This is not a posting about August 4, 1901 as “Louis Armstrong’s real birthday”: let those who want to chew that crust have at it. However, I began my lifelong adoration of Louis not with WEST END BLUES or WEATHER BIRD, but with three long-playing records: LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND GORDON JENKINS (1949-52 Decca sides on a 10″ lp), TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS (RCA Victor 12″) and, perhaps oddly, the soundtrack to THE FIVE PENNIES (Dot 12″). It took a long time for me to be excited by the Hot Five, but I was wooed completely by Louis’ romanticism: a few examples will open the door to a lifetime’s devout listening.
These are not the songs you associate with Louis: no 250 high C’s, just sweetness, an openness to passionate feeling. On the Jenkins sides below, I can’t be sure, but I would give Milt Gabler credit for placing unfamiliar beautiful songs in front of Jenkins and Louis — what wonders!
JEANNINE (I DREAM OF LILAC TIME):
IT’S ALL IN THE GAME:
LISTEN TO THE MOCKING BIRD:
and, in 1941:
and in 1936:
a 1935 film song (listen to the “Louis” accompaniment to his vocal, and catch his four emphatic perfectly timed quarter notes after his vocal, too):
and a song I only knew through Connee Boswell’s tender reading:
and a 1957 record (with backing by Russ Garcia) that my father brought home as a gift, and I treasure today. There should be ten or so songs on this playlist, and this recording is truly the work of a mature artist at his peak of feeling. I have read that this album was made after Louis and Garcia performed this repertoire live at the Hollywood Bowl, thus “under the stars.” Where were the television cameras then?
I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without the mystical appearance of Louis Armstrong in it, decades ago. And I don’t even want to try.
For impatient readers, the compressed review, in the language of vintage advertising, “No home should be without it.”
Because perception is its own kind of reality, if you squint your eyes just right, you can make Louis Armstrong seem an ordinary mortal, a genial fellow who lived in Corona, Queens, ate Chinese food, smoked marijuana, told jokes, typed letters and made phone calls. Oh, yes, he made music. And that wrong-end-of-the-telescope view has a certain validity.
Or, if you simply followed his itinerary, you could see him as a mechanical figure, a jazz-machine who got on the bus, slept, got off, made music, and got back on again. I’ve read biographies where the writer relied heavily on the subject’s gig notebooks, and the artist becomes a journeyman doing a job, night after night in different places. Or amplified discographies: “On February 29, _______ went into the studio to wax the classic _______________,” some of which is of course necessary when the artist’s work is primarily a series of recordings, but it’s a shallow lens through which to view an artist’s life and development.
The totality of Louis Armstrong is so much larger.
If you know him, his art, and his life a little better, he seems an astonishing continent, with mountains and orchards, valleys and forests. And people do like to claim continents for themselves and plant their flag. Since the early Thirties, Louis has been depicted often in print, and the writers have come to him with their own ideologies and judgments. So in the books written about him (and with him) since 1936, we have seen Louis the naive country boy who needed Joe Oliver, Lillian Hardin, and Joe Glaser to tell him how to live; the sellout; the Uncle Tom; the aesthetic failure; the tragic victim; the clown; a man unaware of himself.
Louis doesn’t need a defender, but if he did, the man to the rescue, gloriously, is Ricky Riccardi, the scholar who finds marvels and, better, who understands their impact. Full disclosure: Ricky and I are friends, and I read the galleys of this new book (occasionally saying “No . . . ” as one would to an exuberant puppy. Louis is my hero on earth and otherwise. I thought Ricky’s first part of his Louis-saga, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS, a superb book and a model of biography, as I wrote here.
To please me, a book should have new information — facts and first-hand narratives that correct misperceptions, fill in the blanks, and add to the larger tapestry. Its writer should be as free from ideological bias as possible (many biographers palpably come to loathe their subjects) but, in the nineteenth-century mode, sustain a gentle admiration, unless the subject is monstrous.
The question might be, for some, with all the writing on Louis, why would we need another book? The book will speak for itself — its thrilling research and the beautiful synthesis of hundreds of sources all work together to portray this man, joyously goofing around with his friends, but all seriousness when it came to creating music. Since there has been a school of critical opinion (I cannot call it “analysis” or “thought”) that Louis’ records after 1928 are evidence of commercialism, of his losing his way, and the Decca recordings that form much of this period, 1935-44, have been particularly maligned, this book is a needed re-evaluation. And we cannot ignore Louis as a man steadfast in the pursuit of fair treatment for himself and his race, an artist giving wholly of himself night after night in the quest to bring joy to his hearers.
Ricky’s first biography dealt with Louis’ last twenty-five years, his international fame, his small group, the All-Stars, and his popular successes — being “the cause of happiness” for millions. HEART FULL OF RHYTHM steps back in time, documenting not only the day-t0-day life of “Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra,” but the subtle shifts in popular awareness. When this volume begins, in 1929, Louis was no longer making “race records,” but I doubt that record dealers in strictly Caucasian neighborhoods carried his latest hit. When this book ends, Louis is so known and so loved — starring not only in theatres and dances, not only selling records, but starring in films, having his own radio series, breaking down barriers — that he is no longer relegated to that cruelly narrow perception.
An interlude (1937, with Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, and Paul Barbarin):
Because this biography delineates the middle period of an artist who had already reached artistic pinnacles (think of WEST END BLUES, NEW ORLEANS STOMP, and BEAU KOO JACK) it does not follow the predictable arc of early struggles, recognition, and blossoming fame. When we meet Louis in 1929, he has come to New York, has recorded KNOCKIN’ A JUG and MAHOGANY HALL STOMP with what were then called “mixed bands,” and records I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, expanding both his repertoire and his identity. Indeed, if we consider the songs in the canon of pop songs that Louis recorded first or early — BODY AND SOUL, WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, I SURRENDER DEAR, WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE, I’M CONFESSIN’, BLUE AGAIN, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, STARDUST and two dozen others, it’s clear that he was moving towards a larger audience and a larger conception of himself — what I sometimes call “Louis the romantic.”
As an aside, the book raises and answers the question, “How does a sincere artist take on popular material and retain his artistic integrity?” We watch Louis do it again and again by remaining both himself and completely heartfelt.
But the arc, as I suggested above, is different — Louis begins this period appearing in a revue on Broadway (in 1939, in the middle of this book, there is an actual Broadway show, SWINGIN’ THE DREAM, but it closes quickly), in 1936 he co-stars with Bing Crosby in the film PENNIES FROM HEAVEN; when the book concludes he has played at the Metropolitan Opera House, Town Hall, and Carnegie Hall.
Incidentally, those Decca recordings are so labored, the band so under-rehearsed and unswinging. Here’s a relevant example:
Readers will note that I have not followed this incredibly detailed book chapter by chapter, and when you pick up a copy you will understand why. I have been listening to and reading about Louis Armstrong for more than fifty years, and if I were to pick three pages in this book at random, I would be greeted by facts I’d never known, and better, threads connecting those facts — Riccardi isn’t a simple hoarder of detail; he finds and creates patterns — and new photographs. Too, he has diligently used Louis’ scrapbooks and private tape recordings to get the stories first-hand. Thus, I confess that I can’t create even the most cursory summary of the book in fewer than ten thousand words because what it contains is both fascinating and overwhelming. But it is written with a light touch and consistent love for the man and his music.
And should you worry that you might get bored in all the information, take heart: there’s blood, violence, opium, laxatives, sex, run-ins with the police, homemade cookies, racial harassment, people who present themselves as allies but turn out to be horrors (Johnny Collins and Leonard Feather) and quiet heroes (Zilner Randolph for one: if anyone wants to start the Zilner Randolph Appreciation Page on Facebook, that’s one group I will gladly join).
For myself, I’m waiting for the third volume of this trilogy in reverse, which will begin nine months before July 4, 1901, in what I hope was an interlude of bliss, include Black Benny, the recipe for a trout sandwich, the lovely and charming Daisy Parker, a long train ride to Chicago, a pair of old-fashioned shoes, and more.
I’ve said enough. This book is a dense yet entertaining portrait of a man and artist, often minimized and misunderstood, a beautiful work of art that honors him on every page. Amazon says that the book will be released on September 1, and you can pre-order it here. September 1 isn’t really that far away (given the way Monday becomes Friday these days) but you certainly could pass the time and entertain yourself with Ricky’s first Louis book, here.
If you look up “Louis Armstrong” and “July 6, 1971,” you will find newspaper stories and television reports that say he died. Thanks to this splendid book by Ricky Riccardi, you will find it even more impossible to believe those rumors.
There’s something weirdly irresistible about jazz records with tap-dance passages, especially in this multi-media age when we expect to see as well as hear. The tradition goes back to Bill Robinson, Fred Astaire, and forward to Jack Ackerman and Baby Laurence, among others.
A charming example of the phenomenon is the two sides the Nicholas Brothers (Fayard and Harold) recorded for American Decca, with a small, well-disciplined yet hot band — Decca studio players (who were also recording with Dick Robertson, the Andrews Sisters, Frank Froeba, and Teddy Grace) including Bobby Hackett, cornet; Ralph Muzzillo, trumpet; Al Philburn, trombone; Sid Stoneburn, clarinet; Frank Signorelli, piano; Dave Barbour, guitar; Haig Stephens, string bass; Stan King, drums.
