had uploaded to YouTube two duo selections by the fine clarinetist Joe Licari and Larry on piano — HAUNTING MELODY and MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU, where Larry plays subtle Teddy Wilson-style piano with great delicacy:

That CD, and others, can be obtained on Joe’s site: http://www.joelicari.com/

I never met Larry Weiss, but I knew his work as a cornetist and admired it greatly.  He shared my admiration for Bobby Hackett’s beautiful tapestries of melody.  And Larry was more than a copyist — not that it would have been easy to copy Hackett — he was someone who had so thoroughly internalized the Master’s style in broad outlines that he could then invent his own personalized utterances at a moment’s notice. 

I heard Larry play cornet in many rather vigorous traditional ensembles, and his voice was a clarion one.  “Luminous” is an overused adjective these days, but it applies.  He was modest; he didn’t shout; his tone glowed.

I have one example alone of Larry’s gentle mastery for the JAZZ LIVES audience.  I have shared this video clip — from the 1983 Manassas Jazz Festival — before, as an aching tribute to the much-beloved Vic Dickenson, in memory of the astonishing band he and Bobby Hackett led at the Roosevelt Grill in 1969 (its rhythm section usually Dave McKenna, Jack Lesberg or Milt Hinton, and Cliff Leeman). 

But this time I would ask my readers to do what is nearly impossible — to tear themselves away from Vic and from Dill Jones and Steve Jordan — and listen to Larry Weiss.  Modest and unassuming, using his mute, sometimes creating obbligatos that one has to strain to hear, he makes great beauty, great empathy, lasting music. 

In the world of jazz, the night sky is full of stars.  There’s Louis, blazing bright; Jack, Lester, Bird, Ben, the two Sidneys . . . and more.  Galaxies, in fact.  But there are also stars not often seen.  You might need a telescope to find them.  But their light is just as memorable: that’s how I think of Larry Weiss.

“PUT A SWING IN YOUR STEP” WITH CHRIS DAWSON and FRIENDS

Chris Dawson hasn’t received the attention his playing deserves, but his latest CD (for Blue Swing Fine Recordings) will fix that.  It’s superb. 

Need proof?

People who admire these musicians as I do won’t need any more prompting.  They can buy copies (note the plural) of the disc at www.blueswing.com.,  www.CDBaby.com., or email Chris personally at chrismartindawson@yahoo.com to purchase personally inscribed copies.  

Here’s some of what I wrote when I first heard the disc:

When a European jazz researcher asked Eddie Durham what he thought of Edmond Hall, Durham said it all in one sentence, “Edmond Hall didn’t know how not to swing!” Those words popped into my head as soon as this disc began to play, because for Chris and his friends inspired jazz improvisation is second nature.

Mind you, I don’t pretend to have cool objectivity.  I first heard Chris as part of the ensemble on a handful of sessions about twenty years ago (with Rebecca Kilgore, Marty Grosz, and Hal Smith) and he leaped out from the speakers although he wasn’t playing any louder than anyone else.  It was the absolute rightness of what he played: time, feeling, harmonic subtlety – an art that didn’t call attention to itself and thus was instantly compelling. Although I heard echoes of Nat Cole, Hank Jones, and Mel Powell, Chris was complete in himself, and his playing was more than a collection of memorized gestures.

It might seem melodramatic for me to write that I spent the next two decades waiting for this CD, but it it’s the truth.  I was delighted to hear Chris’s solo Christmas CD in 2009, and thrilled to see clips from these sessions appearing on YouTube.  Now, the evidence is here to share and treasure!

I doubt that these five players immersed themselves in Golden Era science fiction, but it would explain a great deal, for they are time-travelers who don’t need gleaming machines.  Chris and his gang have reached the kind of musical flexibility and maturity where all swinging jazz is equal and equally worth cherishing: James P. Johnson and Bud Powell live in the same building and chat happily in the elevator.  Listen to PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ, where Chris melds the earthy yet delicate swing I’d associate with a 1938 Vocalion with the harmonic inventiveness and sense of space that characterized “Mainstream” several decades later.  It isn’t artificial: I never feel that he is thinking, “Now I’ll throw in an Augmented Nineteenth chord in the right hand (from Hindemith) over my Official Stride Pattern (Don Lambert) in the left”; it’s genuine and internal, in the manner of such stylistic investigators as Ruby Braff and Dave McKenna.

And although music has the power to make us reflect deeply on the great sadnesses we all face, this session is resoundingly happy – it echoes the reassuring pace of the steady heartbeat.  Even the lovely ballads on this disc aren’t hopelessly gloomy: while their sounds chronicle shattered dreams (as on OH, YOU CRAZY MOON), we admire the beautiful sounds.

Chris’s gang has a cohesive energy that could rearrange the landscape.  Listen to the pulse of that rhythm section, the way the players work together to the common goal.  And there’s the pure sound of Hal’s Sid Catlett- inspired brushes and rimshots, of Denny’s impassioned strum (he loves Allan Reuss and Steve Jordan), of Christoph’s woody, speaking bass, reminiscent of Ray Brown. Each of the members of this rhythm section could propel a big band on their own (hear Denny’s introduction to SAILBOAT); together, they are a living display of joyous synergy.  And with Dan Barrett on the date, no other horns need apply. To me, he is a jazz Midas, casually making everything golden.  (Dan is responsible for the nifty little riff that the band uses to send Christoph on his merry way on SWEETIE.)

Chris said to me, “I felt really fortunate and lucky to have this band. Each guy was my number one pick, so this was my dream team.  I’ve been playing with Christoph for about twenty years.  We met at USC, while he was working on his Masters and I was doing my undergraduate work.  He’s a very serious, dedicated musician, an inspiring player to know and work with.  I’ve known Dan for almost that long while playing gigs together in the local Los Angeles jazz scene.  I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and I respect his musicianship immensely!  I learn new things about music and what it means to be a professional player whenever we talk.  I met Hal while on an Evan Christopher gig around 1992.  I wouldn’t have done this project without him and I’m so happy I got him before he moved to San Antonio to work with Jim Cullum.  I was wondering which guitar player would suit us best, and Dan recommended Denny.  He was new to me, but I trust Dan 100% and it worked out great.  I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Although Chris doesn’t dramatically demand the spotlight, I find myself listening to a performance over and over, savoring at how Chris’s left hand knows what his right hand is doing, and vice versa.  And he’s my model of an ensemble pianist – how does he pick just the right notes?  Hear him support, cheer, and encourage everyone throughout this disc!

And the wonderful little charts – just right – are also from the noble hand of Mr. Dawson.  Chris told me, “One thing I hope that separates this project from others is those arrangements.  It isn’t a jam session, thrown together in the studio, but it’s a little more thought out.  For example, there’s the recurring introduction, interlude, and ending on THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME, as well as the unison intro and ending on ALL I DO IS DREAM OF YOU.  Also I like to use key changes for variety – ALL I DO modulates from F to C; WE’LL MEET AGAIN goes from Bb to C and ends up in Eb; RITZ bounces back and forth between C minor and G minor before ending in C minor.  I love the way the Benny Goodman Trio did this kind of thing.”

Chris is not only a satisfying small-group arranger but a splendidly masterful pianist.  Admire his unerring gently propulsive pulse; his steady time; the ringing sound he gets out of the instrument; his chord voicings.  And what delights he can create in a small space: his four-bar introductions are gems.  MY IDEAL is a graduate course (for those who can hear) in how to make melody come alive, how to convey tenderness while keeping the rhythm going.  And his HANDFUL OF KEYS honors Fats – in ways both accurate and jubilant – adding his own touches to this great display of playful athleticism.

For once, the title of this CD is accurate, musical truth in advertising: this music will uplift you on your daily rounds in a way that no costly set of orthotics could. And the glowing, generous sounds and textures here will resound in your ears long after the disc has concluded. Denny told me, “Quite honestly, playing time with Hal and Christoph was like breathing air – so natural and so effortless. A real pleasure indeed – they did the work and all I needed to do was open my ears.” 

Pleasures untold greet those who listen!

And a little coda:

Chris is an original, not a copyist.  He isn’t a museum piece but a creative improviser . . . !  And what he does is irreplaceable.

THE MAESTRO PLAYS COLE PORTER at Birdland (Dec. 1, 2010)

Last night, Wednesday, December 1, the Beloved and I went to Birdland to catch another edition of David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band.  The weather had kept many people away, but the band played beautifully to the small, attentive audience.

That band?  David, tuba; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Dan Block, clarinet, alto, and a surprise vocal; Jim Fryer, trombone, euphonium, and vocals; Kevin Dorn, drums. 

And Rossano Sportiello, piano. 

Rossano — “The Maestro” to me any many others — made the most of his solo feature.  He decided, without any fanfare, to create a small but powerful Cole Porter tribute, beginning with a sad, delicate EV’RYTIME WE SAY GOODBYE and moving into a JUST ONE OF THOSE THINGS that was a rollicking extravaganza. 

