Tag Archives: Dave Tough

THE MIGHTY MEZZ: A NEW NYC JAZZ CLUB OPENS (September 3, 2014)

MEZZROW club

Spike Wilner, pianist, clubowner, and a true Disciple of Swing, has another bold idea: a new New York City jazz club that presents genuine improvised music in kind settings.

Simple facts first: the club opens on September 3, 2014.  It will thrive in the basement of 163 West 1oth Street, steps away from the happily thriving SMALLS, co-piloted by Spike and Mitch Borden.  (For those who worry about such things, both clubs are a few minutes’ walk from the Christopher Street / Sheridan Square station on the Seventh Avenue subway line. And it’s a calm area to be in.)

The club is a “piano room,” which is a term that needs a little explanation.  I don’t mean a “piano bar,” where people accost the pianist at close range and insist (s)he play songs whose title they half know, or where sing-alongs explode like small wildfires — with much the same result.  No.

Once upon a time, New York City had a number of such rooms, usually small, with well-tuned pianos where solos and duos were what you came to hear.  I saw Jimmy Rowles at Bradley’s, Ellis Larkins and Al Hall at Gregory’s.  Although horn players might sit in, these rooms were meant for thoughtful improvisation. In this century, where patrons have a hard time keeping still, paying attention, turning their phones off, Spike’s determination to make such a spot possible is a beautiful and courageous act — in a city that prides itself on having every kind of entertainment and enlightenment in profusion, his new club is a rarity if not a solitary gem.  (Yes, there is the Knickerbocker, and thankfully so, but that large room is a different species entirely.)

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

MEzz, James P. Johnson, Hughes Panassie, Tommy Ladnier at the Victor studios

Spike has named the club for one of his musical heroes, the clarinetist / saxophonist / organizer / man with plans Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow. Mezzrow was a fascinating figure, someone whose deep-hued nearly-surrealistic autobiography REALLY THE BLUES made a profound impression on me when my sister gave it to me as a birthday gift (I was, I think, 14).  The dream of this century and the preceding one is “You can be anything you want to be if you only want it fiercely enough,” and Mezz — in his own way — exemplified that romantic notion.  Mezz was a White Jewish Chicago kid (those identifiers are important to the story) who was so entranced by the Black music he heard that he knew that was what he wanted to play.  More importantly, he knew that “that” was the person he wanted to be, the life he wanted to lead.

So, although he was never a great musician, he became a friend to Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier; he heard and hung around Bix, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, and the rest.  He organized record dates with Teddy Bunn, Bechet, Hot Lips Page, Chick Webb, Frank Newton, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Benny Carter, J.C. Higginbotham, Sidney Catlett, Art Hodes, George Wettling, Zutty Singleton, and more.  He was deeply involved in a near-religious crusade to offer marijuana as a more healthy alternative to whiskey or hard drugs.

And he crossed the color line early and without pretense.  In an era when having mixed-race record sessions was rare, Mezzrow (like Eddie Condon) pushed this idea forward with historic results.  He led a band, the Disciples of Swing, where “white” and “colored” musicians played together.  And more seriously, he identified as Black — marrying a woman of color, and taking his convictions into everyday life.

I think (although I could be presuming here) that this latter figure — the man so deeply committed to a music and the ideas behind it: community, equality, creativity — is the man Spike honors by naming this new club MEZZROW.

Here is the club’s website, where you can learn more about it — the schedule, ticketing, about Mezz himself, and more. I don’t know when I’ll make my first visit, but since I see my friends Rebecca Kilgore, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello, Michael Kanan, Scott Robinson, Neal Miner . . . I expect to be there often, and it may well be a deeply needed oasis of quiet creativity in New York. And https://www.facebook.com/mezzrowclub is the club’s Facebook page.

Blessings on you, Spike.

May your happiness increase!

RHYTHM, THEN BIRDSONG: MICHAEL BURGEVIN (1936-2014)

The heroes and the people we cherish forever don’t always have their names written in huge capital letters. But we know who they are.

One of them was the drummer, artist, raconteur, dear friend and gracious man Michael Burgevin. We lost him — abruptly, of a sudden heart attack — on June 17, 2014.  If you look in Tom Lord’s discography, the listing of official recordings MB (how he signed his emails — a man with things to do!) made is brief, but that is in no way a measure of his effect, his swing, his sweet presence.

MB and Cornelius, 2001, by Penny Haddad

MB and Cornelius, 2001, by Penny Haddad

I had met Mike in 1973, in New York City, and although we were out of touch for about twenty years, he was always in my thoughts as someone I was grateful to.

Because I miss him and admire him — first as a musician, then as a generous friend, then as a thinker who knows and feels the truth — what follows below is the leisurely narrative of my friend MB. The dates are fuzzy, my feelings sharply realized.

When I met him in 1973, I was a college student, deeply involved in jazz, without much money to spend on it. But I read in The New Yorker that there was a little bar / restaurant on East 34th Street, Brew’s, that featured live hot jazz.

You can read more about Brew’s here — on a blog called LOST CITY — with MB’s comments.

I read the names of Max Kaminsky and Jack Fine. I didn’t know about Jimmy Andrews, piano, and Mike Burgevin, drums. But when I saw a listing that advertised “trumpeter Joe Thomas,” I began to pay attention.

Joe Thomas remains one of the great subtle players in the swing idiom, recording with Benny Carter, Ed Hall, Don Byas, Sidney Catlett, Art Tatum, Claude Hopkins, and many other luminaries: he was one of Harry Lim’s favorite players and gets a good deal of exposure on Keynote Records.

I worried that my trip to Brew’s would turn out to be a jazz mirage; how could one of my heroes be playing in a club just ten minutes from Penn Station?  “Joe Thomas” is a very plain name, but I got myself out of my suburban nest, brought my cassette recorder (of course) and came to Brew’s. When I came in the door, the sounds told me I was in the right place.  Not only was Joe on the stand, instantly recognizable, but he had Rudy Powell and Herb Hall with him; Jimmy Andrews was striding sweetly and quietly.

The man behind the drums was tall, elegantly dressed.  His hairline receding, he looked a little like a youthful Bing Crosby without his hat on.  And he sounded as if he’d gone to the magic well of Swing: without copying them, I heard evocations of Dave Tough and George Wettling, of Sidney Catlett and Zutty Singleton: a light, swinging, effortless beat.  Quietly intent but restrained, with not too much flash and self-dramatization.  He didn’t play anything that would have been out of place on a Commodore 78 but it seemed fresh, not a collection of learned gestures and responses.  I can hear his hi-hat and rimshots as I write this, his brushes on the snare drum.  He was leading the band, but he let the men on the stand direct traffic: in retrospect, he was a true Condonite, letting the music blossom as it would.

I was shy then, but I got my courage together and spoke to him — I must have seemed an unusual apparition, a college student breathless with enthusiasm about swing drumming and especially about Sidney Catlett.  I had just purchased the three records (from England) of the complete 1944 Metropolitan Opera House Jam Session, and I asked Mr. Burgevin if he had them or would like a tape of that concert.  He hadn’t known of this music (like many musicians, he loved hearing new things but wasn’t an obsessive collector himself). And so we arranged something: perhaps I asked him for a copy of the records he had made with Doc Cheatham.

That night, Joe Thomas took a solo on a set-ending CRAZY RHYTHM, and although Joe is no longer with us, and the performance is now forty years away, I can hum the beginning of his solo, upon request.  To say the music I heard that night made an impression is putting it mildly.

Memory is treacherous, but what I remember next is being invited to the apartment he and his wife Patty  — Patricia Doyle, if we are being formal — shared on East 33rd Street in an apartment building called The Byron. At some point MB persuaded me to stop calling him “Mr. Burgevin,” and I was made welcome. And often. I had been brought up to be polite, but I blush to think of how many meals I ate in their apartment, how long I stayed, how much time I spent there.

Often MB was at work on a piece of commercial art in his little studio, wedged in a corner: I played the records he had or the ones I had just bought for him. Louis, Bing, Condon, stride piano, Billie, Bud Freeman and his Chicagoans, Dave Tough, Lee Wiley, Mildred Bailey. We had much to talk about, and I learned to hear more under his gentle tutelage. We didn’t speak of anything deep: I don’t think I knew how at that time, skating over the surface of my life, moving from one small triumph or failure to the next. But we admired J. Fred Coots’ YOU WENT TO MY HEAD and other beauties.

(I cringe now to think that MB and Patty might have liked to be left in peace a little more.  I wonder how many meals were stretched to include a hungry guest.  When, in this century, I apologized to MB  and Patty for my late-adolescent oblivious gaucheries, they said they remembered nothing of the sort. I take this as a great kindness.)

Chicken cacciatore, Dave Tough, a feisty little terrier named Rex, are all inextricably combined in my mind. I can see that rectangular apartment now.  MB lent me records and books, tapes and other music-related treasures, and in general made his house mine, open-handedly and open-heartedly.

In ways I didn’t verbalize then, I felt his kindness, although I didn’t at the time understand how powerfully protective the umbrella was. It was all subtle, never dramatic. One thing MB encouraged me to do was to bring recording equipment along to gigs he was playing. And (again in this century) he told me this story that I had not been aware of while it was happening. One night at Brew’s, the musicians were MB, the Welsh pianist Dill Jones, and Kenny Davern, then alternating between clarinet and soprano saxophone.  Blithely, I came in, said hello to MB, and began setting up my reel-to-reel recorder. Davern turned to MB and said — out of my hearing, but referring to me, “WHAT is THAT?” and MB told Kenny to calm down, that I was a friend, not to worry about me.  As a result, Kenny, with some polite irascibility, showed me where to set up my microphone for better results. Now I know that he would have just as energetically told me where the microphone could be placed, but for MB’s quiet willingness to protect his young friend, myself.

In the next two years, I was able to hear Joe Thomas, Doc Cheatham, Al Hall, Al Casey, Vic Dickenson (at length), Ruby Braff, Sam Margolis, Wayne Wright, Red Richards, Dick Wellstood, Susannah McCorkle, Norman Simmons, and a dozen others at close range. MB shared his tape library with me, so I heard him as a glowing, uplifting presence with Herman Autrey, Bobby Gordon, Benny Morton, Bobby Hackett, and others. He delighted especially in the sounds of Fats Waller and his Rhythm, and took every advantage possible to get together with Jimmy Andrews, Al Casey, Herman Autrey, and Rudy Powell to recapture some of that jovial spirit.

MB told stories of spending time with Vic Dickenson, of how Bobby Hackett insisted he play sticks, not brushes, behind him, of meeting Pee Wee Russell late in the latter’s life, and a favorite anecdote of an early encounter with Cliff Leeman at Condon’s, in the eraly Fifties, when MB was on leave from the Merchant Marine (I think): he had come into Condon’s and was listening to the band, which then took a break. Leeman stepped down from the drums and MB asked politely if he could sit in with the intermission players — Steve Lacy on soprano saxophone and Ralph Sutton, piano.  Leeman, always tart, said to MB, “Whaddaya want to do with the drums? Fuck ’em all up?” but he let MB play.