I single out Bobby because he has a pearly eight-bar bridge on the first side, and to me, eight bars of Hackett is like a previously unknown Yeats fragment. On the second side, Philburn and Stoneburn take the solos. But listen closely to the underrated but distinctive Stan King throughout. I don’t think the sides sold very well, because Decca did not repeat the experiment.
Those are two unassuming-looking sides of a Decca “sunburst” label 78 disc. Fine music with small mysteries attached, and no one around to tell the tale(s). This 78 is not easy to find these days but it seems to have been a popular issue: I have had two copies, the first a (now-vanished) sunburst, the second (near me as I write) a later Decca reissue. It was also issued on UK Decca.
This group, not a working band, recorded only these two sides in the New York Decca studios on January 17, 1936. The personnel was Pee Wee Erwin, trumpet; Joe Marsala, clarinet; Frank Signorelli, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Stan King, drums. Erwin and Mastren would work with Tommy Dorsey in early 1937, but at the time Erwin was in New York with the young Benny Goodman band before it went to Chicago; the rest of this group might have been together on Fifty-Second Street with Manone or Louis Prima, or freelancing in other record or radio studios.
Marsala and Mastren had been in the Decca studios for another small-group date, apparently organized by Wingy Manone, in whose recording groups they were working consistently for Bluebird — “the Delta Four,” with Roy Eldridge and Sid Weiss making up a quartet, also completing only two sides, FAREWELL BLUES and SWINGIN’ ON THAT FAMOUS DOOR, on December 20, 1935. Signorelli and Mastren had done a date at Decca with Bunny Berigan as “Bob Terry’s Orchestra” on the 15th; Signorelli, King, and possibly Mastren were in the Decca studios on the 20th with Red McKenzie.
What or who brought these musicians together is one of the mysteries. It could have been that one of the six got a call from someone at Decca, perhaps Bob Stephens, saying, “We need a small band tomorrow in the studios at 11. No more than six, and for scale,” and whoever picked up the phone or got the message at Hurley’s (the bar-gathering place before Jim and Andy’s) talked to other musicians down the bar or made some phone calls.
One more small gush of data: the Six Blue Chips were a late-morning or afternoon assemblage: blues singer Georgia White (piano, vocal, with unknown bass) recorded three sides earlier in the day, and Mike Riley (of THE MUSIC GOES ‘ROUND AND ‘ROUND fame or infamy) recorded four sides later. American Decca, still quite a new company, was busy recording music and selling discs at lower prices than, say, Victor, as shown by three disparate sessions in one day.
Note the absence of composer credits, something unusual on Decca recordings of current pop tunes, but seen often on their recordings of “hilbilly” music, where the company could pretend that there were no people owed royalties. It suggests even more that this was a hurry-up session, or perhaps someone’s idea to add to the Delta Four (whose labels do have composer credits).
Incidentally, the reason that all this prose is speculative is because no one connected with the session seemed to remember it or wrote about it. If King, Shapiro, and Signorelli were ever interviewed, I haven’t encountered it. I met Carmen Mastren once — on either Lloyd Rauch’s or Dave Weiner’s radio show — and at the time did not know of this recording. He was very kind . . . and I don’t know where the V-Disc he autographed for me went.
The most likely candidate for an informed recollection would have been Pee Wee Erwin, who told his life story to Warren Vache, Sr., over four hundred pages, in what would be published as THIS HORN FOR HIRE. But although Vache mentions this disc in an appendix, it seems as if that discography was assembled after Erwin’s death. Pee Wee mentions meeting Bob Stephens in the very early Thirties (when Stephens was a trumpet player) but nothing of substance is offered about the date or the other musicians. One of the sad surprises of that biography is that Pee Wee had a substantial alcohol problem, which might have erased his memory of casual record dates.
None of this would matter if the music wasn’t delightful. Here it is:
STEEL ROOF, of course, steals from TIN ROOF BLUES, but it took me decades to realize this. The side begins with a familiar — to some of us painfully familiar — piano introduction, with which Frank Froeba began all of the Dick Robertson sides, much loved because of the opportunity they offer to hear a young Bobby Hackett. I’m always struck by the ease with which everyone plays this medium-slow blues, and how readily identifiable their sounds are, including King’s idiosyncratic but telling accents. Erwin runs parallel to Bunny, but with his own sound; how lovely to hear Mastren out in the open, and Marsala always charms — even though this is “a slow blues,” he is charmingly optimistic. The solos and closing ensemble have deep roots in the past: Oliver, Noone, Lang or Lonnie Johnson, but it’s clearly 1936, not a decade earlier. And what a pleasant surprise to find that same piano passage used to wind down the performance — with the punchline being a King bass drum accent. Unpretentious and completely effective.
Then, the reverse, with its elusive title: was Cheech someone who cheated or were they describing the process of cheating him (or her)?
There really isn’t much to CHEECH — it sounds like two or three familiar cadences taped together to make a chorus, but the overall effect is jolly, with the wonderful emphasis that the great improvisers placed on individual sound. The record seems over before it’s through, but I hear Marsala’s luminescence and Mastren taking a trip into the land of what I first associated with McDonough, but Nick Rossi, who can play, suggests it is much more like Lang. (I know the game of “sounds like” is silly, but I wonder how much Carmen had absorbed of Teddy Bunn and Lonnie Johnson as well?)
How these sides came to be remains mysterious, but they are little slices of Swing Street life, captured forever. These discs, incidentally, come to us through the generosity of “Cliff,” whom I’ve been unable to identify further, but who has a wonderful YouTube channel, cdbpdx— full of now-rare 78 discs.
“We improvise our way through life,” wrote the seventh-century philosopher Sammut of Malta. And perhaps that’s why jazz is such an enthralling wellspring of inspiration: even on a record that we know by heart, we get to hear musicians maneuver themselves into impossible corners and slither out. Houdinis of Swing and Stomp.
These two Decca sides are seriously neglected, even though they feature three of the strongest players in the John Kirby Sextet: drummer / vocalist O’Neil Spencer (1909-1944, tuberculosis) and two musicians who coincidentally ended their days as members of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars: pianist Billy Kyle and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Even before Spencer gained some fame with Kirby, he had lifted up many recordings by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and was a valued session player for the Variety and Decca labels, recording with everyone from Jimmie Noone and Willie “the Lion” Smith to Maxine Sullivan, Bob Howard, and a host of forgettable blues singers. These sides come from the only session Spencer was able to be given leader credit, and I think they are remarkable. Often I think of the Kirby band as expert but polished, with some powerful exceptions: these sides are much looser and to me extremely gratifying.
BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COM HOME? is usually played as a slow drag or medium opportunity to ask the musical question. Here, the imagined speaker must have been terribly eager or impatient, for the tempo is unlike any other. What a good singer Spencer was, and how nimbly Buster maneuvers those turns at top speed before the splendid drum solo:
LORNA DOONE SHORTBREAD (had someone brought a box of cookies into the studio?) features Buster’s singular tone, swing, and phrase-shapes; Kyle’s sparkling accompaniment and solo, and that rarity, a full chorus for Spencer, who is his own person but sounding much like a hot hybrid of Catlett and Webb:
I like, for a moment, to imagine an alternate Thirties-universe, where O’Neil Spencer was a regular leader of small-group sessions for Decca, singing and rocking the band. I wouldn’t mind another thirty or forty sides with him out front, instead of (for one example) having to lug Milt Herth through a song.
And something extra: AFTERNOON IN AFRICA by the trio, easy and lyrical, showing that clarinet / piano / drums did not have to imitate Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa:
These three players embody great freedom, courage, and joy: I celebrate them not only as musicians but as models, showing us how to do it.
Truman “Pinky” Tomlin, singer, composer, bandleader, film star
Everyone reading JAZZ LIVES could, with not much effort, compile a list of a dozen well-known and rewarding jazz recordings. Your list might be entirely different, but I feel that we would recognize the names of most, if not all, of the entries. But what continues to delight me is the wonderful music to be found on recordings that don’t get any attention, those beneath the surface of the collective attention.
One such record is a recent purchase from eBay, and it’s repaid its original price (perhaps $2.99?) a dozen times over, even though its star, Oklahoma-born “Pinky” Tomlin, would not be at the top of many people’s lists.
The record isn’t listed in Tom Lord’s or Brian Rust’s discography, although the records Pinky made with (among others) Joe Sullivan and Joe Haymes are. Make of this what you will, but two sides made at the same session — SMILES and THE OLD OAKEN BUCKET — are listed (and thus certified as Official Jazz Records) although they are less memorable: I bought that disc also from eBay.
The orchestra is directed by Harry Sosnik, and features Pinky with Mannie Klein, trumpet; Andy Secrest, cornet; Abe Lincoln, trombone; Jack Mayhew, clarinet; Claude Kennedy, piano; Perry Botkin, guitar; Slim Jim Taft, string bass; Spike Jones, drums. It was recorded in Los Angeles, April 23, 1938.
Those are illustrious names; some readers will notice that the band is close to the group that accompanied Mr. Crosby and Mr. Mercer on their version of the Gallagher-and-Shean vaudeville routine in July of that year: the evidence here. I suspect that more than a few worked in radio and were known as the best “studio” musicians on the West Coast. The one unknown in this band, pianist Kennedy, I found out through reading Pinky’s autobiography, THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION (his best-known composition) was a friend and musical colleague of Pinky’s from Oklahoma. (Just because you might be wondering, Truman Tomlin got his nickname early on because of his complexion.)