Students of the jazz tradition will be able to say, “Oh, there’s a Dave McKenna walking bass,” or perhaps, “Catch those hints of Cliff Jackson, will you?”  But it’s all Rossano: the gliding agility, the dazzling intensity that doesn’t rely on raising the volume or pounding the keys; the singular voicings, his beautiful touch. 

It was an astonishing performance — and halfway through this video, I couldn’t resist panning away from the piano to catch the rest of the LACB, leaning silent and awestruck at the other end of the room, savoring every nuance. 

Maestro Sportiello melds lyricism and swing so beautifully, that a performance like this, extraordinary for us, is what he does so well every time I’ve ever heard him play. 

Bravo!  Bravo!

JAKE HANNA (1931-2010)

We lost someone truly remarkable: the Boston-born drummer and raconteur Jake Hanna, who died on February 12, 2010. 

When you saw — at a jazz party or on a new recording — that the band was going to include Jake, you could sit back and prepare to enjoy yourself.  He lifted every ensemble with his floating beat — reminiscent of Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Sidney Catlett, and Gus Johnson.  His tempo never shifted, and he knew how to support a band (whether at a whisper or a roar) and a soloist.  Like the drummers he revered, he varied his sound and shaded it — although he wasn’t afraid to stay where he was if it was working (some musicians irritably keep changing their approach every four bars).  Jake was a master of the hi-hat, the Chinese cymbal, the snare drum, the wire brushes.  And he delighted in playing for the band in the best Basie-inspired way.  “If you’re not swinging from the beginning, what the hell are you up there for?” he told me.

I only met Jake a few times, but I came away feeling as if I’d encountered someone larger-than-life.  His enthusiasm for the things he loved — whether it was Jo Jones’s playing or a sought-after tube of King of Shaves (a compact replacement for aerosol shaving cream cans) came through loud and clear.  His joy in being alive was powerful and infectious.  And he was also a hilarious, indefatigable storyteller.  If you got him started by mentioning a musician’s name, you could prepare to be laughing for an hour, as one anecdote chased another.  (I hope someone got some of these stories — printable and otherwise — down on tape or video.)  I remember his witty generosity when I interviewed him over the telephone for his memories of recording with Ruby Braff for the Arbors sessions issued as WATCH WHAT HAPPENS, and his pleasure in the music of Jimmy Rowles and Dave McKenna, which he and his wife listened to as their “dinner music.”     

Here he is with Howard Alden, George VanEps, and David Stone, performing A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP:

And two performances from the 1995 Bern Jazz Festival featuring a truly extraordinary version of Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern’s Summit Reunion, with a rhythm section of Johnny Varro, Marty Grosz, Milt Hinton, and Jake:

Here’s YELLOW DOG BLUES, a masterpiece of sustained, building intensity:

And HINDUSTAN, where Jake and Milt trade phrases before the closing ensemble:

You can see why musicians of all ages and styles loved him and loved to play alongside him.  His playing made sense, whether he was shouldering the whole Woody Herman band or backing Rosemary Clooney in a tender ballad. 

Our condolences to his very charming wife, Denisa, and Jake’s family.

BLANK PAGES AND SILENCES

Serious jazz scholarship (as opposed to reviews) began more than seventy years ago: early books by Robert Goffin, Hughes Panassie, Charles Delanay, Wilder Hobson, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey come to mind, as well as essays by Ernst Ansermet, Otis Ferguson, and Roger Pryor Dodge. 

In 2010, there is no scarcity of books on jazz, from musicology to polemical ideology.  Biographies and autobiographies — from Armstrong to Zwerin with perhaps one hundred subjects between — the autobiographies of Buck Clayton, Sammy Price, Bob Wilber, biographies of Monk, Mingus, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Parker, Paul Desmond, Ellington.  Books have been published about musicians who are still relatively obscure: Mark Miller on Herbie Nichols, Anthony Barnett on Henry Crowder.  

John Chilton’s studies of Bechet, Hawkins, Eldridge, and Red Allen are models of the form.  Ed Berger and his father did right by Benny Carter; Ed devoted a book to George Duvivier and is working on one about Joe Wilder.  My shelves are full, and I’m not listing criticism and discography. 

Most of what I have noted above (with admiration) is jazz scholarship from the outside — by enthusiastic listeners who have immersed themselves in jazz.  I would be the last to disparage that as an art form, as writers who do it include Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern, Gene Lees, Chris Albertson, Frank Driggs, Nat Hentoff and two dozen others.  A few musicians — rare souls — who were also fine writers: Dick Wellstood, Richard M. Sudhalter, Rex Stewart, Dick Katz.    

But even given all of this, how often have jazz musicians been asked to tell their stories? 

I know that there is a history of popular journalism — early on in urban Black newspapers — of getting quotations from musicians, but I wonder how many utterances that were attributed were actually spoken by the musicians themselves.  Later on, one had DOWN BEAT and METRONOME, and smaller magazines — Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD, here and abroad.  Some of this “journalism” perpetuated the stereotype of the musician as an eccentric character who spoke an unintelligible hipster gibberish.     

There are, of course, the pioneering recorded interviews of Jelly Roll Morton done in 1938 — mythic in many ways — that might be the first oral history of a jazz musician.  Whether you take them as an extended piece of performance art or as first-hand narrative / reportage, they remain invaluable.

Others have attempted to let the players speak — the Oral History Project had musicians interviewing their peers and friends, Stanley Dance’s series of books, the Shapiro / Hentoff HEAR ME TALKIN’ TO YA, Gitler’s SWING TO BOP, the diligent work of Bill Spilka, Hank O’Neal’s book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM, collections of interviews and profiles by Whitney Balliett, Peter Vacher, Max Jones.  Phil Schaap has done extensive, rewarding radio interviews for forty years now.  Lester Young spoke to Chris Albertson and Francois Postif.  And irreplaceable video-documentaries focus on Ben Webster, Lester, Goodman, Phil Woods.  Fifty years ago, Riverside Records recorded Coleman Hawkins and Lil Hardin Armstrong telling their stories.             

But all of this is outweighed by the invisibility, the unheard voices of musicians. 

Who thought to ask Kaiser Marshall or Walter Johnson anything after they had finished a set with the Fletcher Henderson band?  Who interviewed Ivie Anderson?  Allen Reuss?  Jimmy Rowles?  Dave McKenna?  Al Cohn?  Shad Collins?  Barry Galbraith?  Shorty Baker?  Did anyone ask Denzil Best or Nick Fenton about what it was like to play at Minton’s?  Who spoke with Joe Smith or Joe Nanton about their experiences?  George Stafford, Tiny Kahn, Nick Fatool, Dave Tough?  (I know some of these figures were interviewed or analyzed by my hero Whitney Balliett, but the burden of jazz history of this sort shouldn’t have to rest on one writer’s shoulders.)

Granted, many stellar musicians were once anonymous sidemen and women, and the leaders of bands got all the attention.  So there are more interviews of Ellington than of Johnny Hodges, more of Goodman than of Vido Musso, more of Basie than of Jack Washington.  But Swing Era fans knew every member of the reed section in their favorite orchestras.

Thus claims of “obscurity” have to be taken less seriously: there was a time when Cootie Williams was nearly as well known as Jackie Robinson would be — you may substitute names you prefer in this equation of “famous jazz musician” and “famous sports figure.” 

I can imagine a number of reasons for musicians being ignored.

Some musicians would rather play than talk about their playing; some are even taciturn, although articulate.  And sometimes even the most garrulous players are not the best interview subjects.  “What was it like to play with Big Boy Smith?” one asks.  “Oh, it was a ball!  We had a great time!” the musician answers.  The interviewer waits for more.  “Do you remember any specific incidents?”  “Oh, no.  It was a lot of fun.  We couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand.”  And so on.  I’ve had this happen to me with the most sophisticated players here and in Europe.  They wereen’t reluctant to talk, but they weren’t intuitive novelists themselves.

Although cordial to outsiders, many musicians also don’t see the point of discussing serious matters — like music — with them.  Too much explaining.  Life is short; the next set is coming soon.   This does say something about the unseen wall between themselves and fans — people who don’t know what it is to play, to improvise professionally, come from a different planet.  Nice folks, but aliens.  Even sweet-natured Bobby Hackett referred to the audience as “the enemy.”  “Fans” and “academics” are friendly, “critics” and “writers” might be useful, but none of them really know

And oftentimes, musicians are ambushed by people who want to talk wishing to talk at inopportune times.  A musician asked to comment on the music she’s just played after a forty-five minute set may well be drained by the effort.  When they’re not playing, musicians talk of other subjects, including the cost of things, their most recent car repair, health care proposals.  Anything is more interesting than responding to “What inspires you when you take a solo?”  Some may want to be left in peace, to eat their scrambled eggs while they’re somewhat hot.  And who could blame them?       