Here is a photograph of Michael Burgevin, young, jamming on board the USS IOWA, circa 1955-7:

MIKE 1955-57 USS IOWA

My friendly contact stopped abruptly when MB had a heart attack. I was terrified of going to a hospital to visit anyone (I have said earlier in the piece that I was young, perhaps far too young). Before I could muster the maturity to visit him, he and Patty seemed, as if in a snap of the fingers, to flee the city for points unknown upstate.  I wondered about him in those years, heard his music, and thought of him with love — but we had drifted apart.

We reconnected around 1997, and I am sure I can’t take credit for it, for I felt guilty for my emotional lapses.  I think that Vic Diekenson drew us together once again, through the research Manfred Selchow was doing for his book, and MB got in touch with me when he planned to come down to New York City to play on a Monday night with the Grove Street Stompers at Arthur’s Tavern. Once before, he had played with that group. I don’t know who else was in the band, but I recorded a version of HINDUSTAN that had MB stretching out for a long solo in the manner of STEAK FACE.

I didn’t have sufficient opportunities to video-capture MB at play in this century, although there are examples of him on YouTube with his concert presentation of three men at drumsets “drumatiCymbalism” — but here is a 2009 video he made to promote his concerts and his paintings.  It seems odd to hear him gently trying to get gigs, but it is a good all-around picture of Michael Burgevin, his sound (solo and in an ensemble with Warren Vache, Dan Block, Harry Allen, Howard Alden, and others) and it gives glimpses of his paintings:

A few years ago, MB seriously mastered the computer and moved from writing letters to writing emails, and we stayed in contact, sometimes several times a week, that way. I sent him music and jazz arcana, and we had deep philosophical conversations — the ones I had not been ready for in the early Seventies. I hadn’t known that he had become a Jehovah’s Witness (as had Trummy Young and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Joe Thomas and Babe Matthews) but our discussions were fervent, even when we were gently disagreeing about our views of the world. Recently he burst forth of Facebook, and had a delighted time sharing photographs of his friends from the old days.

If Ricky Riccardi posted some new Louis / Sidney Catlett on his blog, I forwarded it to MB, and we shared our joy and excitement often. A few years ago, he came down to New York City to meet the Beloved, and he and our mutual friend Romy Ashby had lunch together.  MB was beautifully dressed and as always sweetly gallant.

It was foolish of me to think we would always have our email conversations, or another meeting in person, but we never want the people we love to move to another neighborhood of existence. I know he read JAZZ LIVES and delighted in the videos and photographs of the men and women we both revered. That thought gave and continues to give me pleasure.

He wrote a little self-portrait more than a decade ago:
As a child was riveted by marching band drums in firemen’s parades on Long Island. Born with rhythm! Given a pair of drumsticks at age seven and a 1920’s style trap set at age 15 and began his professional career playing weekends at Stanbrook Resort in Dutchess Co. (NYS) Played with bands in high school and at Bard College. Strongly influenced by his uncle George Adams’ jazz collection of 78’s (rpm records). Studied drums in Pine Plains High School (1950’s) and later under Richard Horowitz percussionist with the Metropolitan Opera Symphony Orchestra (1970’s). Studied (and uses) many of the early African tribal rhythms- Dinka, Bini, Malinke, Bakwiri, Watusi. About 10 years away from music working as a freelance commercial artist and graphic designer. Returned to drumming in 1968. Spent many nights sitting in at famed Jazz clubs Jimmy Ryan’s on 57th Street and Eddie Condon’s 55th St. There met legends Zutty Singleton, Freddie Moore, and Morey Feld often subbing for them. Lived in Manhattan. Worked steadily at Ryan’s with Max Kaminsky’s band. Also became friends with George Wettling, Cliff Leeman and Jo Jones. Worked full time with almost all the titans of small band jazz during this period of time (late 1960’s through 1980’s) including Roy Eldridge, “Wild Bill” Davison, “Doc” Cheatham, Bobby Hackett, Claude Hopkins, Bobby Gordon, Marian and Jimmy McPartland. Toured Canada & USA with Davison’s Jazz Giants. Made Bainbridge, NY, situated on the beautiful Susquehanna River, a permanent residence in the 1990’s. Traveled to NYC for many engagements. Connected with Al Hamme, professor of Jazz Studies at SUNY Binghamton, playing several concerts there. Since 2001 has been producing Jazz concerts in the 100-year-old, Historic Town Hall Theatre in Bainbridge, featuring world-class jazz personalities: Kenny Davern, Warren Vaché, Peter Ecklund, James Chirillo, Joe Cohn, Howard Alden, Harry Allen, Joel Forbes, Phil Flanigan, Dan Block and many, many others.

Why do I write so much about this man?

Michael Burgevin seems to me to be the embodiment of kind generosity. Near me, as I write, I have a little 1933 autograph book full of inscriptions of jazz musicians that he bought and gave to me. Invaluable, like its owner.

But MB’s giving was more than the passing on of objects: he gave of himself so freely, whether he was behind the drum set or just sharing ideas and feelings. Reading these words, I hope his warmth and gentle nature comes through, his enthusiasm for Nature and for human nature, for the deep rhythms of the world and the way a good jazz ensemble could make us feel even more that life was the greatest privilege imaginable. A deeply spiritual man, he preached the most sustaining gospel without saying a word.

I have a story I can only call mystical to share. Yesterday, on the morning of the 17th, I was writing a blogpost — which you can read here. I had indulged myself in the techno-primitive activity of video-recording a spinning record so that I could share the sounds on JAZZ LIVES.  It was a slow blues featuring, among others, Joe Thomas and Pee Wee Russell, two of MB’s and my heroes. Through the open window, the softer passages had an oddly delightful counterpoint of birdsong, something you can hear on my video. I was not thinking about MB while I was videoing — I was holding my breath, listening to music and birdsong mixed — but now I think that strange unearthly yet everyday combination may have been some part of MB’s leaving this earthly realm — music from the hearts of men now no longer with us overlaid by the songs of the birds, conversing joyously.

Patty, Michael’s wife, tells me that the funeral will be Friday, June 20, at the C.H. Landers Funeral Home in Sidney, New York (the place name is appropriate for those who understand): the visitation at noon, the service at 1 PM. Landers is on 21 Main Street, Sidney, New York 13838. (607) 563-3545.

Adieu for now, Michael Burgevin. Kind friend, lovely generous man, beautiful musician.  Born January 10, 1936. Made the transition June 17, 2014.

It seems odd to close this remembrance in the usual way — but someone like MB increases my happiness, even in sadness, that I will continue as I always have.  May you, too, have people like him in your life, and — more importantly — may you be one of the loving Elders to others, and older brother or sister or friend who shelters someone who might not, at the time, even recognize the love he or she is being shown.

May your happiness increase!

CHARLES, JIMMIE, MIKE, SKIPPY, PETE, COOTIE, DAVE, 1941

Some Swing fan had very good taste in his / her autograph quest, getting our heroes to sign their names on the same piece of paper:

CHARLIE CHRISTIAN SIGNATURES w DAVE TOUGH

That assemblage comes from the Benny Goodman Orchestra in early 1941 (February – March): Charlie Christian, electric guitar; Jimmie Maxwell, trumpet; Mike Bryan, guitar; Skippy Martin, alto saxophone / arranger; Pete Mondello, tenor saxophone; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Dave Tough, drums.

I first saw this browning piece of notebook paper as part of the Larry Rafferty Collection: someone no doubt has bought it by now but there’s no reason JAZZ LIVES can’t share the image with the Faithful.

And some of my favorite music of all time (I think I first bought the record of this in 1972): an excerpt from a Goodman Sextet without Benny, warming up in the studio: Charlie, Cootie, Dave, Johnny Guarneri, George Auld — working on what would be called A SMOOTH ONE:

I don’t hear the string bass of Artie Bernstein, but do I hear the voice of John Hammond early on?  “Mop!” is our man Cootie Williams. This is music — like a deep pool — that one could descend in to for a long time.  Bliss that it was recorded at all, and even better that the whole rehearsal / informal session did survive, was issued in several formats (Meritt Record Society and Masters of Jazz, vinyl and CD).

A year after he signed this paper, Charlie Christian (1916-1942) was dead.

May your happiness increase!

MEET ME AT THE CORNER OF THEN AND NOW

Although the physicists explain gravely that time — make that Time — is not a straight line but a field in which we may meander, it often feels as if we are characters in a Saul Steinberg cartoon, squinting into the looming Future while the Past stretches behind us, intriguing but closed off.  We anxiously stand on a sliver of Now the thickness and length of a new pencil, hoping for the best.

Jazz, or at least the kind that occupies my internal jukebox, is always balancing (not always adeptly) Then and Now.  For some, Then is marked in terms of dates: this afternoon in November 1940, or this one in July 1922. The most absorbed of us can even add artifacts and sound effects: uncontrollable coughing, a trout sandwich, the sound of dancers’ feet in a ballroom.

But for me, Then is a series of manifestations, imagined as well as real, that have no particular date and time.

Bix and Don Murray watching a baseball game. The Chicago flat where Louis and friends drank Mrs. Circe’s gin and told stories. Mezz Mezzrow on the subway. Strayhorn auditioning in Ellington’s dressing room. Mystics Boyce Brown, Tut Soper, and Don Carter, each imagining the universe in his own way. Eddie Condon picking up the tenor guitar. Hot Lips Page shaking a Texan’s hand. Art Hodes and Wingy Manone politely deciding who gets to wear the bear coat tonight. Francene and Frank Melrose having Dave Tough and friends over for a scant but happy meal of rice and peppers. E.A. Fearn making a suggestion. Billy Banks arriving late for the record date. Bird washing dishes while hearing Art Tatum. Joe Oliver having a snack in a Chinese restaurant.

Any jazz fan who has read enough biography can invent her own mythography of the landmarks of Then.

Now, although it recedes as I write this, is a little easier to fix in time and space, in the way one pushes a colored push-pin through a map.

Andy Schumm, cornet and archives; Dan Barrett, trombone; Dan Levinson, reeds; John Sheridan, piano; Howard Alden, banjo; Kerry Lewis, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums: late in the evening of September 20 at the 2013 Jazz at Chautauqua, now reinvented as the Allegheny Jazz Party.

OLD MAN SUNSHINE (LITTLE BOY BLUEBIRD):

SHAKE THAT JELLY ROLL:

LITTLE WHITE LIES (in an arrangement inspired by British Pathe sound film of the Noble Sissle band — and piling rarity upon rarity — giving us a glimpse of Tommy Ladnier playing):

DEEP NIGHT:

GET GOIN’ (in honor of the Bennie Moten band, which also had spiders to deal with in Kansas City):

KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW (Sheridan’s verse gets everyone in the right mood):

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

18TH AND RACINE (a street intersection in Chicago / an Andy Schumm original / the title track of the Fat Babies’ delicious new CD on Delmark Records):

SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL (with a wonderful surprise at 3:00 — why isn’t there a whole CD of this?):

See you in Cleveland, Ohio, between September 18 and 21, 2014, for more of the same delicious time-superimpositions, courtesy of the Allegheny Jazz Party, where such things happen as a matter of course.

May your happiness increase!

LOOK. LISTEN.

Considering the context — James P. Johnson, solo piano, playing his own HARLEM STRUT — the advertising exhortations seem reasonable.