I wonder if this session was another of Jack Kapp’s crossover ideas, joining hot jazz, swing, and Western swing, to support Pinky, already well-known on radio and films. Had Kapp noticed the success of Maxine Sullivan’s LOCH LOMOND, a swing version of a traditional song, or Ella Logan’s efforts (in all those cases, no composers to pay)?
But enough words. Feast your ears (and, yes, there is authentic surface noise, because the original owner of this record played it often).
RED RIVER VALLEY:
These sides are fun, and that comes from their ease, the sweet balance between Pinky’s sincere Oklahoma voice, not trying to “get hot” except for the one upwards Bing-meets-Louis scat phrase on RED WING. He’s telling us stories, and he’s completely earnest but never stiff. Sosnik wasn’t always so swinging on other Deccas that bear his name, but the arranged passages are right on target, and it’s especially pleasant that the endings on both sides aren’t histrionic, but wind down gently. Secrest plays beautifully, but it’s the band that charms me — its unsung heroes being Perry Botkin and Spike Jones, who certainly swung.
“It’s not in the discography, so it can’t be jazz.” But it’s rewarding music.
I find myself charmed by Pinky: he seems guileless, someone who is being rather than acting. Two more examples: one, from a 1937 film, where he, like Bing, seems to say to a viewer, “I’m on the screen, singing, and putting clothing into a trunk. But you could do this, too.”:
Two decades later, Pinky faces Groucho, his essential sweetness intact:
A few words about THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION. I read in Pinky’s autobiography how the song was a spur-of-the-moment creation that grew from the casual phrase that was its title. But it has deep jazz credentials: Ella sang it early, and later in life, when she and Pinky were together at some public function, went out of her way to express her gratitude.
Three versions, each showing the song’s durability and emotional appeal. First, Carl Switzer:
Helvetia, Connie, and Martha:
Garnet Clark, Bill Coleman (“from brown to rosy red”), June Cole, George Johnson, Django:
My search for the singer Pat Kirby — an extraordinary artist — began last Monday, June 12, with a trip to the thrift store closest to my college, as I described here. I’d amassed nearly thirty dollars of records, and the long-playing one by a singer I’d never heard of before caught my eye because of the cover photo, the Decca label (Decca in that period tended to be more rewarding than some lesser labels), the repertoire, and the identification that the orchestra was directed by Ralph Burns.
That the disc was also $1.49 minus the Monday 25% discount was also encouraging, and I thought there might be excellent musicians accompanying Miss Kirby. I should point out that I had never heard a note of her singing, nor had I been of an age to see her perform on television.
And, having just come from teaching a class of mostly uninspired students, it is likely that the cover picture of Miss Kirby, sweet pedagogue, caught my eye. I would have bet that her students were paying attention. It might be silly to have an instant crush on a portrait of someone c. 1956, but I make no more apologies for myself than that.
Good songs, as well.
Before Monday evening, I had played the album four times, had spent a good deal of time searching for Miss Kirby, and had emailed several friends who are professional singers to say, “You have to listen to her.” Rebecca Kilgore listened and approved: I knew I was on the right track.
At this point I invite readers to do just that. I confess that I had put the needle down on the first track hoping for a pleasing, competent singer but really searching for surprises from unannounced jazz stars. They may well be there, but Miss Kirby took my attention wholly.
I hear a controlled passion, a lovely dramatic sense. She understands the words, offers them with diction that is both natural and impressive. Some passages of lyrics that I had never fully understood are clear for the first time. Her rhythmic sense is splendid . . . and although she has a splendid vocal instrument, her voice is never the main subject. It’s the song. She’s not imitating anyone (although she reminds me ever so delicately of Teddi King) and her approach seems so unaffected but, as any singer would tell you, she is no amateur. I hear a tender tremulous vibrato, full of emotion but Miss Kirby is in complete control, never over-dramatic. Yet she can be almost saucy on DOWN WITH LOVE, which rises to a near-shout; however, her LOVER MAN is a young woman’s sweet series of wishes. Her IN LOVE IN VAIN — backed only by a guitarist who might be Barry Galbraith and a string bassist — is beyond memorable.
I don’t know whether she or Burns or perhaps Milt Gabler chose the songs, but Miss Kirby shows tremendous courage in singing LOVER MAN with the potent shade of Billie hovering. She manages to make me hear her on I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY, making that song her own, not Mr. Sinatra’s.
I will put my adoration down for several paragraphs and offer a story, by John Fink, from the September 15, 1956 Chicago Tribune “TV Week” — full of attractive photographs of a dark-haired, pretty young woman, sipping soda through a straw, singing in front of an overhead microphone, demurely wearing a narrow-striped top. The story’s headline, in lower-case turquoise, is “once too shy to stand up and sing!” I know the enthusiastic prose that one finds in weekly television guides, but at least Mr. Fink had offered a few facts.
Philadelphia has always been home base for Pat Kirby. The songstress of the Tonight program, seen week days at 11 p. m. on Channel 5, started life there as Patricia Querubin, and did her first vocalizing with a high school band. Too shy to stand up and sing, she sat at her piano at the rear of the stage.
Two years ago, after a shot at local radio, Pat was tapped for an Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts appearance. She won, then retired to Philadelphia to consider a Hollywood offer. But Hollywood, she decided, was too far from home.
By that time Steve Allen had signed her up for guest appearances on Tonight, and she was staying in a Manhattan convent, returning to Philly on week-ends to be with her parents and three brothers. She was signed as a regular on the program, and had begun to make records. She knew she had really arrived when they asked her to make an album called “Pat Kirby Sings.”
The singer with the jet black hair and flashing black eyes stands 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches tall and weighs a tidy 125 pounds. Her father, a merchant mariner, is of Spanish descent; her mother comes of Irish stock.
Pat chooses her songs for the feeling in the lyrics and leans towards “standards” by Gershwin and Arlen and Rodgers and Hart. “If the words don’t mean anything,” she says, “why bother pronouncing them. You might just as well sing vowels.”
But her long range goal was to get married. She was all of 20, and she had made up her mind. Pat accomplished that last June. The lucky fellow? A boy back home in Philadelphia, of course.
For the moment, we can ignore all the stereotypes and sexism of 1956.
Here are the (uncredited) notes on the back of the Decca album:
Decca’s newest recording artist, Pat Kirby, is one of the most talented as well as the most attractive newcomers in show business. She appears several times a week over NBC Television, and hardboiled critics as well as enthusiastic watchers of Steve Allen’s “Tonight” show are already predicting that she will soon be one of the nation’s top-flight stars.
Born twenty-one years ago in Philadelphia, where she was raised, Pat Kirby comes from Irish and Spanish forbears — her real last name is Querubin. She was educated at St. Francis Xavier Grammar School and John W. Hallahan Catholic High School, and it was at the latter institution that Pat began to display her musical versatility. In the school band she played the tympani, drums, piano, organ, and celeste — there seemed to be no instrument she could not master. There was only one thing that did not seem to interest her, and that was singing. A vocal career was the last thing on her mind; her ambition was to play the drums in an all-girl orchestra. It was only after she graduated that she took up singing because she thought the ability to sing might help her in show business.
Pat’s professional career began when she was offered occasional piano and singing jobs with small bands in and around Philadelphia. She forsook the piano — reluctantly — when Buddy Williams engaged her as vocalist for his orchestra. It was not long before she was featured with the band in such coveted showcases as the Bellevue-Stratford and Benjamin Franklin Hotels in Philadelphia, the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, and many other top spots. A little more than a year ago, Pat began doing a “single.” In November 1954, she gained national recognition by winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Program, She also appeared for twenty weeks on “Get Happy,” a show emanating from Philadelphia’s WCAU-TV, in which Pat was given a chance to act and ad-lib as well as sing.
This album furnishes proof that Pat Kirby has arrived. The songs she sings are among America’s favorites, and she renders them all with a delicate and sure touch. The songs themselves have a central theme. Whether the numbers are Ballads, Rhythm Tunes, or Torch Songs, all of them answer the question posed in the title, “What Us This Thing Called Love?” The arrangements for the numbers are unusually lush in scoring, and their enriched instrumentations furnish a worthy background for Pat Kirby’s voice.
In writing this post, I have spent a good deal of energy chasing invisible cyber-rabbits. I found out that after Miss Kirby had made this recording, she “abruptly retired,” although I saw mentions of her singing on the Merv Griffin Show c. 1960-62. Did she retire as soon as she became pregnant? Did she choose, a good Catholic, to forsake the bright lights for happy domesticity? Did she miss performing? (Did Someone hasten her flight by behaving inappropriately to her? She was, as we say, both very attractive and very young.) Decca, incidentally, seems to have had her record some pop singles, including the paper-thin TAMMY (circa 1957), and this Frank Loesser rarity, which might have had merit. And then, nothing.
I found out that Buddy Williams played drums and apparently had played them for Miller and one of the Dorseys. Of course, no recordings from the period are listed in Tom Lord’s online discography, and there is no entry for Miss Kirby. Or Miss Querubin.
There is a single by “Pat Kirby” of the theme from the motion picture SAYONARA, but it does not sound like the same singer. There is no YouTube video of her, although there is televised evidence in the Paley Center (more about that shortly). Facebook bristles with authorities, some quite incorrect and vehement about it, but no one responded to my request for information — from a group devoted to the dark corners of popular culture. And I have little success with family-ancestry sites: her parents may have been Robert and Helen Querubin; her married name might have been Burgoyne. Given that she was born in 1935 or so, I doubt that she will write to me to say, “Young man, you have gotten the facts of my life all wrong.”