When some venerable musicains are finallyinterviewed when they have become venerable, they have forgotten the details.  What they did forty years ago wasn’t musical history, but a way of making a living.  And even those who have sharp memories may not want to tell all: candor might mean losing friends or gigs.  And some aren’t interested in reliving their pasts: autobiographies and interviews are career-ending landmarks: what musicians do when they can no longer play.  Doing beats talking and theorizing.      

Others are “saving it for their book” — books that might get poublished posthumously if ever.  And when musicians die, sometimes their spouse discards “all that old clutter,” including letters and memorabilia.  Sometimes a divorce means that possessions get thrown out, or a son or daughter believes that Papa’s papers are worth millions and refuses to let anyone make money from themsee them.    

Having said all that, I want to put it aside. 

There were all the reasons that musicians might not want to be asked. 

But so many, I have to believe, would have been delighted to tell their stories.  Why weren’t they?

Much comes from the earliest perception of jazz as entertainment, hardly serious.  It was played at night in places where people talked loudly, smoked, drank, and danced.  Real art could be found in museums and in concert halls.  Jazz players weren’t ordinary people; they existed outside polite society; some thought them licentious madmen working themselves into ecstasies on the bandstand.  Who would be so bold as to ask one of them a question?  And what savage reply would result? 

The subject of race can’t be pushed aside.  If both White and Black listeners thought that jazz was primarily dance music, why study it?  Why take its players seriously?  And the early preponderance of White jazz scholars and critics — some Europeans and White Americans — can be traced to the idea that jazz was no more than “good-time music,” denying Afro-Americans proper dignity.  Would you want your daughter to marry a jazz musician?  Would you want your African-American child to concentrate his or her academic efforts on Cab Calloway, on Louis Armstrong?  But the initial racial imbalance did shift, and I suspect that Joe Nanton would have been happy to speak with a White college student if the student was both sincere and aware.  As would Rod Cless have been.       

I think of Emerson in “The American Scholar,” delivered in 1846, urging his audience to study their own culture — only in this way could a nation exist.  Many years after Emerson’s death, an American college student couldn’t expect to do advanced study about the authors of his time and place: a college education required German, Chaucer, rather than James T. Farrell and Charlie Chaplin.  To say nothing of Sidney Catlett.  And so it was for jazz.  By the time that academia caught up with it, so many of the progenitors were dead, their stories untold. 

The losses are irreparable.  To urge readers to interview a jazz musician today won’t replace what has been lost. 

What might Frank Teschmacher or Freddie Webster have told us, have someone thought it sufficiently important to ask them?

Those pages remain irrevocably blank.

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2010
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

CHRIS DAWSON: STRIDE FOR CHRISTMAS!

Yesterday I received my copy of pianist Chris Dawson’s first solo CD, STRIDIN’ THROUGH CHRISTMAS, and it’s a wow.  But perhaps you’d like to read some expert testimony:

Let’s get my personal prejudices out of the way.  To me, “Christmas music” tends either to be religious or fairly limited pop hits.  But I calmed myself when I saw there were no versions of THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY or RUDOLF THE RED-NOSED REINDEER on this CD.  Dawson plays each selection as a new composition, exploring its improvisatory possibilities. 

Many CDs pall quickly because the artist or artists have one approach and sustain it through as many as twenty-five selections.  Not so here.  You will hear piano playing that’s sometimes rollicking, sometimes deeply sensitive . . . and Chris doesn’t take predictable paths. 

What’s loosely called “stride piano” has also come in for some rough handling from players who have only a superficial understanding of the idiom.  All it is, they think, is a steady left-hand pattern, rhythmically powerful, alternating low notes in the bass and a resounding chord . . . over and over, while the right hand does whatever it likes.  For many players, who may well be technically gifted, the result is rather like the ticking of a loud watch or the pounding of a machine.  Others model their playing on Fats Waller, which is fine in theory but not if it’s a matter of learning the eight or ten patented “Wallerisms” and sprinkling them liberally through every composition.  Stride, clearly athletic and virtuosic, also gets confused in some pianists’ minds with exhibitionism: faster, more percussive, louder, longer. 

Chris Dawson is someone who knows and has internalized the whole jazz piano tradition — forwards to Bill Evans, let us say, and backwards to the early James P. Johnson.  What you’ll hear on this disc is often delicate but never so ruminative as to become dull.  Most often, while listening, I thought of Chris as offering his own variations on three masters: Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna, and Dick Hyman.  (And there are touches of Forties Johnny Guarneri in there, too — which is a high compliment.)  I hear the delicacy, strength, and vivid imagination that I associate with these three masters in every bar of this CD, and it’s not an archivist’s recreation, not jazz archaeology — but living improvised music.  He has a fine swing in his playing, but he is harmonically free, and at times the experienced jazz listener will marvel at the happy marriage of presumed opposites in his playing.  He can make something as melodically simple as SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN hilariously mobile, and I was moved by Chris’s tender explorations of SILENT NIGHT.  He’s accurate but never stiff; the performances don’t go on too long; the CD is wonderfully varied and the sound of the recording is delicious.     

To hear some samples, I would direct the reader back a few posts to: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/an-early-christmas-present/.  Hear Chris stride through WE THREE KINGS, surely not the usual . . . .

Or, if you prefer soundbites: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/ChrisDawson

To buy the CD: http://shop.astinmusic.com/

I think that you’ll still be playing this CD in February 2010 and onwards, when the house has returned to its normal state and the only reminder of the holiday is the credit card bills.

MARTY ELKINS: “IN ANOTHER LIFE”

When I get new jazz compact discs to review, a good percentage feature women jazz singers.  I am sure that they are wonderful people who love the music, but many of them have odd ideas of forming a style.  Some have ingested every syllable Billie Holiday ever recorded; some rely on huge voices with gospel trimmings to get them through; some meow and growl their way through a lyric, suggesting an undiagnosed hairball problem.  Almost all of the new singers emote in capital letters, their voices rich with imagined melodrama.  None of these tricks works, but the singers press on.

For me, there are perhaps a dozen women singing jazz today — if you’ve been reading my posts, you can count them off.  Now it’s time to increase that number.  May I introduce  (or re-introduce) Marty Elkins? 

I first met Marty perhaps a year ago when she and I ended up sharing a table at the crowded Ear Inn.  We chatted pleasantly, and I really had no idea of her talents until Jon-Erik Kellso asked her to sit in and she sang a few choruses of YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME with the band.  The Ear Inn is more conducive to trumpets and trombones than to unamplified singers, but I could hear that Marty swung, knew the harmonic ins and outs of the song, could improvise neatly, and was expressive without being melodramatic.  She used her quiet talents to make the material sound good rather than asking Rodgers and Hart to step aside so that she could shine.  When she was through, I asked her if she had recorded CDs that I could hear her better and at greater length.  She casually mentioned that she had done a duet session with Dave McKenna years back, and that it would be issued some day. 

Now we can all stop holding our breath: it’s here.  And it’s splendid. 

in_another_life_5The disc is called IN ANOTHER LIFE, and it’s issued on the splendidly reliable Nagel-Heyer label (CD 114).  It captures Marty and Dave in an informal session with good sound, in 1988 — when Dave was still in full command.  The songs suggest a shared affection for solid melodies and a deep knowledge of the great jazz repertoire: WILLOW WEEP FOR ME / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? / JIM / GIMME A PIGFOOT AND A BOTTLE OF BEER / UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG / I LET A SONG GO OUT OF MY HEART / WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE / I WISHED ON THE MOON / WILLOW WEEP FOR ME (alternate ) / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? (alternate) / FUSE BLUES (alternate). 

The first thing that must be said will seem tactless, but this CD is not the combination of a young, untried singer with a master pianist.  Not at all.  The Elkins – McKenna pairing is a meeting of convivial equals.  From the very first notes of this session, she shows off her relaxed, expert naturalness.  Her naturalness comes from loving the lyrics — that is, knowing what the words mean! — and admiring the composer’s original lines.  She has a sweet, earnest phrase-ending vibrato, reminiscent of a great trumpet player, and she holds her notes beautifully.  Marty’s delivery is full of feeling and warmth, but she doesn’t shout, grind, or act self-consciously hip.  Her voice is also attractive wholly on its own terms — it has a yearning, plaintive quality that fits the material, but that never overwhelms the song or the listener. 

