Tag Archives: Dick Cavett

EVERYBODY LOVES BENNY

That was the general mood of today’s hour-long conversation sponsored by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  “Memories of You,” which was a three-way chat among Martin E. Segal (now ninety-three and a Lincoln Center luminary, emeritus) and Phoebe Jacobs (now ninety, and a jazz / show business beacon) — moderated by George Boziwick.  Because both of the participants had known Benny Goodman (“Mr. Goodman” to Ms. Jacobs) as a friend and as a non-musical employer, there were no stories about the King of Swing being a difficult boss or a perfectionistic bandleader.  So we heard about Benny the pioneer against racism, the salmon-fisherman and sports enthusiast, the generous man who paid Teddy Wilson’s doctor bills and sent money to Wilson’s wife for a year after Teddy’s death, the fond parent (daughters Sophia and Benjie were in the audience, as was a youthful Goodman grandson, as was Mercedes Ellington), loving husband, a son devoted to his parents, a thoughtful brother. 

It was as if the afternoon had been arranged to get rid of those wicked stories about Benny’s inability to deal with people — especially his sidemen and women — decently.  And his famous obliviousness was only touched on once, in Phoebe’s story about Goodman’s having his fly open on the Dick Cavett Show.

But several things rescued the afternoon from amiable blandness.  One was watching Segal and Jacobs, people who won’t see ninety again, sharp, witty, and totally in command of their material and of the audience.  Enthusiastic, too, as Lorna Sass’s portrait of Phoebe in full flight proves:

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And Martin Segal, sly rather than ebullient, kept on reminding me of someone.  This photo doesn’t entirely capture the resemblance, but it dawned on me that Segal looked a good deal like a shorter version of his friend Benny:

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Finally, two other highlights — one before the conversation, one after.  When the Beloved and I sat down, an elegantly dressed woman in a dark paisley jacket chose to sit next to us and said that she had met Goodman at a Segal party (she had been Segal’s right-hand woman when he created the Film Society of Lincoln Center).  Sallie Blumenthal, for that is her name, had many charming stories — most of them about the actor Louis Calhern, a generous and gracious man.  We never got back to her Goodman story, but now I know that Calhern was a sweet man who remembered everyone he had ever met. 

After the conversation, we went to the third floor of the library to look at their Goodman memorabilia — a quite impressive collection of things that were almost all new to me: a Gil Evans chart for the song DELIA’S GONE, another, earlier chart with Mel Powell’s name penciled in; photos that I hadn’t seen — all curated by a quietly industrious young librarian whose first name is Jonathan (I apologize for not getting his full name). 

A pleasant afternoon, with all the usual (occasionally venomous and hilarious) Goodman gossip put to rest for a change.  Next week, slightly later in the afternoon, Goodman’s musical legacy — as opposed to his social one — will be celebrated and considered by a sextet of musicians who are unfamiliar to me.  But I’m sure they will swing: Goodman’s music is a powerful inspiration!

Photographs copyright 2009 by Lorna Sass.  All rights reserved. 

WILLIE THE LION-HEARTED

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When I first discovered Stride piano, now about forty years ago, Willie “The Lion” Smith was a paradox – at once ubiquitous and inaccessible.  I bought a copy of his two-disc “Memoirs” in a now vanished Greenwich Village record store, and his autobiography was on the shelves of my local library.  Even better, he appeared twice on network television.  Once, he was Dick Cavett’s guest, turning Cavett speechless in response to the Lion’s inquiry if he spoke Yiddish.  That avenue having proven a dead end, the Lion then launched into a nearly violent rendition of what may have been “Here Comes the Band.”

The other occasion was one of those Sunday morning or afternoon documentaries purporting to explain jazz to the masses.  Whether the masses were attentive to this I don’t know, but they were offered one of the most unusual collections of idiosyncratic New York veterans imaginable: Wild Bill Davison, Tyree Glenn, Tony Parenti, Milt Hinton, Buzzy Drootin, and the Lion.

In retrospect, it does seem that Giants Walked the Earth in 1971.  But I arrived on the scene too late to see the Lion in person: his death in 1973 left Eubie Blake as official representative of the Good Old Days (able to sit down at the piano) .

Listeners only superficially acquainted with jazz of the great period might think it characterized primarily by rhythm, its unflagging beat taking precedence, its dynamic range Loud, its characteristic tempo Fast.  But the Lion’s music is a charming antidote, suggesting a pastoral world.  His rhythmic engines are never still, but both his melodies and his decorative embellishments are unusually elegant: no one sounds like him!  Consider the pensive delicacy of the opening strain of “Fading Star.”  Played at a slower tempo by a small string ensemble, it would fit neatly into a chamber-music concert.  The strains that begin “Rippling Waters,” although taken briskly, are ornate and lovely.  The compositions are marked by echoes of ragtime and turn-of-the-century parlor piano: multiple strains, tempo and volume changes, varied bass lines, dense interplay between both hands.  But this is not to suggest that he was Debussy with a cigar – “Rippling Waters” becomes a stomping test piece to send other pianists back to their keyboards in gloom. And for those who rate the Lion the least of the great Stride triumvirate of Johnson and Waller, I direct them to “Sneakaway,” which combines power, delicacy, and inventiveness.