However, I have a frustratingly lively lead that might lead nowhere: a Google search for Pat Kirby led me to the Paley Museum, which has two kinescopes of the Steve Allen show: on one she sings THE BOY NEXT DOOR, the other I’M GLAD THERE IS YOU. And . . . on Trip Advisor, of all places, Liz M. from Philadelphia visited the Paley Museum and wrote this comment:
I visited here to see a video of my mom on the Steve Allen show from 60 years ago. She was young singer Pat Kirby who sang regularly with Andy Williams. They had 2 episodes. It is so wild to see your mother in action years before you were born. My friend had never been there before and can’t wait to go back for special events.
I find that very touching, and Trip Advisor has a space to “ask Liz M. a question,” which I did. Keep your fingers crossed.
Pat Kirby, who obviously wanted privacy after her brief intense turn in the spotlight, might have planned it all this way. A short bolt of fame, of public visibility, might have been all she could tolerate or all she wanted. William Faulkner said of fame that his ideal would have been to have written his books without his name on the title page — to do the work and remain anonymous. Pat Kirby leaves us under an hour of musical evidence of the finest kind imaginable, and then she made her exit. Thank goodness we have the records, because who would believe this tale otherwise?
I’d love to know more, if only to honor one of the finest — and least heralded — singers I’ve ever heard.
P.S. (“This just in!”) Music scholar Bob Moke told me on Facebook that Pat is the speaking voice in the middle of this famous record. The singing voice at the start is Lois Winters — all confirmed by one of the Lads. Any snippet of Miss Kirby is greatly appreciated:
I like the universe I was born into, but I imagine alternate ones all the time — the debt I owe to my Big Sister, who introduced me to Golden Age science fiction in my late childhood. So I imagine one where this woman — pianist, singer, composer, bandleader, natural leader, innovator — was a star of the magnitude she deserved.
Lillian Hardin is ill-served as being perceived primarily as just “the second wife of Louis Armstrong.” My admiration and love for Louis is beyond the normal measuring tools, but Lil is someone and would have been someone if she’d never devoted her energies to that chubby young man from the South for a decade or so. She herself didn’t have a substantial ego, which may have accounted for her somewhat shadowy presence in jazz history. How she would have been celebrated had she not been female is something to consider.
You could ask one of the heroes of this music, Chris Albertson, about Lil, for sure. Here — on Chris’ STOMP OFF blog — is a trove of information, all enlivened by his love for Miss Lil. (His memories of Lil — including a three-part audio interview — are treasures.)
Rather than write about her in ways admiring or polemical or both, I offer a banquet of her Swing Era Decca recordings, which — I know it’s heresy — stand up next to the Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, and Henry “Red” Allen small groups of the period for swing, charm, melodic inventiveness, and fun. On these discs, I know our ears go automatically to the horn soloists — but imagine them with a flat rhythm section and inferior tunes. Lil’s exuberance makes these recordings much more memorable. Although none of her original compositions had much longevity except for JUST FOR A THRILL, sixteen of the twenty-six are hers, and I’d guess the effective arrangements are hers as well.
Underneath the picture on the YouTube posting are all the titles: further details here: Lillian Armstrong And Her Swing Band : Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Chu Berry (ts) Teddy Cole (p) Huey Long (g) John Frazier (b) Lil Armstrong (vcl). Chicago, Oct. 27, 1936. OR LEAVE ME ALONE / MY HI-DE-HO MAN / BROWN GAL / DOIN’ THE SUZIE-Q / JUST FOR A THRILL / IT’S MURDER /
Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Robert Carroll (ts) James Sherman (p) Arnold Adams (g) Wellman Braud (b) George Foster (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl). New York, April 15, 1937: BORN TO SWING / I’M ON A SIT-DOWN STRIKE FOR RHYTHM / BLUER THAN BLUE / I’M KNOCKIN’ AT THE CABIN DOOR /
Shirley Clay (tp) replaces Joe Thomas, Prince Robinson (ts) replaces Robert Carroll, Manzie Johnson (d) replaces George Foster. New York, July 23, 1937: LINDY HOP / WHEN I WENT BACK HOME / LET’S CALL IT LOVE / YOU MEAN SO MUCH TO ME /
Ralph Muzzillo, Johnny McGhee (tp) Al Philburn (tb) Tony Zimmers (cl) Frank Froeba (p) Dave Barbour (g) Haig Stephens (b) Sam Weiss (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl). New York, Feb. 2, 1938: LET’S GET HAPPY TOGETHER / HAPPY TODAY, SAD TOMORROW / YOU SHALL REAP WHAT YOU SOW / ORIENTAL SWING /
Reunald Jones (tp) J.C. Higginbotham (tb) Buster Bailey (cl) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) O’Neil Spencer (d). September 9, 1938: SAFELY LOCKED UP IN MY HEART / EVERYTHING’S WRONG, AIN’T NOTHING RIGHT / HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT / KNOCK-KNEED SAL (is the unidentified male voice on the last track Clarence Williams?) /
Jonah Jones (tp) Don Stovall (as) Russell Johns (ts) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) Manzie Johnson (d) Midge Williams, Hilda Rogers (vcl).
New York, March 18, 1940: SIXTH STREET / RIFFIN’ THE BLUES / WHY IS A GOOD MAN SO HARD TO FIND? / MY SECRET FLAME /
I salute Lillian Hardin as a joyous Foremother. Her virtues should be celebrated on many other days of the year.
Sometimes great art flourishes in corners where it is not at all expected even to survive.
George “Bon Bon” Tunnell (1912-1975) was an engaging singer — yet not well-remembered. He was first a member of The Three Keys, and from 1937-42, he was the first African-American male singer to appear with a Caucasian band: Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters. Incidentally, he was heavily featured with the band — and — one of the trombonists there was Cutty Cutshall (1939-40) something that would interest Condon scholars like myself.
The two sides below come from Bon Bon’s early solo career — four sides from this date, two the next year (where Decca seems to have wanted him to be an African-American Bing, or at least a Chick Bullock or Dick Robertson) and then some solo features with Steve Gibson’s Red Caps. But with no disrespect to Bon Bon’s very nice singing, the two sides offer a rare combination — two musicians who, at this point in the Swing Era, did not receive all the opportunities to record their talents warranted.
They are guitarist / trombonist / arranger Eddie Durham, whose guitar sound is instantly recognizable — swinging but with sharp corners — and trumpeter Joe Thomas, also instantly recognizable and inimitable. The second song, I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE, is also Durham’s — although there are three other names on the label. And, on clarinet, the”Prof” of deep Kansas City jazz, Buster Smith. New York City, July 23, 1941: Tunnell, Joe Thomas, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Jackie Fields, alto saxophone; Jimmy Phipps, piano; Al Hall, string bass; Jack Parker, drums. The other two sides — which you’d have to track down on your own (they are on the THREE KEYS CD on the Chronological Classics label) are BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, and Fats Waller’s ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES.
SWEET MAMA (from 1920, I believe, and recorded by the ODJB) has lyrics that suggest domestic abuse and a real need for anger management, but the band is splendid. But first we hear Durham’s spiky arpeggios, a very dark and threatening orchestral passage featuring growl from Thomas (not his usual approach) and leafy clarinet from Smith — a passage reminiscent of Durham’s approach to GOOD MORNING BLUES for Basie. I find Bon Bon hilariously sweetly unconvincing in his gentle singing: this man couldn’t do damage to a sandwich, but we will let that pass. (When he returns for his second vocal, he wants to convince us: “Papa’s really gone mad,” but his heart isn’t in it. Too kind to make anyone cower.)
The half-chorus Thomas solo that follows is quietly magnificent: even through his mute, the steady glow of his tone comes through, as does his fondness for repeated notes, his love of 1927 Louis; his stately glide. Where other trumpeters shout, Thomas caresses, and his solo winds down rather than moving out of the middle register. It is equally affecting for what he doesn’t care to do — remember, 1941 was the age of great brass virtuosity — as for what he does. Thomas whispers sweet epigrams to us, and their impact is only felt on the third or fourth hearing. I’d also call your attention to the strong but not overdone rhythm that Hall and Durham offer, as well as Smith’s sweet commentaries. Bon Bon returns to assure us of his menace, but no one would be all that scared of “the fine undertaker,” which seems like a Waller touch.
The more famous song, justly, begins with an orchestral introduction that borrows quietly from THE MOOCHE, and we then move to a love song — where Bon Bon sounds more comfortable. Durham’s arpeggios threaten to take our attention away: he’s not aiming to copy Charlie Christian’s smoothness, but he makes a deep impression. Eddie is much more prominent here — it was his song and I wonder if he’d brought a small-band chart to the session. Then, less than half a minute of Thomas, but his sound, even muted, is like sunshine coming through the windows in late afternoon. His gentle intensity; his love of the melody — and that upwards arpeggio in the middle is purest Joe (and purest Louis, if you need to find an ancestor) — quite touching. When the band and Bon Bon return, the blending is completely polished and fetching.
(Joe gets three more extroverted outings on BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, which he executes nicely, and Bon Bon scats in the best almost-Leo-Watson manner. ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES bounces along pleasantly, but once again Bon Bon must pretend to menace — “I’m fit to fight” — which is sweetly unconvincing. Durham is delightfully in evidence and the other horns show their individual voices — but the two sides here are, to me, the standouts. Tunnell’s final side for Decca, before the recording ban, SLEEPY OLD TOWN, could pass for Bing, and it is delightful — with Russ Solomon doing a commendable Bobby Hackett. But it’s no longer on YouTube.)