On JIM, for instance, a rather masochistic song, Marty embraces and entrances the lyrics without ever suggesting that things are so dire that she needs therapy or an intervention.  It’s a performance I found myself going back to several times.  And she’s equally home with the somewhat archaic enthusiams of GIMME A PIGFOOT — she sings the song rather than singing at it from an ironic distance.  (And, as a sidelight, her diction is razor-sharp, enabling me to hear a phrase in the lyrics that has always mystified me in Bessie Smith’s version.)  On a number of the other selections, she avoids the perils of over-dramatization (I’m thinking especially of SUMMERTIME, which has attained the status of National Monument, making it almost impossible to sing it plainly without histrionics) by lifting the tempo just a touch — what Billie and Mildred did in the Thirties.  It works.  I was able to hear the most famous and well-worn songs on this disc without thinking of their more famous progenitors.  On her second choruses, she improvises, subtly and effectively; her voice takes delicate little turns up or down, which seem both new and natural.  And she knows the verse to WHEN YOUR LOVER IS GONE!  What more could we ask for?

For his part, McKenna is in especially empathetic form: he doesn’t put on his locomotive-roaring-down-the-tracks self, but you always know he’s there.  And at times his accompaniment sounds so delicately shaped that I would have sworn Ellis Larkins had slid onto the piano bench. 

The alternate takes are revealing — for both Marty’s subtle reshapings of her first inspirations, and for Dave’s inventiveness and drive.  The CD’s last track, FUSE BLUES, comes from a 1999 Nagel-Heyer session Marty did with Houston Person, Tardo Hammer, Herb Pomeroy, Greg Skaff, Dennis Irwin, Mark Taylor, and it’s a thoroughly naughty composition of Marty’s that will make you look at your electrician in a whole new way.  I think it should be Consolidated Edison’s theme song, but doubt that they’ll take me up on it.

As an afterthought, because the liner notes are very spare, I asked Marty to comment on the session, which she did:

The original recording was just for a demo for me, and Dave really did it as a favor for very little bread as he was an old friend from my days in Boston. I went to Boston U and just kind of stayed up there, hanging around with musicians for about ten years after college. I met Dave at the Copley Plaza hotel, where he was a regular performer, and he let me sing with him and was pretty much my first accompanist. The funny story I always tell is that he said, “When you go out there and sing with other musicians, don’t expect them to play in the key of B…” because he would say “Just start singing, baby, I’ll follow you.”  I guess that really was starting at the top! Everyone loved Dave – he was the most accessible guy and not even aware of his own genius. He leaves a lot of broken hearted pals. We did the recording at Jimmy Madison’s (the great drummer) studio on the Upper West Side. I think Dave was in town for a gig at the old Hanratty’s, because by then I was living in New York. The Nagel-Heyers did the remastering, and it really sounds good now.  I hear new things in Dave’s playing every time I listen to it.  I had hoped it would come out before Dave left us, but it was not to be.   

Marty is planning a late-summer CD release party at Smalls — with, among others, Jon-Erik Kellso — and she has promised to let me know the details so that I can alert all of you.  Until then, this CD is winning music.

THREE WISE MEN (OF JAZZ)

three-wise-men-jpeg

The wonderful reed player Frank Roberscheuten, pianist Rossano Sportiello, and drummer Martin Breinschmid mad a CD — they call their trio THREE WISE MEN.  And they are!  Here’s what I had to say in Cadence (January-March 2008) about the disc:

Often, the most traditional Jazz trio format – a reed player, pianist, and drummer – leads well-intentioned players into tributes to Goodman. That is hardly a bad thing, and I’ve heard many stirring evocations, but there is more to say from the instrumentation and the format. This CD goes its own way in featuring a balanced international small group whose scope reaches from James P. Johnson and Bud Freeman to Horace Silver, Monk, and Miles, never compromising the material or forcing it into stylistic boxes. Roberschuten can purl through a lovely rubato verse and then shift into tempo to deliver swinging improvisations, concise yet musically expansive. He has learned a great deal from his instrumental ancestors but his approach is a creative synthesis. On tenor, he has a Getz-Cohn fluidity, which doesn’t stop him from doing a splendid version of Bud Freeman’s bubbles and flourishes on “The Eel.” His clarinet playing is nuanced, caressing, and free from cliché, whether he is playing a Thirties pop song or a Jim Hall waltz. And his charming alto sound blends Phil Woods and Hilton Jefferson to great effect. He loves to linger over the melody, as on “You’re Mine, You,” a rewarding song that hasn’t been overdone. And his original, “From the East,” suggests late-period Ellington and Strayhorn. Throughout, I was reminded of the marvelous cohesiveness of sound, rhythm, and conception that distinguished the early Fifties Vanguard sessions – in particular the trios of Ruby Braff or Paul Quinichette with Mel Powell and Bobby Donaldson. Pianist Sportiello remains a champion: hear his beautiful touch on “Detour Ahead,” and “You’re A Sweetheart,” his astonishing whirlwind on “Dearest,” and marvel at his pushing accompaniment throughout. He suggests Jimmy Rowles or Tommy Flanagan when he is being serene; Ralph Sutton, Donald Lambert, and Dave McKenna when he chooses to stomp. A loud, uneven, or passive-aggressive drummer can sink a trio, but there’s no danger here. Breinschmid has listened closely to Krupa, but isn’t hemmed in by that style: his work on “Dark Eyes” is both homage to the originals and his own improvement on them; his brushwork on “You’re A Sweetheart” is reminiscent of Jo Jones in his prime. I never yearned for the absent bass player or guitarist, and there’s no monotony on this disc. I would begin with “How Deep Is the Ocean?” which combines deep feeling and forward motion at the same time. (The session is beautifully recorded, too.) If Roberscheuten is an unfamiliar name, he has also been an integral part of the debut CD by “Three’s A Crowd,” which matches him with the fine singer Shaunette Hildabrand and pianist Bernd Lhozsky. And the witty, ambling liner notes by trombonist Dan Barrett are assurance of Jazz quality.

The good news is twofold.  First, you can order the CD from frank.roberscheuten@planet.nl for $18, including shipping.  And I recommend that you do so!

Even better: the trio recorded another excellent session last month, which they are calling GETTING TOGETHER.  It should be available for purchase in a few weeks.  I will point out, immodestly, that I wrote the notes for the CD — music that’s easy to praise.

TAKE TEA AND SEE

This YouTube gem is taken from an appearance (on French television?) in 1980 by the Concord All-Stars: Warren Vache, Jr., on cornet and flugelhorn; Scott Hamilton, tenor; Dave McKenna, piano; Cal Collins, guitar; Michael Moore, bass; Jake Hanna, drums.  Their TEA FOR TWO turns into a late-swing line by Coleman Hawkins (its name eludes me — is it BEAN SOUP or BEAN STALKIN’?).  What impresses me here is how young everyone once was.  The living members of this combo (McKenna and Collins having left us) are still sustaining us, fortunately.

INSPIRATION’S SOURCES

sicilia-2008-ms-and-yucatan-portraits-093

People who live for jazz recordings and performances are often surprised to find that jazz musicians need a more balanced diet — what Ruby Braff called “aesthetic vitamins.”  Coleman Hawkins listened to the “modern classical music” of his day, as did Bix, and Louis drew energy and solace from John McCormack records.  The anecdotes below are testimony from most illustrious sources.  And, since the universe seems occasionally to operate harmoniously, they came to me — independently — in the last two days.

First, from Dan Morgenstern about his hero and mine, Vic Dickenson:

When I interviewed Vic Dickenson years ago and asked him what trombone playing he had listened to in his formative years (making the point, as you will see, wrongly, that trombone playing back then (Vic b. 1906) was of the tailgate variety) he didn’t say anything but went to his small collection of records, pulled out an old 12-inch 78, and put it on. It was a beautiful version of Celeste Aida by Arthur Pryor, Sousa’s trombone soloist and assistant conductor before going out on his own, and most certainly known to Tommy Dorsey. These are the kind of things you won’t learn from most jazz history sources.

And here is a generous website featuring “recordings from the nineteenth century,” where you can hear THERE’LL COME A TIME, made in 1897, featuring Pryor, whose playing is astonishingly mobile.  Although the link probably does not work within this post, visit http://home.clara.net/rfwilmut/19thcent/19th.html.

Then, taking it one step beyond (from appreciation and immersion to actual performance), Sam Parkins testifies:

No one thinks about jazz people’s interest in classical music. Bird listening to Bartok, that awesome tale of Dave McKenna playing the Ravel Piano Concerto chilling out after a record date. “But Dave – you can’t read music -” “Yeah I know. I learned it off a record”. And a friend staying in a hotel in Chicago where Earl Hines was playing. He comes down for breakfast late; after he goes to the lobby and the door to the nightclub is ajar. Hears piano. By the bare single ‘off duty’ light Hines is working on Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111 — the really hard one. Oh – & AL Haig only practiced Chopin.

More to come on this subject.

I took the photograph above about ten months ago.  It is my version of “where inspiration comes from.”  Anyone care to guess the country and region?