BLACK SWAN

Over a twenty-five year period, James P. was recorded — in the studio, on radio, and in concert — alongside Bessie Smith, Clarence Williams, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Henry “Red” Allen, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, Freddie Green, Dicky Wells, Max Kaminsky, Zutty Singleton, Perry Bradford’s Jazz Phools (with Louis, Buster Bailey, Kaiser Marshall), Lavinia Turner, Trixie Smith, Fats Waller, Sadie Jackson, Louis Metcalf, Cootie Williams, Garvin Bushell, Jabbo Smith, Gene Sedric, Johnny Dunn, Ethel Waters, King Oliver, Teddy Bunn, Spencer Williams, Cecil Scott, Roy Smeck, Mezz Mezzrow, Tommy Ladnier, Eddie Dougherty, Rod Cless, Sterling Bose, Pops Foster, Omer Simeon, Ida Cox, Pete Brown, Frank Newton, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Hot Lips Page, J.C. Higginbotham, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Al Casey, Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Russell, Brad Gowans, Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Jimmy Rushing, Vic Dickenson, Vernon Brown, Sidney Bachet, Tommy Dorsey, Baby Dodds, Dave Tough, Johnny Windhurst, George Brunis, Albert Nicholas, Bunk Johnson, George Wettling . . . which sounds as if he recorded with everyone in creation.

Here is his 1923 solo, BLEEDING HEARTED BLUES:

And his 1930 romp, JINGLES:

And the musing 1944 ARKANSAW BLUES:

From the middle of the Twenties, James P. (1894-1955) was comfortably earning money because of royalties on his most famous compositions (consider CHARLESTON, ONE HOUR) but he wasn’t satisfied to be a composer of hit songs.  He wanted to be known and respected as a serious composer of extended works, perhaps the race’s answer to George Gershwin.  He didn’t gain the respect and attention he desired, which hurt him. Both his discography and biography suggest that he was not always in good health — another good reason for our not having even more recorded evidence.

I wonder if James P. was more than the cliche of the popular entertainer yearning for serious acceptance, but a man who knew that he had more to offer than writing thirty-two bar songs and playing piano, solo or in bands.  Did he distance himself from “the music business” or did it ignore him because he would not fit in to one of its tidy categories?

James P.’s pupil Fats Waller died younger, but received more attention because of his ebullient personality: hundreds of recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances.  Willie “the Lion” Smith outlived them both and was always ready to play, sing, and talk.

I wish James P. had recorded more, had received more attention of the kind his talents deserved. If someone uncovers a James P. trove, I’d like to know about it.

Because this blogpost threatens to slide into the morose, I will offer a recording that has never failed to cheer me up: the duet of James P. and Clarence Williams on HOW COULD I BE BLUE? What a pleasure to hear James P. somewhat awkwardly negotiate the vaudeville dialogue . . . and then to hear his intense rhythmic lead, his melodic inventiveness, in the duet that follows:

May your happiness increase!

HEROIC FIGURES IN THE SHADOWS

A friend recently asked me about a valued musician, now gone, who never seemed to get the honors he deserved. “Why doesn’t anyone pay attention to X?”  I recalled that X was always working in groups led by A Star, a powerful personality.  I have no idea if X wanted to lead a group and couldn’t, but he never said in public that he felt the opportunity had been denied him.

It made me think again about “being a leader” in jazz.  We celebrate the musicians whose names appear on the record labels and the marquees, in boldface in discographies.  Theirs are the sounds we know, and they do deserve our attention and our love. Think of a universe without Count Basie — the sky suddenly grows dark at the mere statement of such a void.

But the Stars rely on the often semi-anonymous players who keep the great ship’s rhythmic engines humming.  Consider Ed Lewis, Joe Muranyi, Fred Guy, Leo McConville, Bobby Tucker, Wendell Marshall, George Stafford, Tommy Thunen, Curley Russell, Dave Bowman — players who didn’t chafe to be center stage.  There is a special cozy corner of Paradise for those who didn’t have the urge to solo, but who created backgrounds and section sounds that delight us, that made the Stars sound so fine.

Although he was a famous leader and a notable Personality, I think of Eddie Condon in this respect, as someone who cared more about how the band sounded than whether he soloed. Dave Tough, Freddie Green, also.

Musicians will tell you that “being a leader” brings what we call “fame,” but this public place can be a nuisance.  Visibility brings recognition: no longer are you third alto in the reed section, one of the Wisconsin Skyrockets, you are THE Skyrocket, and people know your name and recognize you.

But that recognition also means that fans want to talk with you when you are on your way to the bathroom.  People who “just love your music” grab your upper arm.  Some have their own ideas about songs you should be playing, in what tempos, and who you should Sound Like.  Play the clarinet, and you are told about an admirer’s favorite Benny Goodman record.  Sing, and you hear all about Billie Holiday (“Tsk, tsk.  Those drugs.”) or perhaps Diana Krall.

If you are leading a group in a club, the club-owner heads directly for you when something goes wrong.  You have to get the gigs.  You have to handle the money.

You have to deal with the personalities in the band (A, late again; B, grimy again; C, in despair; D, texting when not playing; E, a model in all things but eager to point out the flaws of A, B, C, and D.)

You have to talk on the microphone.  You must encourage the crowd to put money in the tip basket or buy CDs.  You deal with requests, with people who drink too much and talk too loudly.

Often, when your musicians are upset, frustrated, or angry, they blame you, or they simply mutter. “Sixty bucks?  Is that all?”  “My shepherd’s pie is cold.”  I hate that song.  Do we have to play it?”

To paraphrase Judy Syfers, “My God, who would want to lead a band?”

So let’s cheer for the Invaluable Near-Anonymities, the wonderful professionals in the String section of Charlie Parker with Strings, the baritone wizard Charlie Bubeck, who anchored the Ozzie Nelson band — reed players talked of him reverently, but he never led a date; the fellows strumming behind Django and Stephane.  They may have looked deeply into “the music business” and said, “I’d rather drive a cab than lead a band.”

A brief, wholly improvised list:

Zilner Randolph, Les Robinson, Buzzy Drootin, Mary Osborne, Nick Fatool, Ed Cuffee, Bill Triglia, Danny Bank, Dick Vance, Max Farley, Frank Orchard, Bob Casey, Red Ballard, Mickey McMickle, Jimmy Maxwell, Cliff Leeman, George Berg, Al Klink, Lee Blair, Leon Comegys, John Simmons, Les Spann, Allan Reuss, Don Frye, Kansas Fields, Louis Metcalf.

And a thousand more.  And certainly their living counterparts.  (I’ve limited my list to the Departed because I thought that no one I know would like to see their name on a list of the Brilliant Shadowy Underrated.  You and I know the people who make jazz go . . . !)

These people don’t win polls.  They don’t have to stand still for autograph hunters.  But where would we be without them?

May your happiness increase! 

I GOT IN THE GROOVE(S) AT DOWN HOME

I went record-shopping yesterday (January 11, 2014) at one of my favorite places on the planet, the Down Home Music Store on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, California — details here.  The only fault I’ve ever found with DHMS is that they are only open from Thursday through Sunday, so I have to plan my life accordingly.  But I came home with a cardboard box of 78s, one 45, 10″ and 12″ lps.  Total price: less than a hundred dollars for hours of fun and amazement.

A brief list follows, just to encourage all of you who have such leanings to pay the lovely amiable folks at the DHMS a visit soon.  Of course, the records I bought aren’t there in multiple copies, but they have an astonishing selection of new compact discs covering every kind of music I can think of, and some I haven’t even imagined.

One 45 EP of the late-Forties West Coast Fletcher Henderson band with Vic Dickenson as prominent soloist.

Several 10″ lps: Paul Lingle solo on Good Time Jazz; Pee Wee and Ruby at Storyville, 1952; early Artie Shaw with strings;

12″ lps: a Queen-Disc Italian bootleg of Goodman 1938, all with Dave Tough; another copy of the Harry James 1937 Brunswicks on Tax; Edmond Hall’s PETITE FLEUR on United Artists; Eddie Barefield with Vic and Taft Jordan on UK RCA Victor’s SWING TODAY series; the New Hampshire Library of Traditional Jazz collection of 1949 airshots from the Savoy in Boston with Hall, Windhurst, and Vic; Wingy Manone’s late-Fifties Deccas as TRUMPET ON THE WING; TUTTI’S TRUMPETS on Buena Vista; Jimmy Rowles playing Ellington / Strayhorn on Columbia . . .

78s: a 12″ Commodore of MEMPHIS BLUES / SWEET SUE with Muggsy and Pee Wee; the Asch album set of Mary Lou Williams with Bill Coleman and Al Hall; two copies of THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE / MOOD AT TWILIGHT by Mel Powell and a clarinetist (one for Kati P); I WANNA WOO by Joe Haymes; Musicrafts by Joe Marsala and Joe Thomas, by Teddy Wilson’s Quintet; late-Twenties Brunswicks by Nick Lucas; early-Twenties ditto by the Cotton Pickers; Tab Smith and Trevor Bacon on Decca; Betty Roche with Earl Hines, Pettiford, Hodges, and Catlett on Apollo; several Forties sides by the Charioteers, one “with orchestra directed by Mannie Klein”; an Edison 78 of some hopeful dance tune; an early Vocalion of TESSIE! STOP TEASING ME; one of the Bluebirds with Peg La Centra and Jerry Sears and Carl Kress . . . and more.  (I am doing this from memory and haven’t even looked at the box.)

And the experience of buying records is so sweetly nostalgic for someone like myself who found great pleasure in stores like the DHMS.  The results are more than “collecting,” “amassing,” and “having”; I learn something every time.  For instance: the soundtrack to this post is the 1938 Goodman band, with glorious work from the Man Himself, Bud Freeman, Vernon Brown, Dave Tough, and Jess Stacy — but did you know that when DON’T BE THAT WAY was announced for a repeat performance on Camel Caravan, it was credited as being “Professor Goodman’s own tune.”  I feel very sorry for Edgar Sampson and hope that the royalty checks made up for the erasure.

Some of the records had identifying labels on them; many were well-played and well-loved.  I thank you, dear Collectors with Taste whose possessions I am now enjoying.  What gifts you pass on!

And as far as record-buying, I know that someone could read this as another example of excessive materialistic self-gratification, when there are people on the planet so much less fortunate.  I know I do not need more music, but I retreat into KING LEAR mode and mutter, “O, reason not the need!”  Records are less expensive than bringing a hundred knights with me wherever I go.

So, if you can get down to the Down Home Music Store, I commend it to you.  If you can’t, I understand, so play some music for yourself today.  It lifts the heart.

May your happiness increase! 