And just because it exists on eBay, a little more Bon Bon memorabilia — a signed contract, with amendments.
and the reverse:
I haven’t analyzed the contract. Perhaps Laura Windley, our swing star and lawyer, might have something to say about it. Until then, I will cherish those two Decca sides, full of instrumental surprises and engaging singing.
Slowly, slowly, our awareness of Louis Armstrong spreads and deepens. Of course, someone out there is still saying that everything after POTATO HEAD BLUES was a colossal misstep. And somewhere, another gently misguided soul is suggesting that “Louis Armstrong was the worst thing that ever happened to traditional jazz,” which is a direct quotation and one that tried my peaceful nature to the breaking point.
But many people understand or have come to understand — to feel — that whatever Louis touched, he made beautiful. So I write what I believe: that the recordings newly issued by Universal, annotated by our own local hero, Ricky Riccardi, are some of Louis’ greatest. They are masterpieces of technique, drama, and above all, emotion. And if I hear whimpers, “But they’re commercial! The songs are so beneath him,” I will call Security to clear the room.
Hereis the official link to the Universal Records issue — 95 songs, available through Apple here for download. No, they aren’t going to be issued on CD. Downloads, like love, are here to stay — so ask a niece or nephew to assist you. And if the idea of intangible music — sounds without a tangible disc, shellac, vinyl, or plastic, is odd and threatening, think of downloading as new-fangled radio.
However, there are characteristically wise and rewarding liner notes by Mister Riccardi, about fifty thousand words, so knock yourself out here. I believe that the cost for the whole package is $44.95 and individual tracks are priced at $1.29, which is not prohibitive. As we have gotten used to cheap food in the last forty or fifty years, we also expect music to be free. Silliness and selfishness, but that’s another blogpost. This one is to celebrate Louis.
I listened to all ninety-five sides recently, and I am floating.
I grew up with some of these recordings — Louis and Gordon Jenkins, especially — so they are very tender artifacts to me. I came to Louis slightly later than the time period of this set: I think I bought my first record in 1963, although the experience of buying individual 45 rpm discs in paper sleeves is a part of my childhood. Department stores had record departments, as did the “five and dime” stores, Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, W.T. Grant, so hanging out there was a real part of my childhood and adolescence. Of course, I separated myself from my peers early, but that is not something I lament. In the Sixties and Seventies, Decca collected many of these sides on 12″ lps — SATCHMO IN STYLE, SATCHMO SERENADES, and the like. This is to say that perhaps ten of the ninety-five sides were new to me, but the music is astonishing throughout.
Several aspects of this set are powerful to me and will be to you. One is the trumpet playing. Louis’ unrivaled ability to make a “straight” melody come alive — “tonation and phrasing,” he called it — shines through every track. Listeners who only see brass instruments in the hands of people who have spent the requisite ten thousand hours may not know how difficult what he does, casually, from track to track. Ask a trumpet player how easy it would be to reproduce four bars of Louis. I think you will be startled by the answer. I know people rightly hold up his recordings of the Twenties and Thirties as examples of astonishing grace and power — and they are — but his trumpet playing in 1949-1958 is awe-inspiring, his huge sound captured beautifully by Decca’s engineers.
(And for those who worry about the “jazz quotient,” Louis is so strongly evident throughout that this should be enough — but one also hears from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Billy Kyle, Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Butterfield, Allan Reuss, Charles LaVere . . . )
Another pleasure is the alchemy Louis works on the material. For those who are appalled by, let us say, YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART or SKOKIAAN, I ask them to take a deep breath and evaluate the lyric and melodic quality of, perhaps, THAT’S WHEN I’LL COME BACK TO YOU before criticizing the “pop” material. And if a record of WINTER WONDERLAND brought people to hear and warm to Louis, then the large reach into popular songs — nothing new — that Jack Kapp and Milt Gabler did is a very good thing.
The final thing that kept revealing itself, over and over, was Louis’ deep innate romanticism, his delight in singing and playing about love — hopeless love, disappointed love, fulfilled love — all the shadings from bleak to ecstatic. Even those people who admire Louis as I do have not always given him credit as a great poet of love, vocally and instrumentally. His dramatic sense is peerless on these records.
If you feel as I do, perhaps I am overstating the obvious. But if you don’t, I ask you to listen to this:
and this, which to me has some of the emotional power of Billie’s Commodore ballads:
and this tender hymn, which I’ve loved for decades:
I know that 2016 has been a dazzling year for reissues and issues of material never heard before — consider several new Mosaic sets and the two volumes of material from the Savory collection — but this music is extraordinary: you can’t afford to miss these dreams.
I was originally going to title this post HIDE THE CHILDREN but then it occurred to me that my caution was excessive. No actual obscenities are uttered on these sides and the children of 2015 often know and use casually what 1936 listeners would have called “bad words.”
But these records were startling discoveries to me, and they swung — with a cast of characters not renowned in jazz lore. The records also weren’t under-the-counter “party records,” but issued in 1936 on a major label (Decca’s race series, but note the absence of “Sepia Series” on the label).
DON’T COME OVER:
and the reverse, more familiar, praise of the humble tuber on the commodities market:
HOT NUTS SWING:
Happily, I found the personnel as reported in Storyville 144, courtesy of the National Jazz Archive (UK) here —
STELLA JOHNSON Vocal, acc, by Dorothy Scott’s Rhythm Boys: Randolph Scott or Jimmy Strange, t; Bob Fagin, as; Dorothy Scott or Henry Gordon, p; Bob Tinsley, g, *Bassie* sb; Pete Peterson, d. Chicago, Thursday, 10 Sept.1936:
90868-A Don’t Come Over De 7217
90869-A Hot Nuts Swing De 7217.
I offer no moral here, except to point out how good the band sounds, how adept the unheralded Bob Fagin is in the pre-Bird style, how effective the overall swing sounds.
On DON’T COME OVER, the device of creating a rhyme where the second rhyming word, unspoken, is clearly vulgar, must go back several centuries in vernacular folk music. It is particularly intriguing because it requires listeners to reach into their personal word-hoards and come up, perhaps involuntarily, with the naughty word, the obscene punchline to the joke. We become participants in the naughty playlet. Consider that.
Here are three informal pleasures from the 2013 Jazz at Chautauqua (now reborn in a westerly direction as the Allegheny Jazz Party), created by Marty Grosz, guitar, vocal, asides; Andy Schumm, cornet, “secret weapon”; Scott Robinson, alto clarinet, tenor saxophone; John Sheridan, piano; Pete Siers, snare drum, wire brushes. These performances come from September 21, 2013, but they evoke any number of small groups that flourished in the preceding century. And still flourish.
It’s delightful how much music can come from a small group with apparently “unorthordox” instrumentation: no third or fourth horn, no amplified guitar or string bass — no string bass at all — and a seriously minimalist drum kit. I think of other Grosz assemblages that have the same lilt, or the EarRegulars, or the Braff-Barnes quartet, some Basie small groups, skiffle extravaganzas, Josh Billings, blue-label Deccas, or any number of groups that one could find on Fifty-Second Street or in the decades that followed.
Here are three delights.
James P. Johnson’s perennial bit of yearning, ONE HOUR — recast as a living tribute to the Mound City Blue Blowers, eminently lyrical:
LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, that jaunty 1936 love song, which always makes me think of Bing and Pee Wee:
And another expression of Swing Amour, ALL MY LIFE, also a new tune in 1936:
Marty calls this “music from a vanished era.” Or did he say “banished”? Hard to tell, and either works in this context. But as long as these players — and their descendants — walk the earth, such music has a good chance of surviving and enriching our lives and those of future generations. and Mister Grosz walks among us, still making those quarter notes swing: he is on the West Coast, among friends, as I write this.
One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience. Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt. But can you sing me a song?”
Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio
Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there. Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.
Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper. It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.
Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company. What magical music would we have now?” They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.
Third story. Time: 2014.
I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive. And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing. When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water. Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.
The disc lasted about an hour. It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs. I know, I know. Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?
I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful. Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings. A Johnny Hodges slow blues. Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD. Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.
I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.
Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.
And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.
I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go. They are all around us.
We still recoil in horror and shame when confronted with photographs of COLORED and WHITE drinking fountains and entrances . . . or at least I hope we do. And I know that Alistair Cooke’s announcements on the jam sessions broadcast for the BBC in the late Thirties — announcing players by race, as if radio listeners needed to be protected from Negritude entering their living rooms — still startle unpleasantly. But what should we make of this article, possibly sold around 1939?
Was Decca suggesting that this was “authentic,” as in “We have the real stuff on our records,” an attempt to woo the JAZZMEN audience, or was it a way of warning off a racially-charged audience, “This is that degenerate stuff. Keep the women and children a safe distance away”?
I can’t tell. But since I think few listeners have their music categorized by racial / ethnic characteristics, this record album has not lost its potential to shock.
The music inside, of course, is colorful yet without pigmentation.
In my Ideal Jazz World — which exists only in my mind and those of a few people who share my leanings (Dan and Mal and Clint among them) — Vic Dickenson is one of the greatest creators.
But Vic’s art was very subtle. People found it easy to see only its broad outlines and thus minimized it as a matter of low-toned naughty growls filling in the gaps in a Dixieland ensemble. Vic often worked with bands where he was alone on the mountaintop, making his way through BASIN STREET BLUES or IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD for the ninth time that week.