WARMED BY JAZZ

fireside20chatAlthough live jazz gives me more spiritual and emotional pleasure than I can say here, I admit to being hard to please.  Maybe it’s because I have heard so much transcendent music on records (from James P. in 1921 to the newest releases) and in person.  My memory is inconsistent, but I have lasting,sharp recollections of club dates.  The night at Condon’s where Ruby Braff kicked off “I Would Do Most Anything For You” at a wickedly fast tempo and drove the band across the finish line by simple stubborness.  When Benny Morton played the melody of “When You’re Smiling” two feet from my ear.   

So the bar (to use one of a dozen cliches) is set quite high, perhaps impossibly so.  And I am often discontented by my surroundings.  When I’m at a club, I wish the people around me would sit down and be still; when I’m at a concert, I long for the freedom musicians have to take chances and make mistakes they don’t always find while playing in a large hall. 

But something interesting happens — neurological or psychlogical or just idiosyncratic.  When I’m listening to jazz in performance, if I’m not transfixed, critical thoughts pop unbidden into my head.  I don’t invite them and wish they would go away and lie down.  All of these thoughts might seem unfair, of course, coming from someone who still aims for sub-amateur status on any of half-a-dozen instruments.  But I think, “That player has so much technique: when is he going to sing us a song?  Too many notes!”  “You — why don’t you lay out so we can hear what X is playing?”  Or “That tempo is too slow.” 

I don’t say these things aloud — I hope for a long lifespan — but the Beloved has had to put up with a good deal of sotto voce grumbling.  However, here’s the redeeming part I myself don’t understand: give me twelve hours, and the flaws, if they’re not mountainous, fade away.  Emotion recollected in tranquility, perhaps?  But the music takes on a golden sheen, and I think how fortunate I was to have been there. 

Last night was a special occasion: another of Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” concerts — celebrating his thirty-sixth anniversary! — held at the congenial Tribeca Arts Center (a pleasant hall in the Borough of Manhattan Community College). 

This, for faithful blog-readers, is the concert that Phil the groundhog was so insistent about.  I’m going to take him a jar of Trader Joe’s almond butter next time I visit him in Pennsylvania, to say thanks.

Jack was energetic, enthusiastic, and loquacious as ever — but all these are good things.  It’s a delight to see someone so genuinely animated by the music he is presenting, and jazz is sadly lacking in such commitment these days.  He told us that next year might be his final season — mournful news — unless more funding comes through.  Are there any wealthy jazz angels out there?  I’ll give you Jack’s phone number.

The first half of the concert was given over to David Ostwald’s Birdland band, augmented by pianist Mark Shane — Jon-Erik Kellso on cornet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and vocals, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Howard Alden on banjo, Kevin Dorn on drums, and David on tuba.  LIMEHOUSE BLUES started the good works with some Krupa-flavored tom tom work from Kevin that got us sitting forward expectantly before anyone else had sounded a note.  And this hot version was subtly shaped by a one-chorus duet between Jon-Erik and Mark, perhaps recalling Louis and Earl or Ruby and Dick Hyman.  LONESOME ROAD had a lovely Shane solo and some extraordinary broad-toned playing from Wycliffe, who (for sheer abandon) must be the most accomplished trombonist on the planet.  A rocking YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY (which David dedicated, with a grin, to the concert’s producer) began with the verse — a boon! — and Kellso pulled off a floating Louis bridge, a great suspended arch in the sky, during his second chorus.  (In the middle, there was a fascinating duet for clarinet and piano, one set of lines weaving around the other.)  Since young players don’t get tired, Anat stayed onstage with the rhythm section for a gallop through Morton’s SHREVEPORT STOMP which showed how she and Howard could improvise, conversationally and contrapuntally, at top speed.  For his feature, Wycliffe chose something so familiar that it’s rarely played as itself — I GOT RHYTHM, which gave him an opportunity to sing, something he does with great charm.  During his three vocal choruses, he made his way by great leaps from a respectful reading of the lyrics to great Leo Watson figures.  He stayed at the vocal microphone (with a sheet of lyrics helpfully provided by David) for a brooding WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE, which began and ended with touching four-bar miniatures by Shane and had an interval of moody growling obbligato by Jon-Erik.  They closed the first half with a romp through ATLANTA BLUES (also known as “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”) — with a hilariously intent solo by Kevin.

That would have been enough for almost anyone — but the second half provided other delights.  One of them was the presence of Dick Hyman, now 82 or thereabouts, up from Florida, his virtuosity undiminished.  He performed two standards — BODY AND SOUL and IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT (the latter with its pretty verse), showing how fertile his imagination is, how unbounded his energy.  Tatum, Bach, and McKenna, fugues and waltzes all put in appearances, but the result — sprawling and ingenious — was recognizable at every turn as pure Hyman.  In between, he paid tribute to the young man from Davenport with his original THINKING ABOUT BIX.  During his solo set, I became aware that the hall and the listeners were so quiet that the loud sound of Hyman’s tapping foot reverberated throughout the room.  Fats Waller got his nod with AFRICAN RIPPLES — a choice that made the gentleman next to me say happily to his Beloved, “I have the original 78,” beaming.  Hyman’s version was illuminated from within by his own ideas — it wasn’t a copy of the record — with a wonderful bounce.  A pensive, twining duet with Alden (now on guitar) on SOFTLY, IN A MORNING SUNRISE brought us from mid-Thirties Harlem to more harmonically exploratory lands.  It reminded me of one of my favorite recordings, the Pablo “Checkmate” — duets between Joe Pass and Jimmy Rowles. 

Then came the moments I had been waiting for.  I knew Joe Wilder (who will be 87 this month) was scheduled to play duets with Dick, and we could see him in the wings, his horns gleaming, waiting.  He came out and joined the fun for a fast SECRET LOVE, an inquiring, calling-in-the-highlands HOW ARE THINGS IN GLOCCA MORRA?, and SAMBA DE ORFEO.  Joe is a relentless critic of his own playing, and his brow was furrowed at some points, but a Wilder solo with a note or two that cracks is still a work of art — Joe, swimming upstream against the demands of metal tubing, lung power, and embouchure, is my hero. 

And the evening closed (as is Jack’s habit) with everyone on stage for a strutting performance of Waller’s THAT RHYTHM MAN, David Ostwald’s happily unhackneyed choice.  The band was flying, but the best part of this cheerful performance was that Mark and Dick did piano-acrobatics: you take the treble and I’ll take the bass; now, let’s switch; let’s each play sixteen bars.  Splendid, accomplished, and swinging.   

 It was frigid out last night — winds that would have done Coleman Hawkins proud made us all feel vulnerable and under-dressed.  But this concert let us warm ourselves through the music.   They don’t call it HOT JAZZ for nothing.  Highlights all ’round!

JOURNEY TO BOHEMIA: DICK TWARDZIK, SERGE CHALOFF, CHARLIE PARKER, and DYLAN THOMAS: THANKS TO SAM PARKINS

dick-t-photo-with-chetRichard Twardzik, Boston jazz pianist, was dead at 24.  And I don’t believe he ever saw any of his recordings issued.  His name has emerged once again in the jazz press (a fine appreciation by Ted Gioia at www.jazz.com) and there is a new biography out (BOUNCIN’ WITH BARTOK, by Jack Chambers, Mercury Press).  The photograph above shows him with trumpeter Chet Baker.

But The Real Thing is closer to home.  Sam Parkins, who never ceases to amaze, sent me this long essay — fascinating and heartbreaking in its immediacy — an excerpt from his book JOURNEY TO BOHEMIA, whose title refers both to the land beyond the familiar and to Cafe Bohemia.  Even if you’ve never heard Dick’s recordings, Sam’s essay-meditation is enthralling.

DICK TWARDZIK 1931-’55

Greetings gentle readers (that’s a 19th century locution. May not hold in today’s world): There’s a way over due bio published (back-ordered at Amazon) which may cause me to modify this and that – ‘though I bet I know stuff he doesn’t. As is true with all of these writings, this goes out to a dozen or so persons. Alta Ann is my first wife, member of my family and a good pal.

DICK TWARDZIK, d.’55; heroin overdose in Paris, with Chet Baker, age 24, is known to any even slightly modern jazz pianist because there’s a small recorded legacy. He’s the only junkie I knew – and I knew and loved this guy and could still weep for him – that wasn’t depressed. He had the joy of youth, always excited about what might come next. I wrote my first piano sonata for him, but death intervened…

$ [Alta Ann – you were in on the end – the night before he went off with Chet Baker. We had invited him to dinner; with desert I played him some of the Billy Banks sides with Fats Waller. He sat down at that great Bechstein grand in the living room and got very upset because he – a marvelous technician – couldn’t lay a glove on some of those triplet filigrees that Waller tosses off like cake frosting. It was you who asked – our friend now really clean after six months in the Bridgewater detox unit – “Dicky – why are you doing this – going off with all those junkies?” “To prove that I can do it”. You all know of course that he got dead in Paris instead. 1955]. Fine.