A FEW NOTES FOR TOMMY THUNEN

At the most recent (November 2013) San Diego Jazz Fest, a friend introduced a smiling woman to me with these words, “Michael, this is Vonne.  Her father was Tommy Thunen.”  I was very excited, and told Vonne so, for I knew her father’s name for years: as the second or third trumpet player on many Red Nichols recordings.  She was happy that I was so excited, and she promised to send more about her father.
The children of jazz heroes — a rare breed — fascinate me. Many of the musicians I admire were childless, or their relations with their children were less than ideal — so my occasional attempts to speak with these survivors have not always been successful.  Nephews and nieces, grandchildren and cousins have surfaced but little substantial has come of these brief contacts.  (A notable exception has been the interchanges I’ve had, documented in JAZZ LIVES, with the very generous son of Leo McConville, a trumpeter who probably sat alongside Thunen many times in the late Twenties and middle Thirties.)
But Vonne clearly remembers her father with affection:
My dad, Tommy Thunen, played with Red Nichols, Paul Whiteman, and later Russ Morgan. As you probably know, Russ Morgan played at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley for a number of years. My dad played with Abe Lyman’s Orchestra in the 30’s I believe. He also played on two radio programs in New York. One was called “Waltz Time” on Friday nights and the other was “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” on Sundays. I believe it was one of the major radio stations in New York. 
In later years he was living in San Fernando Valley and played with a band led by Rosy McHargue at a place called The Cobblestone, and he also played with Rosy in Las Vegas. Musicians have told me that he had a “sweet” sound. He also played cornet and alto sax. One of his first “gigs” was at age 13 when he played at an Armistice parade at the end of the first World War.
My own investigation into Tommy’s recorded work as documented in the “jazz” records to be found in Tom Lord’s discography shows him to be a New York regular who traveled in fast company: not only with Nichols, but the Irving Mills recording groups that used men out of the Ben Pollack Orchestra, starting in 1929.
Tommy played alongside Gene Krupa, Jimmy McPartland, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Larry Binyon, Ray Bauduc, Bud Freeman, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Mannie Klein, Dave Tough, Red McKenzie, Pee Wee Russell, Fud Livingston, Glenn Miller, Irving Brodsky, Joe Tarto, Mickey Bloom, Rube Bloom, Babe Russin, Adrian Rollini, Tommy Dorsey, Tony Parenti, Annette Hanshaw, Eddie Miller, and other New York Reliables — all of this in 1929-30. He surfaces again on some hot recordings by the Abe Lyman band in 1933, and then not again until working with Rosy McHargue in 1957, and — fittingly — he is the sole trumpet, out in the open, on his final recordings with Jack Teagarden in Jack’s Sextet that same year: the soundtrack from a television program, a July appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, and a promotional record of the Marlboro cigarette jingle in September — alongside Jerry Fuller, Don Ewell, Stan Puls, and Monte Mountjoy.
I can’t offer JAZZ LIVES readers tangible evidence of Tommy’s sweet sound, but here are two records where he is said to be playing.  Is that him on the bridge of I’VE GOTTA HAVE YOU?  (The pleasure of hearing Red McKenzie — and tenor saxophone soloing by Pee Wee Russell — makes up for all uncertainties.)
Other recordings on YouTube might have Tommy in the personnel: a search will turn up some lovely music from Annette Hanshaw, among others.
But now for the photographs!
Here’s bandleader Abe Lyman, inscribed to Vonne:
Abe Lyman
“Jean Wakefield and her Mischief Makers”:
Jean Wakefield & Her Mischief Makers
All I know about mischievous Jean is she and the Makers are listed in the radio section of the Berkeley, California, Daily Gazette for Saturday, November 7, 1931, broadcasting over KLX at 7 PM. (Airchecks, anyone?)  To me, the most important part of that photograph is the inscription on the left.
Here’s a band appearing at a nightspot with its own kind of transient fame, Fatty Arbuckle’s Cobblestone Cafe:
Cobblestone Cafe (Fatty Arbuckle's) (1)
and some needed identification:
Cobblestone Cafe Name List
I haven’t found any reference to the Cobblestone Cafe, although I don’t have a biography of Arbuckle at hand.  He was dead in mid-1933 and this photograph is from some decades later.  Aside from Tommy, the most famous musician, pianist Arthur Schutt, who lived until 1965, is hidden from view.  Clarinetist Gene Bolen, however, recorded from the late Fifties onwards, so I await informed speculations about a more precise dating.
Rosy McHargue (1)
Rosy McHargue and his Dixieland Band, dated 1953:
Rosy McHargue Name List (1)
I hope we will find out more about the life and music of Tommy Thunen, not only from his daughter.
I think of him as a professional musician who is now characterized, if at all, as a “jazz musician,” then a “studio musician,” perhaps a “Dixieland jazz player.”
But the music we hold dear is not simply a matter of famous soloists and stars, the people about whom biographies are written, but of reliable professionals whose names aren’t famous, indispensable craftspeople nevertheless. These quiet men and women might appear predictably bourgeois, not exciting.  But any communal art form — be it jazz, the symphony, or the theatre — needs people one can count on to be on time, well-prepared, clean, sober, expert.  After the fact, people tell tales of the brilliant musician who is also unpredictable — but such artists are at best hard on everyone’s nervous system. But we are more intrigued by Jack Purvis or Charlie Parker than Mannie Klein or Hilton Jefferson.
How many beautiful players were there who did their work superbly but never got interviewed, whose names were known only to fellow musicians and discographers . . . who made the whole enterprise of music go on as it did?
I’d like to see books called THE JAZZ PROFESSIONALS — consider among thousands Harold Baker, Buster Bailey, Murray McEachern, Helen Humes and Nick Fatool — people who didn’t lead bands or win Metronome polls, but who were the very foundation of what we take for granted.
And Tommy Thunen, about whom we now know a little more, thanks to his daughter.
May your happiness increase!

KEY NOTES

I bought myself a truly gratifying holiday present:

KEYNOTE BOX

For details from the Fresh Sound website, click here.

It’s possible that some readers might be unfamiliar with the Keynote Records catalogue, so if the tiny portraits above don’t pique your interest, here are a few words.  Between 1941 and 1947, with the bulk of its sessions taking place in 1944-6. this independent jazz label produced a wide sampling of the best jazz records ever made — from the New Orleans jazz of George Hartman to the “modern sounds” of Lennie Tristano and Red Rodney.  Keynote was the expression of one man’s intelligent taste — the Javanese jazz fan and producer Harry Lim (1919-1990).  Lim’s records neatly balance written arrangements, head arrangements, and improvised solos.  Many of the Keynote issues were recorded for issue on 12″ 78s, thus giving musicians room to create in more leisurely ways.  In fairness, the Keynote sessions were not the only ones taking place in the wartime years: Lim’s issues ran parallel with Commodore, Blue Note, Hot Record Society, Signature, and even smaller labels — Asch, Jamboree and Wax among them.  Keynote featured jazz players who were already stars: Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Red Norvo, Benny Carter, Sidney Catlett, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Hodges, Slam Stewart, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Count Basie (pseudonymously), as well as improvisers of equal worth who were often not given their due: trumpeter Joe Thomas, Milt Hinton, Bill Harris, Willie Smith, Kenny Kersey, Jonah Jones, George Barnes, Johnny Guarneri, Emmett Berry, Aaron Sachs, Herman Chittison, George Wettling, Hilton Jefferson, Tyree Glenn, Gene Sedric, Juan Tizol, Rex Stewart, Pete Brown, Cozy Cole, Charlie Shavers, Nick Fatool, Bujie Centobie, Irving Fazola, Allan Reuss, Dave Tough, and many others.  Three particularly remarkable sessions brought together like-minded but singular horn players: trumpeters Eldridge, Thomas, and Berry; saxophonists Hawkins, Don Byas, Tab Smith, Harry Carney; trombonists Vic Dickenson, Harris, Claude Jones, and Benny Morton.

Several things need to be said about the new Fresh Sounds reissue.  For one, it is a “European bootleg,” which will repel some collectors of this music, and I think rightly so.  However, the Keynotes have never been issued in any systematic way on compact disc — in their home country or otherwise.  And the Fresh Sound set concentrates, with a few exceptions, on issued material.  I don’t know whether this was a choice designed to entice listeners who find alternate takes annoying, or to keep the set’s price attractive.  (I bought mine on Amazon for $94, which seems a good value for 243 sides.)  The sound is good, although I haven’t compared it to any 78 or vinyl issues.  True Keynote devotees will, of course, have their own copies of the comprehensive vinyl issue of the label’s offerings, and the Fresh Sound box won’t replace that.

The reissue history of the Keynote recordings is characteristically odd — leaving aside the comprehensive vinyl set — with early vinyl assortments assembled by instrument (trumpet, trombone, or saxophone), then later ones featuring stars Hawkins, Young, Woody Herman sidemen, Norvo, Tristano, etc.  As I write this, I am taking great pleasure in the sixth disc — selected at random — hearing sessions led by Barney Bigard, Horace Henderson, Bill Harris, Willie Smith, Corky Corcoran, and Milt Hinton — a fascinating cross-section of timeless jazz recorded in 1945.  “Fresh Sound” is an apt description for these sides recorded more than half a century ago.

Fresh Sound producer Jordi Pujol made an intriguing and ultimately rewarding choice when looking for documentary material to fill the 125-page booklet.  He included a careful history of the label — sources unknown — which tells a great deal about how these sessions came to be.  (I feel, once again, that we should all give thanks to selfless men such as Harry Lim.)  Then, rather than reprint the enthusiastic, empathic notes written by Dan Morgenstern for the Keynote vinyl box set, Pujol returned to the archives of DOWN BEAT and METRONOME for contemporary reviews and session photographs.  The photographs — although many of them have been reproduced elsewhere — offer a few treasures: Lester Young, Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart, and Sidney Catlett at their December 1943 session, and photographs from the jam sessions Lim created before Keynote began recording regularly: one, in particular, caught me: a 1940 Chicago session featuring Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown, Earl Hines, John Simmons, Tubby Hall . . . and the elusive Boyce Brown.  The reviews from the contemporary jazz magazines are both grating and revealing.  One might forget just how hard those writers and editors worked to appear breezy, slangy, hip — Catlett is referred to as a “colored tubman” in one review — and how severe they were in assessing what now seem masterpieces, using “uneventful,” “nothing distinctive,” “routine,” “pleasant,” “don’t emerge as anything too special.”  Lester Young is referred to as “Les,” his tenor sound as “muddy-toned.”  That the music survived this critical approach from writers who were its advocates says much about its durability.  Here, by the way, is a side DOWN BEAT termed a “fiasco” and gave it a grade of C.  I rest my case:

I think I got more than my money’s worth.  You might agree.

May your happiness increase! 

THE TEACHINGS OF CHARLES ELLSWORTH RUSSELL (PRICE 50 CENTS)

Thanks to my sharp-eyed friend Andrew Jon Sammut*, I am now in possession of this Ancient Writ, the inexpensive pages a beguiling yellow. Its owner loved, used, and admired it: as the creases and fingermarks on the back show.

CHAUTAUQUA, LAURA SMITH, SAN DIEGO, PWR 056

It allows us another way to experience — perhaps at a distance — the legerdemain of Pee Wee Russell.

Those of us who revere certain musicians know enough to be mildly suspicious of these folios.  The more idiosyncratic a musician’s style, the less likely it could be reproduced as a series of notes on paper.  Also, the  “method books” that propose to be presenting solos performed by our heroes are often untrustworthy.  Did Dave Tough or Cliff Edwards ever sit down to create the books that bear their imprimatur?