In addition, trombones tend to get less attention than they and their players deserve, especially if the men and women behind the mouthpiece and slide are reliable. Reliable players — think of Bennie Morton, Al Hall, Buck Clayton, Ray Nance, Milt Hinton among fifty others — get less attention than dramatic ones.
Vic seems to have come from nowhere — blossoming fully on the 1943-44 Blue Notes, or (for those whose historical perspective starts later) on the Vanguards and Columbias of the Fifties. But he had been working his magic for a long time. There’s his marvelous solo on Benny Carter’s MY FAVORITE BLUES, his work on a few 1940 Basie Columbias . . . and earlier — I’ve posted Blanche Calloway’s I NEED LOVIN’, which I think would amaze and terrify any contemporary trombonist — marvelous tumbling epigrams no matter what the context or the tempo.
That garden of delights, YouTube, offers us another aural glimpse of the Vic the musicians knew and admired. His solo on this little-known record is only sixteen bars, and it comes late in the performance, but it is a marvel.
The original recording was made for Decca in 1937 by the Claude Hopkins band. MY KINDA LOVE was perhaps best known through Ben Pollack’s recording of it with Jack Teagarden a half-decade earlier. The Hopkins record is taken up with Hopkins’ pleasant piano and Beverly White’s singing. Nothing is less than expert — the rhythm section rocks along nicely under Hopkins — but it is music for dancers. Beverly White sounds close to Midge Williams and even Ella Logan: all the notes are in the right places, her enunciation is precise; she sings clearly and rhythmically, but the overall affect is well-behaved rather than memorable. This band could play a senior prom in 1937 and not upset the chaperones overmuch.
Beverly was known as “Baby,” and she has her own place in the Jazz Pantheon because Teddy Wilson said he preferred her singing to Billie Holiday’s. What that statement really means is hard to say: there is so much mythology around the luminous 1935-41 recordings Billie and Teddy made that his words seem heretical. Perhaps Baby White was easier to work with; she didn’t smoke pot in the hall; she was more professional? It could be that Teddy simply liked the sound of her voice more. I wonder if in the years after those recordings were made, there was a slight tinge of rancor that Billie had become BILLIE HOLIDAY and other singers hadn’t. (Michael Brooks wrote that Henry “Red” Allen told him vehemently that Anna Robinson was also much better than Billie.)
For me, the first two-thirds of MY KINDA LOVE are amiably dull — politely swinging without calling attention to itself — an almost faceless “dance record,” perhaps insisted upon by Jack Kapp.
But when Vic leaps in, for about thirty seconds, my musical world changes.
He begins with a break that owes something to Louis, something that might have come from a Hot Seven record, reinvented through Vic’s own prism of sound. It’s a witty solo, glancing at Swing phrases that were already conventions in 1937 . . . but Vic’s staccato phrasing and sound are his own. He doesn’t dramatize; his solo is in the middle register and he doesn’t demand that we admire his pyrotechnics, but the solo amazes as evidence of what he could do in sixteen bars. A writer of musical epigrams, a painter of miniatures, eight bars here or sixteen bars there with their own logical, funny, shapes.
The thought that I can no longer see Vic on the stand at the last Eddie Condon’s or Your Father’s Mustache or an outdoor concert in Suffolk County makes me sad. Had I been able to tell him how many people had their lives uplifted by his music, I think it would probably have embarrassed him. But as I get older and I hear more jazz; as I understand more how difficult it is to create something when the rhythm is moving along inexorably underneath you, the more I prize Vic Dickenson. It was a miracle that he was with us. And he still is.
Romance is never out of season. Nor is the music of Johnny Mercer. Here’s a charming performance of a song I wish more people would sing (Daryl Sherman has done a fine job on it) . . . with contributions from Jack Teagarden, Stirling Bose, Fulton McGrath, Dick McDonough — recorded for Decca in 1934.
Find the Mercer song here — and if you’re not humming it later today, I’ll refund your money.
The performance comes to us through the good offices of a fellow blogger — “Still A Brooklyn Kid” is his cyber-sobriquet. He has good taste in all things, and his blog is wide-ranging: urban life, baseball, boxing, early television, and of course all things swinging. Thank you, Kid!
A small version of the Syncopators: Kevin Woods, trumpet; Pete Petersen, reeds; Solomon Douglas, piano; Glenn, guitar, vocal, original compositions; Mike Weatherly, string bass; Mark Ribera, drums — played several sets two nights ago at SALOON on the Upper East Side of New York City. I was impressed: the group has a charging energy. They’re a jump band, somewhere between the 1939 Goodman Sextet (Glenn likes that Charlie Christian fellow) and a Louis Jordan unit. Frankly, although all the members of the band appear to be fair-skinned, they could pass easily for one of the small bands in the Decca studios in the late Thirties, making records for Decca’s “Sepia Series.” Or a powerful version of the little band Lee and Lester Young led. Hear for yourself.
Here are three selections from the first set (I would have liked to stay, but work beckoned with its bony finger):
An original by Glenn, its title not explained — but we don’t mind a little mystery — SKINNY MINNIE. That’s Mr. Woods on the hot mouthpiece:
Here’s an undisguised homage to the 1939 Goodman Sextet, the Christian – Hampton blues, SOFT WINDS:
And the best for last — Glenn’s deadpan paean to elevation, THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER:
If you find fault with the lyrics or the concept, just remember it’s in praise of stilts, step-stools, elevator shoes, platform heels.
The Syncopators live up to their name. And you can’t see the happy dancers — including the very hip Dawn Hampton and Lynn Redmile, but even the Beloved got out there and cut a very stylish rug on that floated wood floor. Good job all ’round!
When someone tried to get Thelonious Monk up early for the GREAT DAY IN HARLEM photo shoot in 1958, Monk is supposed to have replied — and I don’t think he was joking — that he didn’t know there were two ten o’clocks in the day. Perhaps an extreme statement, but many jazz musicians — by habit, temperament, and experience — are nocturnal creatures. They aren’t terrified of daylight, just unaccustomed to it.
Thus the session that follows is special for reasons above and beyond the fine music that these players produced. It took place on Sunday, September 5, 2011, at the Sweet and Hot Music Festival — and it began at 9:45 AM. But no one complained, because they were taking such delight in each other’s company.
And, even better (perhaps a nod to the irritable shade of the late Kenny Davern) it was a totally acoustic session. No microphones in sight! That’s the way it’s supposed to be but so rarely is — electrified instruments or a forest of microphones. Some sound men and women are expert, sensitive listeners, but it’s such a treat to hear acoustic music in a quiet room — it happens infrequently.
All of this wouldn’t matter if the musicians were ordinary . . . but this band is made up of great players, individualists willing to create something synergistic, a musical entity larger than themselves. Tim Laughlin is a model clarinetist — his sweet, full tone is a pleasure to hear whatever he plays; his swinging playing never lets us down. Connie Jones is a quiet master, offering one subtle, peaceably emotive solo after another. He never reaches for a cliche of the idiom or of his instrument, and his knowledge of harmony is so deep that he never plays an expected or an overemphatic phrase. I think of Bobby Hackett and Doc Cheatham, but also the translucent quality of early Lester Young. Chris Dawson makes his hard work look easy, spinning airy phrases out as he goes — glistening arpeggios bolster and urge on the soloist, the band — without playing one superfluous note.
Next to these three polished stylists, we have the untrammeled man of jazz, the master of grease and fuzz, Clint Baker, reminding us that if it ain’t gutbucket, it ain’t worth playing. Clint dosen’t demand the spotlight and is soft-spoken, but is a serious purveyor of darker impulses on his horn.
That rhythm section? Sweetly propulsive! Katie Cavera knows her harmony and pushes everyone forward in the most affecting way — a Freddie Green with a West Coast bite (as if Mr. Green had eaten many more ripe avocados in his day). Marty Eggers plays his bass the old-fashioned way, the Wellman Braud way, without being overpowering or raucous. And Hal Smith just shines back there at his drum kit: offering the exactly right sound, push, or rhythmic seasoning for this or any other band.
As an extra bonus: no terribly hackneyed “Dixieland” tunes — no muskrats rambling . . . just melodic favorites, some less-played, most at nice rocking tempos.
They started with a song whose title well represents this band’s feeling — a Twenties pop song not often recorded by jazz players, although Louis and the All-Stars did it more than once in 1948 — TOGETHER (an apt description of this band’s overall conception):
SPAIN (by Isham Jones) was ornamented with the Irving Fazola introduction — a lovely touch — and was taken at a sweet tempo (rather than a near-run):
WANG WANG BLUES might have called forth memories of the earliest Paul Whiteman Orchestra . . . . but the easy tempo here evoked the Benny Goodman Sextet of 1945 where the front line was BG and the much-missed Atlanta stalwart, trombonist Lou McGarity (ain’t nobody played like him yet!):
(WHAT CAN I SAY, DEAR?) AFTER I SAY I’M SORRY is not only a song with two identities; it also lends itself to varied approaches and tempi. Here Tim counts it off as if we really should know the emotional intent — a deep apology — and the band catches the sweet rueful mood immediately — after Chris, a soulful fellow, points the way:
Chris Dawson deserves more attention — he is such a fine (although understated) player that I think many people haven’t given his quiet swinging playing the applause it deserves. Listen to what he and the rhythm section do to and for Berlin’s PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ:
They called her frivolous Sal. Enough said — but MY GAL SAL commemorates this lively young woman:
There are two songs called ONCE IN A WHILE associated with Louis Armstrong. One, a Hot Five display piece; the other, a lovely pop ballad that Louis played and sang with a small group for Decca in 1938 — that’s the one Tim and friends chose here:
Finally, the Louis-Hoagy Carmichael connection (such a fertile partnership over the years) gets its moment with JUBILEE:
Mister Gloom won’t be about / Music always knocks him out — even before 10 AM! And lyricism at this level makes Mister Gloom pack up and go somewhere else forever.