* * *

Dicky’s parents had restored the old house in Danvers (north of Boston) to its late seventeenth century state. Sure – it was central heated, had storm windows, sheep weren’t allowed to wander in and out of the kitchen. But they got it right, furniture and all – except for the big Steinway in the living room.

The kitchen was the showpiece. Discretely, at the far end of the big room, was a modern electric stove, refrigerator, butcher block island for chopping vegetables and having breakfast, but what you saw when you walked in the door, revealed by removing layers of sheetrock, plaster and wallpaper, was the ancient fireplace and chimney, with the hooks, rods and movable grills used to boil, broil, fry etc.; the oven to the right where bread was made, and the warming oven above it.

And on the left? A little door in the wall about a foot off the floor. Dick said that when they uncovered it and checked it out they left everything exactly the way it was:

He opened the door – and there was a little stairway – maybe a dozen steps, child-sized, that went nowhere. And, each exactly in the middle of its stair, climbing one at a time, were seven genuine, hand made, 17th century left shoes.

It’s late fall 1945. I’m on a long furlough, in the uniform of the buck-assed private I was. I get on a Cambridge bound trolley to Bobby Thayer’s house; he’ll drive us to the session.

But a note about Thayer, whom we won’t meet again. He had been in the trumpet section of the ‘kid band’ I played in through high school and early college, and had the distinction of being the first trumpet player in greater Boston – only a couple of months after those first mind-blowing Diz/Bird records – to master the complexities of Dizzy Gillespie’s style, which required blinding technique. He did make one little adjustment. He played all those licks at half-speed.

I meet his pretty wife, who spoke with a fashionable lisp. Go out to his ratty old Pontiac. Remember we’re all about 19. Head for downtown Boston to a jam session with (for me) mostly strangers – turns out to be the super stars of the region – Joe Gordon, Sam Rivers, Floogie Williams. Bobby, an otherwise lousy trumpet player, is accepted because of his curious quasi-mastery of Dizzy’s stuff. Turns out I can play with these guys because be-bop, which I never mastered, wasn’t the coin of the realm yet.

On the way, Bobby lights the first joint (marihuana) I had ever seen, let alone tried. Passed it over to me. Lovely.

The First Whorehouse. That was the working title in my early notes about Dick Twardzik. Most of the truly valid jazz joints I played in from 1944 on had a core ‘sin’ that defined them. The Golfers club, Ithaca, gambling. The Melody Lounge, Lynn MA, heroin. Harold’s House of Dixie, W. Orange NJ, money laundering and clubhouse for the North Jersey mafia. Barbara Kelly’s Glass Hat, Manhattan, blatant high-end prostitution. The Bowdoin Bar and Grill (where we’re going now) – really low-end prostitution. A sailor who had been all over the world said he never found a joint as rotten as this one in Calcutta. (To obfuscate matters – they weren’t all real ‘joints’. The Golfers Club was an old theater – take out the seats, add a bar and you have a dance hall. Gambling hidden in the back. Ditto Harold’s House of Dixie. College kids hangout. Bowling alley, cafeteria, two bars – and a big dance hall upstairs. Half a dozen hoods meet in an alcove under the stairs maybe twice a month. Black suits, navy shirts, silver ties, grey fedoras).

We’re driving but you could take the scenic route: Get off the trolley at Boylston St.; walk northeast (you’re on Tremont St.) the full length of the Boston Common past the Park St. Church. Tremont curves around to the left and becomes Cambridge St., headed for the river. If you’re walking in the 21st century you’ll come to a desolate moonscape called Government Center.

But if your journey is in 1945 you’ll find Scollay Square, the “Armpit of Boston”, a bustling market place with porn shops – dildos, vibrators, 8 m.m. ‘blue’ movies. Strip joints [being Boston, they didn’t quite take it all off – except for a flash when facing away from the audience – and toward the band], and the venerable Old Howard Theater, home of Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee. As you keep going toward the river the sleaze quotient becomes more pronounced and you come to Bowdoin Square – the back-side of Beacon Hill, with its Christopher Wren houses and some of the oldest money in America. Hang a left on Grove St. and there’s The Bowdoin Bar and Grill.

As you tour around this neighborhood keep in mind that WW II is just over and the Boston Navy Yard has hordes of sailors and marines in need of entertainment.

Ambience? Wasn’t any. No amenities. Maybe forty feet square. Row of tables on the left as you enter; kitchen on the right – a square chunk subtracted from the room. Past the kitchen in the resulting indent, three booths, followed by the men’s room – and the bandstand stretching across the back of the room. No sit-down bar; kitchen acted as a service bar. ‘Bar & Grill’? Massachusetts law requires that any establishment serving liquor must serve food, so the ‘Grill’ part was covered by remarkably good hamburgers when needed. The rest was dance floor.

Personnel: The kitchen – and the staff (patience my dears) were utterly dominated by Mary, the chef/bartender/boss. What in those politically incorrect days was called a bull dyke. At least 280 pounds, and I’m afraid it was all muscle. And two waitresses named Dusty and Dry Run. (For non-military readers, a ‘dry run’ is when the troops hold their rifles up, aim them at something, the sergeant says “Fire!”, pull the triggers – and nothing happens. No bullets). Well into their thirties, good-looking in a rough and ready way.

This was a non-resident brothel. The ladies had an apartment nearby, and one or the other would disappear for a half-hour periodically. When asked they would dance with the sailors; when not asked they danced with each other, with running commentary. Sample: “Hey Dusty, you stupid cunt. Your fucking slip is showing”.

Bobby and I climb on the (crowded) bandstand. Band as good as it gets; launch into some variant of the blues. Never was introduced to anybody. The stage is about 2 1/2 feet high; I’m perched at the edge, blowing leaning back a bit, eyes closed – and feel an unaccustomed draft around my crotch. Look down. My fly is open. “Oh – Dusty always does that to the new boy”. She had danced by, and…

One last tableau of The Bowdoin Bar and Grill: It’s a long set, strenuous, serious blowing. The joint is mobbed – it’s Friday night. Payday, and the sailors have money to burn. A crowd at the middle booth on the left gets my attention – three guys on the far side, four jammed in the near side and another half-dozen leaning on the table or the booth, laughing like hell. The guy in the middle of the far side is slumped down, head back, eyes closed in an expression of ecstasy — I peer under the table at his outstretched legs and there’s Dry Run on her knees, administering – well – in the Clinton era it was called oral sex…

Funky club, great session, great players – but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to meet the piano player. The closet that was the men’s room stuck out into the dance floor right by the bandstand; the piano was tucked in behind it, the piano player faced away from us. All I noticed was a little guy, playing music I’d never heard before (but he had. Bud Powell) hunched over the piano with an inch thick pile of hand-written music on the bench beside him.

At eleven the trumpet player looked at his watch and said, “Hey Dicky – you gotta get outa here!”. We declared a break, the piano player turned around, slightly dazed – and I saw a kid.
Dicky said “Oh migod”, grabbed his music and fled. The trumpet player explained: “He’s only fourteen. His mother wants him home by midnight and the last train out of North Station is at 11:30”. I asked the obvious question, “Who is he?”

“That’s Dick Twardzik. He wrote out every tune we might play, but hasn’t memorized them yet – that’s what the pile of music is about…”

I didn’t see Dick again until I came back to Boston in 1950. He had been with Serge Chaloff’s band for about a year and that’s where the trouble started.  (If you don’t know who Chaloff is, you could start with the Wikipedia entry online: brilliance, heroin, cancer. )

There’s a back-story about Chaloff’s cancer that came from Dick Wetmore, the great cornetist/violinist I played with around Boston for years. It happened that Dick and Serge Chaloff developed testicular (NOT spinal – that’s later) cancer at about the same time. The treatment was to lose the infected ball, (leaves one ball and leaves you sterile so Dick, with no condom, could blithely screw his heart out – which he did). And to go for twenty weekly radiation treatments. Dick Wetmore did it and is living in Florida as we speak.

Serge went for two weeks, “Oh the hell with it”, stopped going for treatment, went back to music and junk (heroin) – and that particular cancer’s first migration is to the nearest bones, in this case, the spine…

Woody’s Second Herd? Formed in 1947 after the huge success of the First Herd (see ‘Woody ‘n Igor’, module 4). Propelled Stan Getz to stardom with his ethereal solo on “Early Autumn”. Getz, Chaloff, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn made up the most famous “Four Brothers” sax section mentioned above (other players not so illustrious came and went). All addicts. In fact half the Second Herd were junkies. The stated reason for the break-up of the band in 1949 was financial – the dancers didn’t understand heavily be-bop tinged music. David Young, who knew Woody and most of the musicians, told it a little differently:

“Woody had to break up the band because guys were throwing up all over the bandstand”.