Apparently many famous “name” musicians were paid to come to a  studio to record one-chorus solos on songs owned / published by Feist.  The recorded solos were then transcribed and clarinet players (for instance) could have something they could read, study, copy, emulate. Some of this information is hypothesis; some of it is supported by the issuing, years ago (on one of Bozy White’s SHOESTRING vinyl records) of choruses recorded by Bunny Berigan for just this purpose.  The pioneers in such endeavors were Red Nichols and Louis Armstrong.

This folio is not dated, but the one-page introduction refers to Pee Wee’s work with Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, and Bud Freeman, so I would place it no earlier than 1938 and perhaps more into the very early Forties. Whether it was connected to Charles Peterson’s famous photograph of Russell in LIFE I cannot say, but he surely was enjoying sufficient fame — as the antidote to Goodman and Shaw, perhaps? — to be awarded such an honor.

I am struck by how very uncomfortable Russell looks in his photograph: needing a haircut (or is it the shadow of the bright flashbulb?) and without a mustache. Perhaps the recordings were done in the morning, which might make any jazz musician look haunted, despairing:

CHAUTAUQUA, LAURA SMITH, SAN DIEGO, PWR 058

And the main event:

CHAUTAUQUA, LAURA SMITH, SAN DIEGO, PWR 057

I haven’t had the time even to try that on the piano, but it strikes me as quite simple — for the student clarinetist — one of those muttering-around-the-melody first choruses Russell loved so.  How would the transcriber have notated the growls and surreal arching sounds that Pee Wee made?  (Think of SERENADE TO A SHYLOCK, for example.) I don’t know, and perhaps it is best that the attempt was not made.

Here’s something that would elude all but the most subtle transcriber, Pee Wee’s solo (beginning at 1:30) on the 1936 Louis Prima CROSS PATCH, a marvel of sound:

To return to the All-Star Series of Modern Rhythm Choruses (ask for that at your local music shop in one breath!) I think it plausible that after Charles Ellsworth Russell recorded ten one-chorus solos, and was given (let us hope) fifty dollars at least in cash, he never thought of his morning in the studios again. But we, now, have another little sliver of Russell to consider into the twenty-first century.

I plan to pack this book with my clarinet — which I used to play quite amateurishly and now perhaps will sound even worse — to take to California. Whether my squeaks and moans will be my own or Russellian, I can’t say. But perhaps I can be inspired by his courage.

*Andrew wrote his own marvelous post on the Feist folio created by Buster Bailey here. As you’ll see, my effort above is what jazz critics would call “derivative” and “imitative”; I call it homage to an inspiring friend who is on the same path. And this post is for Stan Zenkov, another inspirer!

May your happiness increase!

LIGHTLY ASKING DEEP QUESTIONS: BILLY MINTZ QUARTET

When it comes to jazz drumming, I’ve always loved the flow of the rhythms, but I’ve even more deeply gravitated towards sounds, to melodists — Baby Dodds, Kaiser Marshall, Walter Johnson, Kaiser Marshall, George Stafford, Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, Zutty Singleton, George Wettling, Jo Jones, Sidney Catlett, Jake Hanna, Mike Burgevin, Kevin Dorn, Hal Smith, Jeff Hamilton, Clint Baker.  And, more recently, musicians I’ve come to think of as sound-painters: Hyland Harris, Ali Jackson, Eliot Zigmund, Matt Wilson, and Billy Mintz.

BIlly Mintz is a fascinating creative force because he is not only a splendidly rewarding player — inventing and arranging sounds in new, impressionistic patterns that stand on their own next to the best improvisations of any contemporary jazz improviser — but his compositions have flavor, depth, and scope.  His music is curious — peering behind the curtains — rather than formulaic or aggressive.

I’ve heard some of Billy’s compositions explored on live sessions with a a variety of musicians, including saxophonist Lena Bloch.  Here is one of my favorites, HAUNTED, recorded by the composer and pianist Roberta Piket in Austria, earlier in 2013:

I am pleased to tell you that there is now an entire CD of Billy’s compositions issued by Thirteenth Note Records . . . played not only by the composer, but by pianist / singer Roberta Piket; John Gross, tenor saxophone; Putter Smith, string bass.

??????????

Don’t let the somber cover picture fool you: beneath that hat and shades, Billy’s eyes gleam and his heart is lively.

The songs (a few have gained wide recognition) are BEAUTIFUL YOU / FLIGHT / DIT / DESTINY (Roberta, vocal) / HAUNTED / SHMEAR / CANNONBALL / BEAUTIFUL / UGLY BEAUTIFUL / RELENT / RETRIBUTION / AFTER RETRIBUTION.

Their titles speak to Billy’s poetic, inquiring sensibility.  His music doesn’t provide pat answers; rather it asks questions: “What is play?  What is sadness?  Where might we be going?  Must it always be the same thing? Who says what is beautiful?  Would you care to join me?” and others of equal weight.

The music on this quartet CD isn’t abrasive or abusive: Billy, John, Roberta, and Putter love melody, but they also love to experiment with the traditional shapes of the improvising quartet — so instruments have amiable conversations, echoing or sweetly correcting one another; duos and solos spring up within compositions; balances shift within the piece.  Each song seems both new and composed, inventive and inevitable, and the procession from one piece to another on the disc is cumulative.  This CD is not the traditional melody-statement / solos / drum fours / melody-statement, and that’s all to the good.  No explorations, no surprises!

Here you can read more about Billy and hear samples from the CD: inquiring readers and hearers will be rewarded.  You can find out more at Thirteenth Note Records as well.

May your happiness increase!

A SPY FOR DIXIELAND

Ian Fleming never gave me a thought.  I never had a specially-equipped car, dangerous gadgets.  But I was a spy for Dixieland.

In a recent seminar with one of my mentors, Prof. Figg, he asked the question, “What are your secret guilty musical pleasures?”

I think the Professor expected that I was listening to Justin Bieber or to marimba orchestras.  Toy pianos.  Singing dogs.  Kate Smith.  Anthony Braxton.  Rossini overtures.  Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And although I thought hard, I couldn’t come up with any guilty musical pleasures.  Oh, I love sentiment: Connee Boswell’s LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY makes me cry.  But I am proud of my reaction to her singing, so there’s nothing guilty in it.

But then I started to remember the time when I was a jazz operative in enemy country.

When I was nine or ten, I was already seriously hooked by hot jazz.  Louis Armstrong, first and foremost.  I recall spending birthday money on a Louis record, and I was thrilled when he appeared on television.

I was in the fifth grade when the Beatles came to the United States, and I found them fascinating — but for only a short time.  They were fun, energetic, new, uninhibited.  I remember pestering my father to buy me the soundtrack album from A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.  When I could, I bought those records, borrowed them from friends, tried so hard to make them my personal soundtrack.  (Everyone else did.)

I got all the way up to RUBBER SOUL before I decided that I didn’t really like this music all that much.  What I was entranced by was the possibility of being liked because you like what everyone else likes.

I had already begun to notice, although I probably did not articulate it to myself, that one’s musical preferences were ways definitions of one’s self, stated publicly or otherwise.  One’s taste was an ideological / emotional badge.

If you liked Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ THIS DIAMOND RING (why do I remember this now?) you were possibly a member of the club that could be considered worthy of being inspected for possible admission to the clubhouse.

But walking around telling my peers that I listened to Louis Armstrong — the truth — was clearly not the way to be accepted, to be cool, to be “in” or popular.  I remember telling some adults, who looked at me indulgently.  Perhaps they thought my preference more strange than the loud music their children were listening to.  My conscious anachronism must have struck them as at best, a benign eccentricity; at worst, inexplicable.

Among my peers, anything that new and rebellious was good.  Ancient and entrenched was definitely not.  When I met the pretty granddaughter of our French-Canadian neighbors, I knew I could not tell her that I preferred Fats Waller to Iron Butterfly and expect her to swoon.  “Our” music was supposed to unsettle the old folks who fed and clothed you; it wasn’t supposed to have any comforting connections to their world.  Jini Hendrix, not Jimmie Blanton.

So I kept my love to myself.  I told very few people that I listened to Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland in my room, that I read Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES (and was then violently disappointed by his playing — I was too young to appreciate those Bluebird sides).  I couldn’t really confess to anyone that I loved Bobby Hackett’s air-traceries on ballads, that “Dixieland jazz” on television — those small groupings of oddly-dressed men — thrilled me.  I even remember watching Lawrence Welk’s program for the brief “hot” interludes (not knowing at the time that I would someday see and admire Bob Havens in person).  Even my parents, who were very indulgent and loving, did not quite know what to make of my obsession: they had lived through the Depression and the Swing Era, but the depth of my ardor must have puzzled them.

In this century, a broader acceptance is the rule.  It is much easier to say, “Oh, I listen to Bulgarian hip-hop,” or “I am working on my harpsichord on the weekends,” than it was.  I know a young woman in middle school who dresses in elaborate clothing every day, plays the ukulele, analyzes 1905 Sousa records.  She seems to have gained much more flexibility to be unusual in this century than I had in mine.

My generation may have marched to Thoreau’s different drummer, but to call the metaphorical figure of independence Dave Tough did not do.   It still seems a towering irony that my nonconformist friends were obliviously conformist.

I had to go underground because I identified so strongly with the music of an earlier generation and one before that.  I didn’t dance, so I hadn’t met the swing-dance generation who would teach me the Balboa and know, instinctively, which version of SWINGIN’ THE BLUES they liked.  In 1966, had I come out of the aesthetic closet and said, “The music I like was the popular music — or at least one strain of it — in 1936,” I would be marked as even more freakish than I already was.

I could and did wear the flowered shirts and bell-bottom trousers (both of which pleased me for their own sake) but I could not admit to an admiration for Pee Wee Russell.  To do so would be to say, “I want to be just like your grandparents,” not readily accepted among my peers.

It might have been easier if I had had the ability and patience to seriously attempt a musical instrument.  Then I could have hung out in the bandroom with the other trumpet geeks and said, “Have you heard what Ray Nance does here?”  But that community was denied me.

Even when I was in an independent study program in my senior year of high school, I knew I had to practice secrecy.  It was difficult to unmask.  My friend Stu Zimny has reminded me of our being on field trips into Manhattan, and my running off during our lunch break to buy Commodore 78s.  He would ask, “What did you buy?” and I would say, “Oh, nothing really.  You wouldn’t be interested,” or some similar falsehood.

I was afraid of being laughed at if I was seen buying archaic recordings of strange music with odd-sounding players.  Red, Muggsy, Big Sid, Little T . . . these heroic affectionate sobriquets were encouraged in baseball but not elsewhere.

My affections did not transfer easily.  My seventeen-year-old self — suave, stylish, ineffably debonair, thought that Jack Teagarden’s 1954 recording of A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY was the best seduction music ever.  What woman could resist his wooing?  (All of them.)

I don’t remember when and how the mists began to lift.  It may have been when I began to encounter other young men at jazz concerts.  We glanced at each other cautiously, suspiciously.  “You like this music too?”  “Yeah.”  “Don’t tell anyone, OK?”  “I like hot jazz.”  “Shhhh!  Keep it down.  They’ll hear us!”

But I only began to “come out” in college, perhaps defensively but more proud.  “Yes, I listen to Louis Armstrong records.  Do you want to come to my house and hear what I am listening to?”