Boyce Brown (1910-1959) is a tantalizing, elusive figure. Although he played hot jazz with the great Chicagoans, he was not one of them — hard-living and hard-drinking. The picture above shows him in 1956, surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Eddie Condon, and George Wettling, at his final recording session.
Scott Yanow calls Boyce “eccentric,” “outlandish,” “an erratic individual,” although those characterizations sound ungenerous. I think of the famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s THE FAMILY REUNION, “In a world of fugitives, it is those that turn away that appear to run away.”
In the case of Boyce Brown, it is difficult to know if he chose to turn away from the world of musicians and gigs for the world of the spirit, or if the earthly world scorned him. All we know are the facts of his short life. He became a professional musician at 17 and recorded with some of the greatest Hot players — but his path was an unusual one outside the clubs and recording studios.
Boyce loved marijuana and what it could do, but it didn’t contribute to his death. He didn’t die of tuberculosis or freeze on a Harlem doorstep, but prejudice and sorrow seem to have shortened his life. He is certainly underrated and not well-known or well-remembered. I agree with Jim Denham (of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST) who thinks that Boyce should be both remembered and celebrated. And although I’ve never met Jeff Crompton (of HELLO THERE, UNIVERSE) I and other jazz fans are indebted to him for his generosities. (You can find the blogs written by Jim and Jeff on my blogroll.)
What facts I have collected seem at first an assortment of weird personality traits, but viewed lovingly, they are the markings of a rare bird.
Boyce was someone who “saw” musical notes as colors. He nearly died at birth; the midwife saved him by reshaping his unformed skull. His parents encouraged him to take up the saxophone in hopes that it would strengthen his weak chest. When he played, he had a habit of stretching his neck out like a bird — causing him to be rejected at an audition for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.
Eddie Condon said Boyce was “a slow reader,” Condon-speak for partial blindness. Boyce lived with his mother, wrote poetry, listened to Delius. Condon’s SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ contains Boyce’s whimsical poem about ROYAL-T (slang for the best marijuana), hilarious and tenderly decorated by Boyce himself — a Hot illuminated manuscript.
He named his alto saxophone Agnes, and thought deeply about her personality and moods; if a recording disappointed him, he blamed himself for not being in harmony with his instrument. All of this might seem freakish on first perusal, but other musicians have spoken of their synesthesia (Marian McPartland, whom no one considers an eccentric, told Whitney Balliett that the key of D was daffodil yellow), and Ben Webster, hardly an introvert, called his saxophone Betsy or Ol’ Betsy.
But before we get caught up in the debris of habit and personal history, let us — as Al Smith used to say — look at the record. Or listen. Two, in fact, from 1939: CHINA BOY and JAZZ ME BLUES:
Boyce sounds like himself. Those rolling, tumbling figures are the playing of a man on a mission, someone with a message for us in the eight or sixteen bars allotted him.
The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing his volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker. I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat. More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis and Frank Teschemacher. Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”
(Boyce’s descendants in this century might be Michael McQuaid and John “Butch” Smith — players who know that the alto saxophone needs a great deal of punch to keep it from sounding like a polite older relative.)
Here is a link to Jeff Crompton’s excellent, generous survey of Boyce’s life — where he shares with us a rare disc, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, where Boyce and Wild Bill Davison are the front line:
The Boyce Brown discography is brief — his recordings could fit on three compact discs — but it is choice. His better-known associates surely valued the reticent altoist.
I apologize for the onslaught of data, but in trying to explain something about Boyce Brown, the details of his recording sessions are valuable when we have so little else. As far as I can tell, no one interviewed him during his playing career, and the press coverage he received at the end of his life emphasized (however gently) his uniqueness: the lady preacher with an alto saxophone.
Boyce was first recorded as a member of a working band, Paul Mares And His Friars Society Orchestra (a John Hammond idea?) : Paul Mares (tp) Santo Pecora (tb) Omer Simeon (cl) Boyce Brown (as) Jess Stacy (p) Marvin Saxbe (g) Pat Pattison (b) George Wettling (d). One session, the results unissued in the 78 era, took place on January 7, 1935. (The music came out on Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society # 6, twenty years or so after Boyce’s death.) The same four songs were re-recorded on January 26, and were issued on two OKeh 78s that I imagine were quite hard to find even in 1935: NAGASAKI, REINCARNATION, MAPLE LEAF RAG, THE LAND OF DREAMS (the last based on BASIN STREET BLUES). These four (and a MAPLE LEAF RAG from the first date) have been issued on the 2-CD Retrieval set of the complete New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Theoretically all eight titles have been issued on “Chicago 1935,” a CD on the Gannet label, but I’ve never seen it. REINCARNATION, possibly a composition of Boyce’s, was named for one of his spiritual beliefs — unusual but not unknown in 1935 Chicago.
On March 11, 1935, Boyce returned to the studios with Charles LaVere And His Chicagoans : Johnny Mendell, Marty Marsala (tp) Jabbo Smith (tp,vcl) Preston Jackson (tb) Joe Marsala (cl,ts-1) Boyce Brown (as) Bud Taylor (ts-2) Charles LaVere (p,vcl) Joe Young (g) Leonard Bibbs (b) Zutty Singleton (d) The Chicagoans (vcl) for BOOGABOO BLUES and UBANGI MAN, neither title issued on 78. On April 5, the LaVere band tried again, without Jabbo Smith; Joe Masek (ts) Israel Crosby (b) replaced Bud Taylor, Leonard Bibbs. They recorded I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU, SMILES, ALL TOO WELL, and BOOGABOO BLUES. Again the sides were not released on 78, but several lp issues exist — one of the strangest issues a later dub (a copy given to me by Ralph O’Callaghan) — a 16 rpm 7″ record labeled “Black Diamond.” On the other side was a 1933 Reuben Reeves session.
Four years later, on October 11, 1939, Boyce was recorded again, and these sides had wider distribution; he was a member of Jimmy MacPartland’s band: Jimmy McPartland (cnt) Bud Jacobson (cl) Boyce (as) Floyd Bean (p) Dick McPartland (g) Jim Lannigan (b) Hank Isaacs (d). These sides have been made possible by the Friend of Jazz George Avakian and Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft and George Avakian, and they appeared in the Decca CHICAGO JAZZ album:JAZZ ME BLUES, CHINA BOY, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, and SUGAR.
Hank O’Neal tells me that Boyce joined in on the private sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house in the late Thirties, and that one track from these sessions was issued on a 1965 collection called MORE INFORMAL SESSIONS AT SQUIRREL’s, a recording worth searching for. Hank also recalls that Squirrel, thirty years later, characterized Boyce as gifted but troubled.
Boyce’s most hard-to-find session (also in Chicago, February 12, 1940) was as a member of THE COLLECTOR’S ITEM CATS, which featured the then also little-known Wild Bill Davison, cornet; Boyce; Mel Henke (a pianist who gained later fame on the West Coast); Walter Ross on bass; Joe Kahn on drums. Two sides, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, came out on Collector’s Item 102: a 78 issue — shared with us by Jeff Crompton.
Boyce also worked in the “ideal” band co-led by cornetist Pete Daily and pianist-composer Frank Melrose. A good deal of their privately recorded music has been released on the Delmark CD BLUESIANA. (The thought of Boyce and Kansas City Frank on gigs — creative individuals who did not fit the stereotypical idea of the hard-drinking Chicago jazz musician — is intriguing, and it makes me regret, not for the first time, that few fans at that time carried stenographer’s notebooks to interview these men.)
The late Bob Thiele spent some time in Chicago (where he recorded a band with clarinetist Bud Jacobson and Frank Melrose, something to bless Thiele for). An unissued 1945 session for Bud Jacobson and His Hot Club Orchestra includes Bill Stapleton (cnt) Jacobson (cl,ts) Boyce (as) Mel Grant (p) Dick McPartland (g) Pat Pattison (b) Lew Finnerty (d), playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE, WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING, INDIANA, and HOT CLUB BLUES. Does anyone know who or where the Signature masters are held, and have any of my readers ever heard this music?
Also in 1945, the jazz scholar / collector / recordist John Steiner held a series of concerts at the Uptown Playhouse Theater in Chicago. His Jimmy Noone Memorial Concert (in August) featured Darnell Howard (clarinet), Boyce, Baby Dodds (drums), Gideon Honoré (piano), Jack Goss (guitar), Tut Soper (second piano), and Pat Pattison (bass). On another occasion, Steiner sponsored a “jamboree” resulting in forty-five minutes of recordings of Lee Collins, Boyce, Darnell Howard, Volly DeFaut, pianists Gideon Honoré, Tut Soper, Jack Gardner, Mel Henke, and Chet Roble, among others. and drummer Jim Barnes were among the contributors. But in April 1946, a fire destroyed the Playhouse, and Steiner lost 150 unissued sides by Jack Gardner and groups, 20 sides by groups led by Boyce, a few by Frank Melrose, and location recordings by Honoré, Zinky Cohn, Punch Miller, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Jimmy Yancey. (A sorrowing moment of silence is appropriate here.) This information comes from the fascinating website devoted to S D (Steiner-Davis) Records: http://www.hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/sd.html.