Gene Lees, Woody’s biographer, says “Hiring him must be accounted one of Woody’s worst errors: Serge was a serious heroin addict and, like so many of his kind, a dedicated proselytizer for the drug”.

Band breaks up in ’49, Chaloff returns to Boston with enough of a reputation as a star to be able to start a band of very young men (age 19 or so) and keep them working. And still proselytizing. It is here that Dick Twardzik and his band mates became heroin addicts.

The yin and the yang of the Chaloff family: Serge’s mother, Margaret Chaloff, was considered one of the finest piano teachers in Boston, with a studio over Symphony Hall. Dick studied with her for years. Gene Lees has high praise for her in his bio of Woody Herman.

I came back to Boston June, 1950, and into a steady Saturday night ballroom job for the summer – Nuttings on the Charles (river) – near the end of the ballroom era. Sparsely attended, only one night a week. After a six-year absence I knew almost no one. Circulated, went to sessions, slowly got back on the scene – and started four years of graduate school in composition at the New England Conservatory in the fall (playing constantly to pay for it). In getting back on the scene I encountered Dick Twardzik all over the place. Sessions, the occasional gig – not much of that though. I veered away from bop into New Orleans while Dick forged ahead as one of the few major ‘modern’+ piano players – remember 1950 is early days in be-bop, est. 1945. (+ let’s dispose of that right here. There was a lot of silliness about terminology. Be-bop, modern jazz, with a slightly different twist, but inaudible to the un-hip ear, progressive jazz. George Russell in desperation called his version ‘the New Thing’. Composers in the early 14th century faced the same problem. Came up with the ‘Ars Nova’).

But I particularly I encountered him at The New England Conservatory of Music (likewise encountered the legendary avant-garde pianist, Cecil Taylor, who gets a long look later). Dick was studying composition, and – and this is one of the real artistic drags about his death: He was studying harp with Louise Pappoutsakis, the Boston Symphony harpist, and would have evolved into – not the first, but the only be-bop harpist.

There is a warren of practice rooms on the second floor of the conservatory; each with a pretty good grand piano (and a dungeon in the basement with maybe fifty cubicles with not so good uprights). I’d see Dick at one of those grands, join him and he would show me what he was pursuing at the moment. For instance, what he called his ‘speed bass’. True stride piano in the manner of Fats Waller requires the left hand to drop at least two octaves (a leap of about a foot and a half) for a bass note on beats 1 and 3, leaving the chord indicating the harmony back up in the middle on beats 2 and 4. Playing a lot of Chopin helps. Dick kept his left hand in the middle position and hit the nearest ‘correct’ note (bass equivalent) to the south with as little hand motion as possible. (Any readers who know Dave McKenna’s music will hear this technique in frequent use).

I went to hear him with Serge, and particularly with Bird when he came to town – unlike classical performers, jazz players on tour then and now almost always go out alone and are at the mercy of local rhythm sections.+ It’s the Hi-Hat club, described elsewhere (the second burned-for-insurance fire closed it permanently). Of course I went. But missed the first tune of the first night. [+one of those half-truths that are taken for gospel at the time. Two Charlie Parker CDs, both taken from broadcasts in Boston clubs, have Charles Mingus, bass, Roy Haynes, drums – and Dick Twardzik, piano. For the non-jazz reader – Mingus and Haynes, New Yorkers, were about to become international stars].

Music lesson: Pop music back into the mists of history has been pretty simple. During the Golden Age of American Song – Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter et al – the harmony would change typically every two measures; once in a while, as in ‘The Song is You’, every measure, and on the lazy side, ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, every four measures, with four beats to each measure. Until be-bop came along. The improvisers took to modifying the songs in the direction of complexity, putting in as many as one chord change per beat.

So Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker comes to the Hi-Hat and Dick Twardzik is tapped for the piano chair. “Ohmigod – I’m going to play with the Great Master”. Dick sat down at the piano and worked out complex re-harmonizations of every tune he could think of that might be in play and went to the gig*.

First song up is the above mentioned ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. ‘F7′ for four measures, ‘B-flat 7′ for four measures and so forth. Dicky is ready. He has a different chord for each beat, totaling sixteen chord changes for every four measures where there had only been one. At the end of the song, Bird – having never bothered to shake hands with his piano player before the gig – comes around behind the piano and says in Dicky’s ear, “Kid – just play ‘F7′. I’ll do all the diddley shit”.

[* typical sad Charlie Parker story. He was hired to play seven nights – Monday thru Sunday – at the Hi-Hat. He actually showed up for only five. One absent night was a mystery, during the other he was found out cold in a gutter. And he was so revered that he was invited back anyway. His legendary absences were part of the mystique. I’ll say right here, noting as I read about the Hip-Hop world that nothing has changed except the be-bopping junkies of my youth didn’t shoot each other**, that the general irresponsible lifestyle of our heroes made great newspaper copy and influenced a lot of kids]. [**But once in a while someone else did. Lee Morgan was shot on the bandstand by an outraged wife; Wardell Gray was shot by the outraged husband of his girlfriend – or so said the tale that circulated at the time (1955). The current internet bio has a mafia/drug-tinged story instead. The joys of history].

Dylan Thomas made four trips to America, beginning in February, 1950. America didn’t interest him; he came mostly for the money. The job that got him here the first time was a reading at New York’s YMHA, which paid $500 plus airfare. Factor in inflation – in 2006 dollars that’s closer to five grand. Once he got here he took his show on the road, making substantial money, much of which he drank…He died in New York during the fourth tour, of acute alcohol poisoning, November ’53.

Of all the scenes described in these writings – some hazy memories, some Hi-Definition Technicolor – the most vivid is this:

Dick’s mother was an artist. Her day job was as an illustrator at MIT for books and scientific papers produced by the faculty. Dylan Thomas came to America for the third time in April of 1953 and his first stop was MIT, Cambridge, for a lecture/reading. 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon, end of the school week.

Mother picked us up at school (New England Conservatory) at 2:30 on a beautiful spring afternoon; Dick had those bright red spots on his cheeks that showed he was really flying. Mother says indulgently, “Oh Dicky…” (must have shot up in the men’s room after lunch), and drove us across the Harvard Bridge to MIT.

The reading was closed to the public; it took place in a very ordinary classroom – teacher’s desk up front on the left, equal size table on the right for the guest. We were almost late. Walked into a nearly full house and found seats just as the presiding faculty member was introducing Dylan Thomas.

What did he look like? The picture of him in the BBC bio shows an uncanny resemblance to Orson Welles as Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’. Attractive, perspiring, mop of wild curly hair, red-faced, really drunk, but the kind of drunk that can function normally when he should be in a coma. He began his lecture, interspersed with readings from his poetry – and you couldn’t tell them apart. His language was luminous – beyond beautiful, and his presence eerily commanding [the Welsh and Irish can do that. Celts]. It isn’t often given to any of us to be in the same room with true genius. Palpable, vibrating genius.

So where am I? In the presence of two great artists, both doomed to die real soon of substance abuse – Thomas, gone at 39, with a substantial body of work behind him, the other, Dick, 24, with the barest hint of what’s coming in his sparse recorded legacy.

Here’s a glimpse of Dick’s genius. He is simply not ‘just another be-bop piano player’ In recordings with Chet Baker and Serge Chaloff he sounds more conventional, but that’s what a sideman is supposed to do. Not upstage the leader [and more than by-the-way, note his gorgeous piano sound. Gene Lees in his Woody Herman biography says that that sound quality is a hallmark of all of Margaret Chaloff’s students].

And there is a home recording, 1954 Improvisations. Boston. June-October 1954, where, in a fragment of Jerome Kern’s ‘Yesterdays’ the future really shows. He deconstructs the tune the way Charles Ives might have – and then he’s gone.

Dick’s is the only early death among musicians/composers that really bothers me artistically [it killed me emotionally]. Mozart made it to 35. And left a complete life’s work. I’ve always felt that he lived a compressed, accelerated existence and died of old age. Ditto, Bird, also gone at 35.

Charlie Christian? Dead of TB at 26, with less than two years in the public eye and ear. But heavily recorded, and – here’s the Internet quickie: “was the founding father and primary architect of the modern jazz guitar style”. And revolutionary. Someone else would have done it, but in fact it was Christian that set the stage for guitar driven rock and roll, comin’ at you a little over ten years after his death in 1942.

Dick Twardzik left only the barest hint of what was to come…

I realized, whizzing around the park on my bike yesterday, what I uncovered here. Note the extreme contrast of the house Dick lived in and the joint he – and we all – played in. A couple of observations: No matter what your background – in Dick’s case it seems clear that there was substantial wealth in his family – you were likely to play in the scuzziest possible circumstances unless you became a star and Storyville (or its equivalent in any city) could afford you. More likely in a joint with the mafia lurking in the background. And of course – as an only child from an affluent family, how could he not have been rescued from his virtual suicide? It wasn’t exactly a secret. Let’s look:

His father was one of only two stained glass window designers and builders in the United States. Had an atelier on St. Botolph St., the front 3 stories high so they could assemble a finished window, then take it apart for (very careful) shipping. St. Botolph – that funky little street that petered out behind the Conservatory, coming over from Mass. Ave. just across the tracks from the ‘colored district’. David Young’s studio was there in the early 50s.