It wasn’t always easy.  “Cartoon music” was often the way my records were described.  “How can you listen to that old stuff?  What do you hear in it?” “Wow, that’s old-fashioned!”

At this point in the imagined black-and-white film, calendar pages fall off the wall.  We are now in NOW, this century, where I am entirely comfortable with my own love for hot music.

It fascinates me that when the Beloved lovingly introduces me, “Oh, this is my Sweetie — he has a great jazz video blog!” I can see people’s eyelids begin to flutter — with puzzlement or tedium, it is hard to say.  I can only imagine what people think.  “Oh, no.  Jazz, for God’s sake.  One step less interesting than toy trains.  What shall I say?  I never ‘understood jazz,’ and this fellow is obviously so interested in it that he’s vibrating as he stands there.”  So they say, generously, “Jazz!  Wow, that’s interesting.  Do you like Miles Davis?”  Or “I think John Coltrane was a very spiritual being.  I like electro-fusion.  Do you like Diana Krall?”

And they are being as gracious as human beings can be, so it pains me to redirect their enthusiasm.  But I have to say, “Well, I admire Miles and Coltrane, but my heart is with older stuff.”  “Oh, what do you mean?”  “Louis Armstrong is my hero.  Billie Holiday.  Duke Ellington,” keeping it as plain as possible.  And it is clear that with those words and those names I have marked myself as An Oddity.  The most kind people say, “Did you see ANTIQUES ROADSHOW last night?  There was a woman who had a whole collection of autographed band photographs from the Big Band Era, and one of them was signed by Louis Armstrong?”  Others smile sweetly, vaguely, and head for the white wine spritzers.

Jazz still remains a mystery to most people, and those of us who truly resonate to it are destined to remain Outsiders.  It’s a pity.  Why shouldn’t everyone be able to share the great pleasures that we know?

I am now a Spy Emeritus, now able to view these episodes with nostalgia and amusement tempering my puzzlement.  Call me 0078, retired.  But I remember the feeling of being out of step with the culture of my times, and being made to feel weird.

Yet I followed what I loved, and jazz has paid me back for my loyalty a million times over.  And it continues to do so.

This one’s for my friends AJS and KD — and, as always, for the Beloved, who knew that it don’t mean a thing . . . before I ever came along.

May your happiness increase.

“LATER, JACK”: REMEMBERING JACK ROTHSTEIN

Jacob Rothstein, 1945

Jacob Rothstein, 1945

My encounters with the late Jack Rothstein are vignettes from a narrative I did not have the sense to capture fully — chapters from a novel that should have been written.
Jack died a few days ago at 87; it is of course a cliche to say that my world has gotten smaller because he is no longer in it, but cliches are often true.
I first met him in cyberspace because he had found JAZZ LIVES and was enthusiastic about it.  We exchanged a number of emails: the pattern was that Jack would read something I wrote about Henry “Red” Allen, for instance, and then write to tell me of his conversation with Red in the late Forties or early Fifties where Red was upset by the way he was being passed over for other musicians, most notably Louis (whom he loved and respected).
I knew I was in the presence of someone who had been on the scene — Jack had gone to law school in Boston and had hung out at clubs, listening to Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson.  He had helped a number of musicians with minor legal troubles; he was a conoisseur of wines, a championship card player, and knew antiques deeply.
When you know someone only through emails or words on the page, their physical appearance is always a bit startling.  (I am sure I have that effect on people, so I write these words without criticism.)  Jack was clearly larger-than-life, and I don’t mean only that he was a substantial man.
He was ebullient in his speech, with an extravagant laugh and a voice that carried.  He didn’t shout, but he cut through — I can compare the sound of his speech most closely to Pete Brown’s alto saxophone.  He was clearly one of My People, that is to say an urban East Coast Jew with a satiric view of the world.  We met at the Dixieland Jazz Bash by the Bay in March 2011, had dinner and talked.  There he told me the story of the woman who wanted to present Vic Dickenson with a rose at Mahogany Hall in 1950 and others I no longer remember.
I am very sorry that I did not take the time — it would have taken repeated visits, I know — to aim a video camera at Jack and work through all the musicians we knew and loved . . . he had marvelous stories and — most delightfully — he wasn’t the subject.
All I can offer JAZZ LIVES readers is a selection from the Rothstein correspondence: excerpts from Jack’s emails to me.  We had a long discussion about who “OLD FOLKS” was in the Robison song; we talked about other matters.  But all I know is that when I got an email from Jack, it would contain something genuine, something new to me . . . and even when we disagreed, he was entertaining and informed.
I miss him and I won’t forget him.
The moral, of course, is not hard to bring to the surface.  Our lives are finite; we should cherish people while they are around to receive it; the stories of our elders will vanish if we don’t collect them.
But someone like Jack Rothstein is not dead, because someone is playing a hot chorus or singing a ballad beautifully.  In these offerings, he lives on.
And in his words:
I am on your side on crowd noise. Quiet conversation is fine but not when it interferes with the listeners. My tolerance is inversely proportional to the quality of the music.  I was at the Embers (a celebrity hangout) listening to Tatum when a noisy conversation started at a table. A guy seated at the next table got up and told them quietly to shut up and a few guys at other nearby tables  rose in support. The noise stopped. Tatum did not have to say or do anything. 
Your comments reminded me of my high school days, a generation earlier, going through the bins of jazz 78s at Sam Goody’s. He only had one shop then, on Sixth Avenue somewhere in the mid-forties. He also had a bin of used jazz records where treasures could be found very inexpensively. I vaguely remember buying a few Armstrong reissues there on English Parlophone. The UHCA reissues I bought at the Commodore on the advice of Jack Crystal who was a super-nice guy.
Thinking about our dinner conversation, I have my doubts as to whether Prez actually changed jazz. He seems more a very influential extension of Bix.
I spent last week in Dayton, Ohio at a convention. The meeting room was on the ground floor of a large hotel. A couple stepped outside for a smoke and when they were done they found that the glass door had locked behind them. Not wanting to walk to the front of the building, they banged on the door. After a few minutes another member (a Catholic priest) heard them and let them in. One of them said, “You saved us.” He casually replied, “That’s my job.”
I remember talking to Barrie Chase about her work with Fred Astaire on the TV special where they were backed by the Basie band. She loved Jo Jones’ work and said he paid her the ultimate compliment – that the way she danced one of her ancestors had to be “one of us”.  In the 30’s, Roger Pryor Dodge and his wife had a dance act and played stage shows at Broadway movie theaters backed by name bands. She later taught at the Manhattan School of Music. She told me that the best drummer they ever had behind them was Dave Tough. 
Add Dave Tough to the list of those who died because they kept drinking and stopped eating.  You were right on about Prez. I helped him with a very minor legal matter in the early 50″s. His problem was not drink but mental. I do not know the facts but I think it was caused by the Army. He was very withdrawn, somewhat paranoid and secure only in his music. He was a gentle human being and just wanted not to be hurt.
The very best that can be said for her singing is that it was egregious.
One night when leaving Nick’s, Wild Bill noticed a fire hose that had been left attached to a hydrant. He picked it up and ran towards a pair of elderly female pedestrians yelling “Wanna douche?” and laughing. Told to me by someone who allegedly saw it.
You mentioned Dick Gibson last night, so here is my Dick Gibson story. He was a classmate of my wife at the University of Alabama. I first met him around 1959-60 in New York at a party thrown by a girl I was dating. The lady I subsequently married, who I only knew then as a person who was taking bridge lessons from a friend, was there, and greeted him with “Dick Gibson! You’ve gained so much weight I hardly recognized you.” The scene shifts. It is now 10 years later. I take my wife to a charity bash in San Francisco because Hackett is playing. Mary Osborne (from Bakersfield) was in the band. My wife sees Dick up front and goes up to him and says, “Dick Gibson! You’ve gained so much weight I hardly recognized you.” His reply was, “Emilie, don’t you know how to say anything else?”  Emilie told me he was a hunk in his college days.
True story c. January, 1946. I was in Seattle and there was a disc jockey who had a Saturday afternoon jazz program and solemnly stated that the Louis Armstrong Hot Five was the first decadent step in jazz. However, he did play a lot of Jelly Roll Morton (with George Mitchell, Omer Simeon,etc.) as well as King Oliver so I was a steady listener. Immediately after his program there was a half hour of the First Herd sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes playing Apple Honey, etc. which put me very much on the side of decadence.  When I got back to New York, there was another Bussard type, Rudi Blesh who actually had a radio program and wrote a book. He also believed that a white jazz musician was a contradiction in terms.  Idiots abound. Don’t let them upset you.
Will not attend San Diego as I am trying to build up my strength after a near fatal bout of pneumonia caused by my lack of immune system due to leukemia (CLL). I have a form that almost exclusively strikes Russian Jewish males and is completely painless. The doctor says I am a favorite to recover this time and go back to leading a normal life but that some time something minor will happen and I will go to bed and not wake up. Considering the fact that I am 87 it is the ideal way to go. I just have to build up my strength because there are a few more bottles of great wine to drink and more jazz cruises to take.
That was the last email I received from Jack — in late November 2012.  He would often sign his emails, “Later, Jack,” which I have taken as my title.
I hope you have your very own Jack Rothsteins in your life.  Their ebullient presence enriches us always.  I am very grateful to his daughter Margo for offering the photograph of her father as a young man — how beautiful he was!
May your happiness increase.

FACING “MYRIAD SONIC WORLDS,” THE POET CONSIDERS AN UNSOLICITED EMAIL SENT BY A MUSIC PUBLICIST

THE PRELUDE:

Bring me my Basie alternate takes;

Bring me my Commodores of desire:

Bring me my Cornet: O clouds unfold!

Bring me Lips Page soaring higher!

 

I will not cease from Celebrating Swing,

Nor shall my Blog sleep or my Stats:

Till we have built Fifty-Second Street,

God bless Tom Waller (Fats).

(after William Blake, “And did those feet in ancient time,” much after)

This burst of friendly parody — or is it four-to-the-bar doggerel? — is the result of reading another mass email sent to JAZZ LIVES from a music publicist, which I excerpt below, with details omitted to take it out of the realm of personal abuse:

HOOBOY is the solo project of 23-year old – – – – -, an artist who builds on frenzied electronic tensions with a futuristic take on psychedelic electronic and sampling.  With a highly anticipated debut record, HOOBOY has released a new single, showcasing his expert manipulation and interest in translating the surreal into music.  The music site Yeehaw, notes how the song “starts at a peak, deconstructs itself and builds vertically from there on, finding intriguing ways to explore the tension between pop formality, the orderly nature of computer programming, and the wild artistic impulses that are currently pulsing.”   Another music site, Yesma’am, writes “It’s frenetic, phantasmagoric pop, and it’s often brilliant…- – – – – is lost in the myriad sonic worlds he meticulously crafts throughout this sublime album.”

You get the picture.  Asked to choose between the sound of Dave Tough’s drums in the opening choruses of TAPPIN’ THE COMMODORE TILL and music that evokes “the orderly nature of computer programming,” it’s a hard choice.  I’d have to struggle for many nanoseconds to figure it out.  I might have to ask my friend Stompy Jones for help.

It’s enough to make me want to delete every piece of email unread that comes in without being addressed to “Dear Michael” or “Dear Mr. Steinman.”  Music publicists and other cyber-soliciters, take a note from the South: know your audience and address people by name.