The Lion recorded many times over a long career, and new performances are emerging on compact disc. He deserves our reverent attention.  I am delighted to find television performances by the Lion on YouTube: in particular, his performance on the BBC’s “Jazz 625” program from 1966, hosted by the late Humphrey Lyttelton.  Here’s the final portion, where the Lion faces a wildly enthusiastic audience and concludes with a gently rocking version of his own “Relaxin’,” memorably.

A CORRECTION

correctionIn reference to NO JAM TODAY (AT SYMPHONY SPACE):

A New York City jazz musician whose opinion I respect gently reminded me that even in these days of fifty-dollar gigs, putting together my imagined jazz group for a Symphony Space gig would require more than five hundred dollars so that the players I so esteem would not be underpaid.  He is correct of course, just one more reason for my not being an impresario.  No doubt I had caught a touch of the prevailing minginess in my calculations.

I had just wanted to make the point that the sum the Space might be paying one of their high-powered “name” guests to moderate an evening’s presentation (could this be Mr. Cavett?) would be enough to hire a wondrous jazz cornucopia for a string of concerts celebrating 1939  and have funds left over for cookies at the intermission.  Fresh cookies, too — not ones baked seventy years ago.  But I digress.

NO JAM TODAY (AT SYMPHONY SPACE)

symphony-spaceI opened the January 26, 2009, issue of The New Yorker to the advertisement that sits contentedly between pages 32 and 33.  It describes, in brief, events taking place throughout February at Symphony Space in their month-long “1939 Project: American Arts At A Turning Point.”  The full schedule is available at www.symphonyspace.org/1939. On this page, one can see programs devoted to 1939 cinema, popular and classical music, fiction, “American culture in context,” “the pulse of 1939,” and more.  Kirk Nurock, Marion Cowings, Eisa Davis, Sara Laimon, Robin Aleman, Dawn Clement, Jody Sandhaus and others will play and sing.  Famous names — E.L. Doctorow, Robert Dallek, Dick Cavett, and Leon Botstein — will speak, moderate, and direct.  And there’s more.

But I have to say that before I saw this advertisement, I had heard intriguing rumblings about these programs: the names of Ellington and Basie had been invoked as artists central to the culture of 1939.

But no Ellington or Basie did I see on this program.  I looked closer, and found something . . . .

“JITTERBUG DANCE JAM

FEB 7 AT 7 PM    FREE

Kick up your heels to the sounds of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and other big band favorites at this community dance-along on the stage of the Peter Sharp Theatre.”

Forgive me if I seem ungrateful.  I know that pop music of the Swing Era was transmitted for free — recordings and live broadcasts — on radio coast-to-coast in 1939, so I suppose this evening is someone’s idea of “Juke Box Saturday Night.”  But to me it seems cheap and inadequate.  The absence of live 1939-tinged jazz on such a program is annoying, to put it politely. I mean no disrespect to the singers and musicians Symphony Space has already hired and advertised; I am sure that they will sing and play with abandon and ambition.  But . . . .

Were the project directors at Symphony Space unaware that 1939 was a watershed year in live jazz?  Charlie Christian joined the Benny Goodman band; Jimmy Blanton joined Ellington; Lester Young was electrifying listeners in the Basie reed section.  Eddie Condon was creating jam sessions at the Friday Club; Alistair Cooke was announcing other sessions for the BBC; a young Charlie Parker was finding his wings; Dizzy Gillespie was already surprising musicians; Art Tatum already had intimidated everyone; Coleman Hawkins returned from Europe and recorded “Body and Soul”; Louis Armstrong was at one of his many artistic peaks.  An underfed singer from Jersey named Sinatra made his first recordings.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

I know, of course, that such projects are broad in scope and often narrow in budget.  But I have seen jazz concerts put on by the Sidney Bechet Society at this very Symphony Space, so I would guess that such an event was within the realm of possibility. And, to loosely paraphrase Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL, “I saw the best musicians of my generation playing for the tip jar, playing fifty-dollar gigs all over town.” I’m no impresario, but if you gave me a five-hundred dollar budget, I could put on the finest impromptu 1939 jam session you’d ever seen or heard.  (No music stands, by the way.)  I could think of twenty-five imensely talented and under-utilized instrumentalists and singers, each of whom could embody the creative pulse of 1939 in sixteen bars.  But they’re not on the program.

Did the famous names on the program eat up all the funds?  Did the producers decide that it was important to have live classical music and live singers, but assume that jazz could be taken care of by someone with a well-filled iPod?  I don’t know.

Once again, live jazz has the door shut in its face.  And, ironically, jazz of this era is often dismissed as “no longer representative of American culture,” the outdated music of white-haired folks deep in nostalgia.  Surely some place could have been found for it during a month-long project.

How very disappointing.