[What follows is probably from my friend Jack Lawlor, the left-handed bass player who shows up on several records and attended the sessions we held at Dick’s parent’s home. As I write, the long promised biography of Dick remains back-ordered at Amazon and people in Dick Twardzik chat rooms are getting pretty upset. So 1) I have no confirmation of the health issue; 2) Jack Chambers, the biographer, could conceivably have missed this. Families are pretty close-mouthed about health disasters].

It matters that Dick was a sickly child. He had a rare disease – here’s the Internet word:

“…probably had polyarticular arthritis, a form that affects children in at least five joints. Samantha at 16 months had 11 swollen joints, in her knees, wrists, toes, elbows and fingers. NY Times 9.30/03, Health & Fitness”

People that knew him told me that by the time he was 11 Dick had every joint in his body operated on. Helps explain the indulgent mother. How could you not spoil an only child with such a dreadful illness?

There was just forming up when I returned to Boston in 1950 a consortium of young modern musicians that called themselves ‘The Jazz Workshop’+; their mission to provide a space where students and professionals could play and study together. They found a bar downtown that had a little used back room; they persuaded the owner that jazz would bring in customers and were given carte blanche to do whatever they liked. I paid my dues with saw, hammer and nails many an afternoon helping to build the stage. [+Those musicians, led by trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, became the core faculty of the internationally famous Berklee School of Music. They are now of course very senior faculty or emeritus]. It prospered; a Monday night big band session was laid on, with Jaki Byard writing the arrangements and sitting in the tenor sax chair rather than piano.

And eventually they had to move to larger quarters; a club called The Stable on nearby Huntington Ave.

Dick Twardzik was a frequent member of the Jazz Workshop ‘in house’ rhythm section and it was here that he asked his fellow musicians for help with his heroin addiction. We have seen that his family was no help at all.

Now look: This may be apocryphal in places; it went around town as scuttlebutt. But it rings true. He asked the guys in the band for help “…and they laughed at him”. So after the gig, at two o’clock in the morning, on a cold December night, he walked up to a cop on Huntington Ave. and said, “Officer – I’m an addict and need to quit. Can you help me?”

Bless that cop. I’m sure there was and is a city agency set up for this. They helped get Dicky into the Massachusetts detox unit in Bridgwater, where he stayed for six months, met a priest he really liked and started going to church. Came out squeaky clean and full of the joy of life. He had finally beaten it.

In a musical composition that returns to the beginning for the last few measures, there is a convention that we’ll use here. “Dal Segno” – “to the sign”, which is a squiggle not on the keyboard. We’ll use $.

“Dal segno $ al fine [finish]”

If you don’t want to bother, it goes like this:

$ [Alta Ann – you were in on the end – the night before he went off with Chet Baker. We had invited him to dinner; with desert I played him some of the Billy Banks sides with Fats Waller. He sat down at that great Bechstein grand in the living room and got very upset because he – a marvelous technician – couldn’t lay a glove on some of those triplet filigrees that Waller tosses off like cake frosting. It was you who asked – our friend now really clean after six months in the Bridgewater detox unit – “Dicky – why are you doing this – going off with all those junkies?” “To prove that I can do it”. You all know of course that he got dead in Paris instead. 1955].

Fine.

Copyright © 2006 Leroy Parkins

[Here’s Sam’s own biographical sketch, taken from his MySpace page:

Leroy (Sam) Parkins: born in reign of Calvin Coolidge. Heard Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton 1936 – 1945. Charlie Parker from then on. Normal life no longer possible. Cornell for composition; New England Conservatory for Masters. Saxophonist-in-residence two whorehouses (Bowdoin Bar & Grill, Boston, 1945; Barbara Kelly’s Glass Hat, NYC 1960), the Heroin Capital of the North Shore (Melody Lounge, Lynn MA, 1954 but didn’t sample the wares); Carnegie Hall (one-shot, 1976) etc.etc. Sixteen years with two major society orchestras. Duties included playing New Years Eve for the Carnegies and Mellons at Rolling Rock Country Club, Ligonear, PA.; deb parties as far away as St. Louis, MO. Joined production staff CBS Masterworks 1967. Recorded the complete Charles Ives chamber music. One Grammy (European); four Grammy nominations. Recorded Milton Babbitt, John Cage, Charles Wuorinen et al for New World Records, 1975. Black composers series, various labels: Music of Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Cecil Taylor, Benny Carter, Scott Joplin. Stravinsky’s ‘Ebony Concerto’ with Richard Stolzman and Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, RCA Victor, 1987. Grammy nomination. As featured soloist, ‘Take Me To the Land of Jazz’, Aviva records. Stereo Review, Album Pick of the Year, Acoustic Jazz, 1979. Recorded ‘Preservation Hall Live!’ for Sony Classical, 1991. Miscellaneous recordings since; clarinetist-in-residence, Cajun Restaurant, NYC; ditto weekly stint New York Public Library. Commence writing ‘Journey to Bohemia’ 1997. Lived.]

VIC DICKENSON SINGS OF DESIRE

I never thought I would see this performance again.

I first saw it perhaps twenty years ago on a blurry videocassette copy sent to me by my generous friend John L. Fell, a film scholar and scholarly collector of the best jazz.  John and I shared a deep affection for the poetic improvisers — Billy Butterfield, Pee Wee Russell, Lester, and Vic Dickenson, among a hundred others.

This song was captured on November 26, 1983 at the Manassas Jazz Festival, in a program called ” Remembering the Roosevelt Grill,” in honor of the peerless small band that Vic and Bobby Hackett led there (with Cliff Leeman, Jack Lesberg, and Dave McKenna).  Hackett-disciple Larry Weiss played cornet, Dill Jones, piano; Steve Jordan, guitar; Bob Decker, bass, and Ernie Hackett, Bobby’s son, was on drums.

I don’t need to anatomize Vic’s instrumental style for anyone — he got more vocal sounds, deeply felt and human, out of that recalcitrant instrument than almost anyone.  (Ironically, Vic talked less than most musicians: it all came out of the horn.)  He loved to sing, and was earnest and whimsical at the same time.  I referred to this performance in a posting about Humphrey Lyttelton and Henri Chaix some time back, because it moved me so in memory.  It’s a great surprise to find it sitting quietly on YouTube.  Thank you, unknown benefactor!

Vic was seriously ill when he made the trip to Manassas and knew it.  Although he played intermittently after this festival, I think this is the last glimpse of him in action.  His feeling and humor come out in every note, as well as the joke of holding up two fingers.  Other men might do all they wanted to do in one hour; he would need double the time.

I saw Vic as often as I could between 1971 and 1981, but I wish he had been able to move and enlighten us just a little bit longer.  He died on November 16, 1984.  I miss his sound and his presence.  If only he could be with us still.


For those who want to know more about Vic’s life, the extraordinarily dedicated jazz writer / researcher Manfred Selchow’s book DING! DING!  A BIO-DISCOGRAPHICAL SCRAPBOOK ON VIC DICKENSON is irreplaceable.

GOODBYE, DAVE McKENNA, HAIL WAYNE WRIGHT

The extraordinary pianist Dave McKenna, who had been ill and unable to play for some time, died peacefully on October 18.  McKenna’s playing seemed to synthesize all the jazz piano that had come before him: the romping left-hand, both violent and precise, that summoned up the great stride players and the Boogie Woogie Trio at once — balanced against ricocheting treble lines that swerved and darted.  A McKenna solo in high gear (I think of his Chiaroscuro “C Jam Blues”) was a swinging juggernaut, but the McKenna locomotive was so smooth that the glasses of water in the dining room never sloshed.  He was a remarkable player who dazzled Oscar Peterson, and someone who had an immense affectionate recall for the best American popular songs, which he strung together in great thematic melodies (the Street medley, the Rain medley).  The Chiaroscuro, Shiah, Concord, and JUMP recordings he left behind — mostly solo, but some with Dick Johnson, Scott Hamilton, Ruby Braff, and Zoot Sims (not bad company) are imperishable.  And what more can anyone say about Dave except to recall that he was Bobby Hackett’s favorite pianist.

News also comes of a memorial service — with music, of course — celebrating the life of guitarist Wayne Wright.  Produced and organized by Chris Ambadjes of the American Guitar Museum, the concert will be held on Tuesday, November 11, 7:30-9:30 P.M, at Five Towns College in Dix Hills, New York. Center for Performing Arts – Main Stage. _