And for me, I’m going to translate the surreal into music by getting up from the computer and taking a walk with the Beloved.

May your happiness increase. 

SWING SIBLINGS TAKE MANHATTAN: THE ANDERSON TWINS PLAY THE FABULOUS DORSEYS

Let’s assume you had an urge to put on a show celebrating the music and lives of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.  You’d need at least fourteen musicians, and they’d have to be versatile — a reed wizard able to duplicate the curlicues of JD on BEEBE and OODLES OF NOODLES, to sing soulfully on his more romantic theme song.  You’d need a trombonist who could get inside TD’s steel-gray sound, perhaps someone to evoke Bunny Berigan, a drummer who understood Dave Tough and Ray McKinley, vocal groups, singers . . . a huge undertaking.

Those energetic young fellows, Pete and Will Anderson, twins who play a whole assortment of reeds from bass clarinet and flute to alto, tenor, and clarinet, have neatly gotten around all these imagined difficulties to create a very entertaining musical / theatrical evening doing the Fabulous Dorseys full justice.  It’s taking place at 59E59 (that’s the theatres at 59 East 59th Street in New York City) and you can see the schedule there.

The Anderson Twins have two kinds of surprising ingenuity that lift their tribute out of the familiar.  (You know — the PBS evening where a big band with singers walks its way through twenty hits of X and his Orchestra, punctuated by fund-raising.)  They’ve assembled a sextet of New York’s finest musicians — great jazz soloists who can also harmonize beautifully: Pete and Will on reeds; Ehud Asherie on piano; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Clovis Nicolas, string bass; Kevin Dorn, drums.  No, there’s no trombonist — but our man Kellso does a wonderful job of becoming TD on I’M GETTING SENTIMENTAL OVER YOU — a tribute to both of them.  And rather than being a parade of the expected greatest hits, this is a musical evening full of surprises: a few rocking charts by Sy Oliver that remind us just how hard the Forties TD band swung; a beautiful piano solo by Ehud in honor of Art Tatum; several of the arrangements that Dizzy Gillespie wrote for JD’s band, and a few improvisations that show just how this sextet, alive and well in 2012, can rock the house: DUSK IN UPPER SANDUSKY, HOLLYWOOD PASTIME, and more.

But the evening is more than a concert — the Andersons have a fine theatrical sense of how to keep an audience involved.  In 1947, Tommy and Jimmy starred in a motion picture that purported to tell the story of their lives — THE FABULOUS DORSEYS.  On the plus side, the movie has the two brothers playing themselves as adults, and some extremely dramatic performances by the stars of the Abbey Theatre, Sara Allgood and Arthur Shields, as Mother and Father Dorsey.  It also has on-screen footage of Art Tatum, Ray Bauduc, Ziggy Elman, Charlie Barnet, Mike Pingitore, Paul Whiteman, Henry Busse . . . a feast for jazz film scholars.  As cinema, it verges on the hilarious — although I must say that its essential drama, the rise to fame of the Brothers, is helped immensely by their true-to-life inability to get along.  In the film, they are finally reconciled at their father’s deathbed . . . which makes a better story than having them join forces because of the economics of the moribund Big Band Era.

The Anderson boys use clips from the film as a dramatic structure to keep the tale of the Dorseys vivid — and it also becomes a delightful multi-media presentation, with the Andersons themselves pretending to feud (with less success: sorry, boys, but you lack real rancor), pretending to break the band in two and then . . . but I won’t give away all the secrets.  My vote for Best Speaking Part in a Musical Production goes to Kevin Dorn, but, again, you’ll have to see for yourself.  It’s musically delightful and — on its own terms — cleverly entertaining.

I will have more to say about this production in the future, but right now I wanted to make sure that my New York readers knew what good music and theatrical ingenuity waits for them at 59E59.  This show will conclude its run on October 7 — don’t miss it!

May your happiness increase.   

GREATNESS SIGNS ITS NAMES

A few more remarkable pages from the recent eBay explosion — Joe’s autograph book, most of the signatures from 1936-40 with a few later additions.  Some of the appeal is deeply simple: Sidney Bechet touched this object and it has his power.  For me, these pages also summon up a time and place where people would throng around jazz players and singers and ask (or demand) their autographs — a time in our recent past when Jess Stacy and Edythe Wright (obviously left-handed) were stars rather than footnotes.  Whatever their appeal to others, these pages resonate.

Roy Eldridge and guitarist John Collins, presumably from their 1939 appearance at the Arcadia Ballroom in New York City.

More members of that same band: Truck Parham, the short-lived and legendary Clyde Hart, Joe Eldridge, Billy Bowen, Dave Young, Harold “Doc” West.

To some, Blanche Calloway is notable only because she was Cab’s sister — but she recorded with Louis and led good bands in the Thirties.

What would Philip Larkin say?  As a vocal stylist, Banks was more odd than memorable, but he had been the figurehead for some of the hottest records ever made — not simply in 1932-33, but for all time — the Rhythmakers — records that Larkin thought were one of the high points of Western art.

Noble Sissle’s band also gave Sidney Bechet a regular gig in the Thirties.

Andy Kirk’s men were exceptionally polite, adding sweet-natured wishes as well as their names — the outstanding signature on that page is that of saxophonist Dick Wilson, influential, handsome, and short-lived.

A few Goodmen and women: Peg LaCentra, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Harry Goodman, Benny himself, Gordon “Chris” Griffin, both Gene Krupa and Dave Tough — this page, like others in the book, suggests that Joe asked musicians to sign in on relevant pages at different occasions.  I haven’t yet figured out whether he glued the photos onto the pages before asking for autographs or after . . .

More heroes: Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey, and the other vocalist in Norvo’s band, Terry Allen.

Two other minute points of swing anthropology come to mind.  I wonder when the practice of musicians identifying themselves by their instrument was in fashion?  And — as my friend David Weiner has pointed out — the often hasty signatures are further proof of authenticity: a studio portrait of, say, Glenn Miller with “his” name signed in a flowing hand is more likely to be the creation of a secretary in his office: the Mildred and Red signatures above, for one example, are much more likely to be real — the product of someone standing up, leaning on a small book for support.

Ultimately, these pages are resilient evidence that once all our heroes and heroines were alive — they had fountain pens, you could ask them to sign your book, perhaps have a few sentences of conversation.

May your happiness increase.

PHYLLIS GER RECALLS HER FATHER, MORT STULMAKER

Can you identify the players in this 1939 Charles Peterson photograph?

Readers will recognize (from left) Eddie Condon, exhorting; Bobby Hackett and Jimmy Dorsey, keeping an eye on their leader, Zutty Singleton, peering around the corner; Pee Wee Russell, aiming for the clouds.

But the left-handed and bespectacled string bassist in the rear of the ensemble is less familiar.  His name?  Mort or Morty Stulmaker.  Although his jazz career was brief, he played and recorded with the best musicians and vocalists of the time: Bunny Berigan, Red McKenzie, Condon, Joe Marsala, Stan King, Jack Teagarden, Dave Tough, Max Kaminsky, Bud Freeman, Brad Gowans, Billy Butterfield, Lee Wiley, Red Nichols . . .

I thought he would be one of the mysterious, shadowy figures of jazz, not only because he was a bassist, but because apparently no dramatic story attached to his life.  I was delighted to meet Phyllis Ger, a jewelry designer who also volunteers at the Louis Armstrong House Museum — and to find out that she was Mort’s only child.

Phyllis and her father, 2012

Here is what Phyllis told me on a pleasant afternoon recently.

My father liked to be called Mort or Morty. His first name was Morton, but the only person he allowed to call him that was his sister. The family name is German, practically always misspelled with an “H” (Stuhlmaker) which would always aggravate my mother but never seemed to bother Dad.

He was born in Albany, New York, in 1906 and had two brothers and one sister. Dad came from a musical family. His mother played piano, his father and two brothers played the violin. There must have been piano lessons because Dad was a trained musician. He started his career playing piano accompanying silent movies when he was in his teens. I don’t know how he made the transition to bass from piano. He was a left-handed bassist which was not that common.

Both sides of my family were from the Albany-Troy, New York area. But, of course, Dad could not make a living as a musician up there, so he moved to New York City. Although I was born in Manhattan, I was two years old when we moved to Albany. Dad would spend weekends at home and travel back to the city during the week to pick up some gigs. After six years of a fabulous time growing up in Albany surrounded by all my cousins, aunts, and uncles, my parents made the decision to move back to NY where we could all be together permanently.

Dad was very unpretentious. He didn’t speak about his life as a musician to me very often. He said it wasn’t a profession that he was that proud of even though he played with some of the greats. He felt that musicians were never given the credit they deserved. But, he never said that there was anything else he had wanted to do; you make a living at something and you stay with it. So, when he married at age 39, he left the life of a traveling musician and became an organ teacher and salesman at Macy’s 34th Street in  New York City. Dad also taught at Aeolian on 57th St. for several years. In addition, he had many private students.

My Dad was a very sensitive and compassionate person. He was not good with handling financial matters and left that to my mother. I could never see him actively promoting himself. That was just not his personality. He was devoted to Mom and me. I am an only child (and not spoiled). They were determined not to spoil me. When I asked Mom why she waited until she was 39 to marry, her response was: “I was waiting to meet your father.” And, so, a marriage of 44 years resulted.

Mort and Ruth on their wedding day

I started to do research about my Dad about five years after his death in 1988 at the age of 82. Since I knew so little about his background, I was amazed at the amount of material I discovered. I didn’t know he played bass with Benny Goodman, Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, Bunny Berigan, and many others. When Did did speak sparingly about his background, Bunny’s name came up quite frequently. As part of my discoveries, I was fortunate to get to know Bob Dupuis, author of the first biography about Bunny entitled: BUNNY BERIGAN: ELUSIVE LEGEND OF JAZZ,. From 1998-2001 I attended the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee in Fox Lake, Wisconsin (Bunny’s hometown). This tribute weekend was originally organized by Bunny’s daughter, Joyce and her husband, Ken Hansen. What a thrill it was for me to be a part of that weekend! Sadly, both Joyce and Ken have passed. But, the Jubilee is still taking place each year (May 18th-20th, 2012) under the very capable leadership of Julie Flemming. I will be attending this year after an absence of 11 years. Even though I do not play an instrument, I got Dad’s creative genes in another way. I am a jewelry designer and will be displaying my music-themed pieces at the Jubilee. Please come and join us for a wonderful weekend of jazz.

I knew Dad played with Artie Shaw. I contacted Mr. Shaw who was in his eighties at the time. An assistant to him answered my letter but unfortunately Mr. Shaw had no recollection of my father. I think I may attribute that to the aging process. I also spoke with Joe Dixon when he was presenting a concert at a library on Long Island. I was able to visit with Buddy Koss and his wife for a lovely visit and that was very nostalgic for me. But, sadly, nobody’s left now. Dad was very much respected by other musicians. He played at Hoagy Carmichael’s wedding, who had handpicked the musicians he wanted. Dad was part of the first mixed band to play on 52nd St. with Joe Bushkin, Eddie Condon, Joe Marsala and Red Allen. Dad was quite friendly with Joe. That’s me proudly pointing to my Dad in the photo.