Boyce’s last session was a decade later. His absence from the recording studios might have been in part the result of changing fashions in music; what had been sought-after Hot Jazz was soon pushed aside with the popularity of bop, but I imagine that Boyce became more reclusive. All this is supposition, but he seems to have been unfitted with the survival skills jazz musicians require: call up a club owner, create an opportunity to record. One thinks of the nearly-blind Art Tatum and the completely blind George Shearing and Jeff Healey, but they might have been recognized as stronger personalities with more audaciously commanding technique than Boyce’s subtle ways.
Boyce seems always to have been contemplating the eternal rather than the quotidian, and he was baptized a Catholic in 1952. The LIFE magazine story notes that a club owner “objected to” Boyce’s habit of for blessing himself before beginning to play. I can only imagine that scene, and JAZZ LIVES readers might write the dialogue — the club owner astounded and irate, Boyce gently explaining that this was what he did before he played. I have written of other musicians (Frank Newton as my prime example) who loved the music without reservation but recoiled from the business of music, and Boyce seems to be one of that tender breed. Putting his beliefs into action, Boyce entered the Servite monastery as a friar in 1953 — devoting himself to chastity, poverty, and the contemplation of spiritual ideals and sorrows.
When Boyce went into a New York recording studio on April 2-3, 1956, he was no longer “Boyce Brown” but “Brother Matthew,” a monk, someone who wanted his royalties from the sale of the recording to go to missions in Africa. The session was the idea of a record company executive, and certainly it had journalistic potential as good copy in that era of “comeback” stories, reuniting a monk who still could play Hot with his internationally famous colleagues. Boyce was showcased with the Eddie Condon band of the time, and a LIFE photograph shows him gingerly accepting a drink from Wild Bill Davison, peering tentatively into the glass — whether from blindness or caution, one cannot say.
Since Condon was under contract to Columbia Records (thanks again to Avakian) he may not have played guitar on the sessions — guitar credit goes to Paul Smith, Eddie’s brother-in-law, but Condon “conducted,” which is what he did so well. This group was Wild Bill Davison (cnt) Cutty Cutshall (tb) Pee Wee Russell (cl) Boyce (as) Ernie Caceres (bar) Gene Schroeder (p) Bob Casey (b) George Wettling (d) Eddie Condon (cond), and they recorded OUT OF NOWHERE, I NEVER KNEW, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, MY BLUE HEAVEN, LINGER AWHILE, BLUES FOR BOYCE, SISTER KATE, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN.
Those who collect Fifties television kinescopes may have seen Boyce on the Garry Moore Show (Moore loved hot jazz) or I’VE GOT A SECRET. I can’t envision Brother Matthew being comfortable on show as a genial oddity — the jazz-musician-monk — but perhaps he did it because it would bring good publicity and contributions to the Order.
Note: the link above opens most easily if one is willing to copy it whole and paste it into a new browser; then you will be able to peruse 1953 weekly pictorial journalism, including ads for durable house paint and Blue Cross hospital insurance.
After the session, Boyce went back into the monastery to devote himself to things of the spirit; pictures show him playing music with the other monks and making sandwiches in the kitchen. He remained there until his death three years later. Jim Denham believes that the Servites wouldn’t give Boyce final confirmation as a priest and he died of a heart attack shortly after that bitter disappointment in the monastery outside Granville, Wisconsin.
George Avakian told the late Richard M. Sudhalter in Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, “Looking back, I think he’s just as interesting now as I thought he was then. The things he did, people are doing that kind of thing much more now. But at that time nobody was: the element of surprise was a big factor. People hearing him for the first time were just flabbergasted. I know I was. Where did this guy get this odd way of playing? Where did it come from? I guess there was a rather mysterious quality in all that. Part of what makes it so interesting.”
Interesting, but tragic as well. In a society that prides itself on cherishing the appearance of individualism, it is sad that Boyce Brown — surely an individualist with something beautiful on his mind — became marginalized as freakish, not only because he looked different, but because of his piety. And although the jazz world prides itself on music and behaviors that go against the grain; it didn’t always do so effectively in this instance. Thoreau’s different drummer didn’t get the gig.
But perhaps Boyce was fortunate that he had a monastery to retreat to, and spiritual things to which he could devote himself. I think ruefully that had he been born fifty years later, he might have borne the weight of the popular-psychological tags we now take for granted. Would we have classified him as a depressive, as differently abled, as someone suffering from social phobia, someone exhibiting Asperger’s, a victim of low self-esteem? Birdlike and half-blind, he seems to me a creative spirit who turned away from this coarse world of fleshly realities to contemplate larger things, someone who wanted to do good for those who could not help themselves.
This post would not have been possible without the information from and gracious help of Jim Denham, Jeff Crompton, Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, Tom Kelly, Hank O’Neal, Hal Smith, David J. Weiner, and Aunt Ida Melrose. I have remembered (perhaps hazily) information I read long ago in Dave Dexter, Jr.’s THE JAZZ STORY, and a February 1999 profile in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG, whose author I cannot trace. If any JAZZ LIVES readers have more information or links to people who knew or knew of Boyce, I would be delighted to read their comments or to incorporate them into a future post. Boyce Brown deserves more than partial oblivion.
As a young jazz fan, I acquired as many records as I could by musicians and singers I admired. (There was an Earl Hines phase, a Tatum infatuation, a Ben Webster obsession among many.) The impulse is still there, but economics, space, and selectivity have tempered it somewhat. I’ve written elsewhere about Wanting and Having and Enjoying, and those states of being are in precarious balance.
But these philosophical considerations don’t stop me from being excited at the thought of visiting Hudson, New York, once again — and my favorite antique store, “Carousel,” on Warren Street.
Carousel was once a “National Shoe Store,” as it says on the floor in the entrance way, and it specializes in a variety of intriguing goods — furniture, books, planters, metalwork . . . but in the very back of the store, past the cash register most often supervised by the exceedingly pleasant Dan, is a galaxy of records. I skip the 45s and go to the stacks of 10″ 78s, the browsers full of 12″ lps and one devoted solely to 10″ lps (where one might find THE DINAH SHORE TV SHOW and BRAD GOWANS’ NEW YORK NINE).
Here’s what I found — and purchased — one day last week.
Richard M. Jones was a pianist and composer who accompanied blues singers, led a few dates in the Twenties . . . and this one in 1944. The rarity of this 10″ French Vogue vinyl reissue is evident. The original tracks (four by Jones, two by the ebullient trumpeter Punch Miller) were recorded in Chicago for the Session label — 12″ 78s — with a band including the under-recorded Bob Shoffner, wonderfully boisterous trombonist Preston Jackson, and the heroic Baby Dodds. I’d seen these sides listed in discographies for years, and the Sessions appeared on a vinyl issue on the Gannet label (with alternate takes!) but I’ve never heard them . . . and any version of NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES is all right with me. I haven’t heard the music yet, but have high hopes.
Decca and Brunswick collected four-tune recording sessions as GEMS OF JAZZ and the more pugnacious BATTLE OF JAZZ. Zutty didn’t record many times as a leader, and this is one of the rarer sessions: 1936, I think, with hot Chicagoans who didn’t reach great fame. I had these four sides (once upon a time) on sunburst Deccas . . . gone now, so I anticipate hot music here.
(The shadow above speaks to the haste of JAZZ LIVES’ official photographer.)
The four sides above have often been reissued, although the most recent Tatum Decca CD split them between Tatum and Big Joe Turner. No matter: they are imperishable, not only for Big Joe, in pearly form, but for the pairing of Joe Thomas and Ed Hall, saints and scholars.
Now for two rare 78s: their music reissued on European vinyl and CD, but how often do the original discs surface?
Whoever Herman was, he had good taste. The WAX label was the brainchild of solid reliable string bassist Al Hall in 1946-7: its output might have been twenty sides (including a piano recital by Jimmy Jones) using the best musicians one could find in New York or the world. Herman bought the first issue!
That quintet wasn’t made up of stars — except for Ben — but they were all splendid creative improvisers.
Is the next 78 more rare? It might be . . .
I believe these 78s were made especially for purchase at the club — and Eddie Condon might have been under exclusive contract with Decca at the time (on other sides, I recall the guitarist as being the much more elusive Fred Sharp). I recently looked up Joe Grauso in John Chilton’s WHO’S WHO IN JAZZ and was saddened to find that he had died in 1952, which is why we have so little of him aside from the Commodores and the Town Hall Concert broadcasts.
I love the composer credit. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Here’s a band of young fellows — recorded in January 2011 at the VU Bar in Newhall, California — called CAPTAIN JEFFREY AND HIS MUSICAL CHUMBUCKETS*. The lead guitarist, Patrick Morrison, is a deep Teddy Bunn devotee, and it shows. His colleagues are Captain Jeffrey (Jeffrey Moran), vocals, steel guitar; Carlos Reynoso, drums; Eli Hathaway, rhythm guitar; Marquis Howell, string bass. Here they pay tribute to and reinvent the late-Thirties recording of WILD MAN BLUES by Johnny Dodds and his Chicago Boys:
P.S. *Patrick says thateveryone hates the band’s name. But I say they swing!