Mort, smartly dressed, in later life

Here’s Mort as a member of the Tempo King band — clearly a Fats Waller-inspired group, oddly enough, recording for Bluebird in 1936 (Waller’s label) with Marty and Joe Marsala, Queenie Ada Rubin, Eddie Condon, Mort, and Stan King:

And with the pride of Fox Lake, Wisconsin, Bunny Berigan, late in 1936 — where you can really hear his strong rhythmic pulse on THIS FOOLISH FEELING:

I’m hoping that some JAZZ LIVES readers have other information to add to our knowledge of Mort Stulmaker: send it here as a comment or if  you’d like to get in touch with Phyllis, email me at swingyoucats@gmail.com. and I will pass it along to her.

May your happiness increase.

“MR. TRUMPET: THE TRIALS, TRIBULATIONS, AND TRIUMPH OF BUNNY BERIGAN” by MICHAEL P. ZIRPOLO

Even people who know little of jazz or the Swing Era have probably heard trumpeter, singer, bandleader, and mythic figure Bunny Berigan (1908-42) in some context.

His Victor recording of I CAN’T GET STARTED is used in film soundtracks and elsewhere as a quick way of summoning up days gone by.  Other touchstones are Berigan’s solo on MARIE with Tommy Dorsey and on 1936 Billie Holiday sessions.

Those of us who know that music well have heard Berigan on his own, with Goodman, the Boswell Sisters, Mildred, in jam sessions and airshots.  Like Bix Beiderbecke, he became a mythic figure quickly, and people regard him with a mixture of love, admiration, and pity.

Here is a rare film clip of Bunny in summer 1936, singing and playing with the Fred Rich band:

In that performance, one hears Berigan’s astonishing adaptation of Louis — with his own sound and majesty, as well as his charming singing.  Bunny remains a monumental figure, someone who threw himself into every solo, leading the section when he wasn’t playing: someone who seems to have given his life to the music.

The other fact of Berigan’s short life is his alcoholism.  Other narratives have compressed his existence into two parallel assertions: he played splendidly and he drank himself to death.

But Michael Zirpolo’s new biography of Berigan goes beyond the formulaic.  It is a great accomplishment and an addictive pleasure.

And it’s not great merely because it contains new information on every one of its 500-plus pages.  Zirpolo had access to the lifework of Bozy White, who had been collecting information about Berigan for more than half a century.  MR. TRUMPET makes wise use of that mountain of information.  Often biographers are content to arrange their material in chronological order and unload it on the reader, who smothers under the avalanche.  This book moves judiciously through Berigan’s life — his personal entanglements, his economic mistakes, his glorious recordings — without getting bogged down in any one aspect.  Zirpolo’s book has a powerful predecessor, Robert Dupuis’ 1993 biography of Berigan, which gave us much more insight into Berigan the musician and the husband than we had had before (taking into account the subjectivity of an embittered spouse).  But with all respects to Dupuis, this is the Berigan book: I think no one will surpass it.

From the start, this book shows us someone who decided, early on, to broaden the scope of his investigations into Berigan’s life: Zirpolo is curious about not only Berigan but the musical, emotional, and financial world in which he lived.  Rather than simply lining facts up one by one, peanuts in a row, Zirpolo loves to ask HOW and WHY and (even better) IS THIS TRUE?  Many myths have attached to Berigan, and Zirpolo examines them closely.

Of course, the biography follows Berigan through his brief life as thoroughly as possible.  If a reader wants to know where Berigan was on August 8, 1938, (s)he will have a good chance of finding out not only where but what was happening: not only that, but how the events of that day stand in relation to the past and future.  One of the greatest assets of this book is the substantial number of first-hand narratives: Bozy White seems to have assiduously interviewed everyone who ever played once in a band where Bunny was present, and these recollections constantly bring human voices into the book.

Thus we have Bunny not only as the superb trumpet player, the bandleader concerned about how his band should sound, the terrible businessman, the man in thrall to alcohol, the playful, childlike individual — serious about very little except his music.

And what music!  Here is one of my favorite Berigan solos — fearless and impassioned — with Bud Freeman, Claude Thornhill, Eddie Condon, Grachan Moncur, and Cozy Cole:

Zirpolo’s book is a fine mixture of all the things I’ve mentioned, sustained by his own admiration for his subject.  The biography is never idolatrous — when Bunny does something disastrous, Zirpolo presents the facts and their consequences — but it’s always charming to see a biography where the writer, in the best old-fashioned way, loves his subject in particular, is passionate about history, and (as a useful sidelight) is thrilled by New York City, where Berigan spent so much of his life.

Even a reader who knows Berigan well will find surprises (not the least of them being rare photographs) but the novice might use this book as an introduction to the musical life of the United States in this period: endnotes give us brief biographical sketches of everyone whose path crossed Berigan’s.

As an interlude, here is a Disney song from 1938 — with a vocal by Gail Reese, two solos by Bunny (one muted, one open), and drumming by Dave Tough:

Zirpolo began this book through a childhood experience — watching his father in tears listen to Bunny’s music.  Later he learned that his father had seen the Berigan band and remembered it clearly.  One of the aspects of this book that I find most endearing is Zirpolo’s understanding that we all have deeply complicated inner lives.  So rather than decide early on to insert the facts into one conceptual framework — Berigan “the tortured soul,” the “doomed alcoholic,” a man who could never “get started,” he has watched Berigan from angles that change as the chronicle moves on.

Ultimately, the biography chronicles the triumph of Bunny Berigan: cirrhosis ended his life, but his music has its own lasting existence.  You can find out much more about Berigan and this remarkable book (including a photo gallery full of marvels) here.

“FOUR ON THE FLOOR,” or “IT ALL GOES BACK TO DISCO”

1930 Ludwig Streaked Opal drum set: visit http://www.olympicdrums.com for more information

In the late afternoon of December 31, 2011, the Beloved and I were in the car, heading from Novato to Napa in California.  The car radio was set to NPR — not a bad thing — and an ingenuous young woman reporter for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED came on to ask the pressing question: what sound was prevalent in all the pop music hits of 2011?  I heard a throbbing beat that was soon drowned out by some version of electronic thrumming and whining . . . and then she came on the air to answer her own question: four beats on the bass drum.  Here’s the transcription of what she said:

There’s one sound that pretty much dominated pop music this year. Monster hits by LMFAO, Adele, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears and more all relied on the hammering beat known as “four-on-the-floor.”

“You feel it in your whole body, just on every beat: boom, boom, boom, boom,” says Jordan Roseman. “It’s so easy to understand, it’s almost hard not to move to it.”

Roseman, better known as DJ Earworm, is intimately familiar with these songs and their matching beats. He mixed them all together in his annual mashup of the year’s biggest pop hits, a series he calls “The United State of Pop.” He says that four-on-the-floor, while not a new sensation, dominated the radio dial in 2011.

“It goes back to disco. Right when these big speakers came along, all of a sudden the kick drum took this new prominence in music because you could really feel it,” Roseman says. “It’s definitely peaking right now.”

You can download Roseman’s 2011 mashup, “World Go Boom,” at the DJ Earworm website.

Call me a nostalgia-addled dinosaur, a Swing Era relic (I’ve been called worse) but I thought “four on the floor” was cherished standard practice in all jazz performance until the very early Forties when (let’s say) Kenny Clarke started dropping bombs.

Before then, a drummer who couldn’t keep time — not necessarily loud — on the bass drum was considered inept, rather like the novice waitperson who has to ask each of the two diners, “Who gets the Greek omelet?”

I wish that the NPR story created a rush to study the recordings and videos of the masters: Krupa, Dodds, Jones, Catlett, Tough, Wettling, Marshall, Stafford, King, Berton,Morehouse, Singleton, Hanna, Bauduc, Leeman, Rich, Drootin, Dougherty, Walter Johnson, Spencer, Webb, Bellson, Shadow Wilson, Best, and a hundred more — or to sit at the feet of the contemporary percussion masters Smith, Burgevin, Hamilton, Dorn, Tyle, Baker, Siers . . . but somehow I don’t see this happening any time soon.

Because, as you know, “It all goes back to disco,” and our contemporary awareness of the past can be measured with a micrometer.

TWO MORE PAGES FOR MISTER TOUGH

and the “biography” of Mister Tough:

Thanks to jazz scholar Sonny McGown for these two precious pages.

HOW’S YOUR PARADIDDLE?

Does your paradiddle need work?  Are others around you discussing this problem while you are out of the room?  This might help:

There’s been some skepticism about this drum book: did “the winner of every poll” actually write these exercises or so them?  I can’t say, but books with Dave Tough’s picture on the cover are so rare that this one is worth investigating, even if the eBay price is now higher than two dollars.

SUBTLY SWINGING: DAN LEVINSON, MOLLY RYAN, MARK SHANE, CONNIE JONES, HOWARD ALDEN at SWEET AND HOT 2011

That title, I hope, says it all.  This session took place at the 2011 Sweet and Hot Music Festival in Los Angeles — on September 4, 2011, at the upwardly mobile aerie called Cheap Seats, a tiny room on the eighteenth floor.  It was crowded, for very good reason, and I had to use all my wiles and obstinacy to get in, stay in, and video-record over the protests of a well-intentioned volunteer concerned about the fire laws, but I am glad I practiced my passive resistance a la Thoreau and captured this session for JAZZ LIVES.

It began as yet another chamber-jazz outing for the trio of Dan Levinson (clarinet and tenor); Mark Shane (piano); Molly Ryan (voice and rhythm guitar), with the astronomical marvel (much more than “guest star”) cornetist Connie Jones.  Later in the set a noble visitor came in: the title gives it away, but Howard Alden is always welcome on the bandstand: here he brought his acoustic guitar and added so much to the proceedings.

The quartet began the set with a sweet / silly Thirties song I associate with Shirley Temple in a film — but more to the point, with Edythe Wright and Tommy Dorsey’s Clambake Seven.  Kevin Dorn wasn’t on the stand, so you have to imagine “Take it away, Davey,” all on your own:

Next was BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA, which went from sweetly rustic / nostalgic very quickly.  Don’t look away from the monitor to check on dinner, for around 2:20 Dan comes back into camera view apparently dragging a miscreant (a jazz “perp”) onto the stand . . . Mr. Alden, who manages to unpack and join in the choruses:

Molly Ryan is a very agreeable young woman, so it would make perfect sense for her to sing the anthem of assent, ‘DEED I DO:

On a Hines-Noone kick?  Here’s BLUES IN THIRDS:

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS usually closes the night’s entertainment, but here it shows off the brilliance of Howard Alden, who performed it so memorably (behind the scenes) in Woody Allen’s SWEET AND LOWDOWN:

One of the wonderful quasi-spiritual exhortations of the early Thirties, suggesting that music could cure one’s tendencies towards evil, SING YOU SINNERS:

The set ended most beautifully — not with a rouser full of climaxes, but with something tender and most sweet, SAY IT WITH A KISS (echoing Maxine, Billie, and a bygone era of love songs):

Just a family note: the fellow to the left (blue flowered shirt, video camera) isn’t me by some trick of telekinesis: that’s Molly’s devoted father, eager to record every note for posterity.  And rightly so!