Tag Archives: Dick Sudhalter

WHO WAS MIKE DURSO AND WHERE DID HE GO?

I would guess that hot jazz, especially the Chicagoan variety, would have upset Hercule Poirot’s delicate stomach, but we could use his help on this matter.  This posting owes its existence to my new jazz-friend (although I’ve read his work for a long time), Larry Kart of Chicago.  I’ll let Larry start us off:

You may be way ahead of me here (at least I hope you are), but listening to the radio Saturday, I heard this 1927 track “The New Twister” by The Wolverines (Bix’s old band under the leadership of pianist Dick Voynow, with Jimmy McPartland taking Bix’s place). The music has IMO a proto-Chicagoans feel (the first McKenzie-Condon sides were shortly to be made). Drummer Vic Moore has a nice a “Chicago shuffle” feel going, 17-year-old reedman Maurice Bercov, says Dick Sudhalter in “Lost Chords,” had “heard Johnny Dodds and the rest on the South Side but worshipped Frank Teschmacher, emulating his tone, attack, off-center figures … he wound up recording two months before his idol [did] .”

But who the heck was trombonist Mike Durso, who takes the IMO impressively fluid solo here?

Thanks to “Atticus Jazz” for the lovely transfer of this rare 78, as always:

The personnel of this band is listed as Dick Voynow, piano; director; Jimmy McPartland, cornet; Mike Durso, trombone; Maurie Bercov, clarinet, alto saxophone; unknown guitar; Basil Dupre, sb / Vic Moore, d. Chicago, October 12, 1927.

Back to Larry:

By contrast, here is THE NEW TWISTER played by Miff Mole and the Molers (with Red Nichols, et al.) from the same year. Mole’s trombone work here is not without its charms, but in terms of swing and continuity, it’s day and night, no?

To complicate matters (or to add more evidence) here is the reverse side of that disc, SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:

Larry continues:

The guitarist on the Wolverines track is Dick McPartland, Jimmy’s brother. Bercov’s contemporary, pianist Tut Soper, described him as an “extremely galling, sarcastic and difficult man.”

Looking for more on Durso, I came across this “moderne” 1928 piece by trumpeter Donald Lindley, “Sliding Around,” on which Durso may be a sideman. (There’s no trombone solo though.) Jazz it’s not, though it’s certainly aware of jazz — those oblique references to “Royal Garden Blues.” That’s Lindley , b. 1899, in the cap [the YouTube portrait]:

The beautiful video is by our friend Enrico Borsetti, another one of my benefactors, and the Lindley side eerily prefigures the Alec Wilder Octet.

Finally, here is LIMEHOUSE BLUES by “The Wolverine Orchestra” which might have Durso audible in solo and ensemble:

After Larry had asked me about Durso, and I had to confess that I’d barely registered his name or these recordings, and I had no information to offer (he’d stumped the band), I went back to the discography and was pleased to find that Durso had a history, 1923-28 and then 1939: recording for Gennett under the band name “Bailey’s Lucky Seven” which had in its collective personnel Jules Levy, Jr., Jimmy Lytell, Red Nichols, Frank Signorelli, Hymie Farberman; then Sam Lanin, with Vic Berton, Merle Johnson, Joe Tarto, John Cali, Tony Colucci, Ray Lodwig; sessions with the Arkansas / Arkansaw Travelers, a Nichols group where the trombonist may be Mole or Durso.  That takes him from 1923-25; he then records with Ray Miller, with Volly DeFaut.  All of this takes him to 1926, and all of it is (if correctly annotated) recorded in New York.  The Wolverines sides above are in 1927, in Chicago, as a re 1928 sides with the larger Wolverines unit, Donald Lindley, and Paul Ash (a “theatre orchestra,” Larry says).

Then, a gap of a decade, and Durso, in 1939, is part of the Vincent Lopez Orchestra, recording for Bluebird.  Then silence.

I realize that discographies are not infallible research documents, and that Durso might have made dozens of sides that a jazz discography would not notate, so I am sure this listing is incomplete and thus not entirely accurate.  But, to paraphrase Lesley Gore, I think, it’s my blog and I’ll surmise if I want to.  I am going to guess that Durso, probably born around 1900 or slightly earlier, was one of those musicians who could read a tune off a stock arrangement, blend with another trombone in a section, improvise a harmony part, knew his chords, and could — as you hear above — play a very forward-looking solo given the chance. Remember that THE NEW TWISTER came out in 1927.  Who were the trombonists of note?  Ory, Brunis, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Harrison, Charlie Green, Benny Morton, Mole, perhaps Charlie Butterfield.  Teagarden may or may not have impressed everyone yet.  (I am sure I have left out a few names.) Durso had technique but wasn’t in love with it, and his playing is lightly swinging and mobile; his solos make logical sense, with no cliches.

So between 1923 and 1928 or so he is what we might call “a studio man,” who obviously is known for his improvising ability, otherwise he would not have been in the studio with McPartland.  (Scott Black!  Did Dugald ever mention Mike Durso?)  More speculation follows.  I can safely assume that pre-Crash, Durso might have made a living as an improvising musician, but at some point the safer employment of sweeter big bands might have called to him.  Did he have a family to support?  Did he perhaps appreciate a regular paycheck playing in theatres and dancehalls as opposed to playing in speakeasies?  I can’t say, having even less that speculation to go on.  Did he die after 1939, or do some war work and decide that getting home after 5 PM with a lunch pail was easier than being a hot man?

The trail goes cold here.  Perhaps some readers can assist us here.  I know that you know, to quote Jimmie Noone.  And if no one can, at least we have the collective pleasure of having heard Mike Durso on THE NEW TWISTER. Thanks in the present tense to Larry Kart; thanks in advance to those of you who will flood the comments section with information.

May your happiness increase!

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“THAT’S ‘COOPS,’ DEAR CHAP.”

The late clarinetist Alan Cooper deserves to be better-remembered.  Here he is in 1991 (courtesy of John Jamie Evans, who is not only the pianist in the photograph but also maintains the site devoted to Cooper and contemporaries, Alan Cooper Remembered.

cooper-and-evans-1991

To begin, here is Cooper’s obituary in The Guardian, by the fine jazz writer and scholar Peter Vacher:

The early 1960s was the era of the curious and brief British “trad jazz” boom. In those years the Temperance Seven, who played a version of 1920s white American dance music, achieved such success that in 1961 they had a British No 1 hit, You’re Driving Me Crazy, produced by George Martin in his pre-Beatles days. The follow-up, Pasadena. made No 4, and there were two other top 30 hits.

The clarinettist Alan Cooper, who has died of cancer aged 76, was a founder member of the group in 1957. Usually a nine-piece, and invariably billed as “one over the eight”, the Temps wore Edwardian clothes, played bizarre instruments, and projected vocals through a megaphone. Most of the band could play a variety of instruments, and Cooper – who arranged Pasadena – doubled on clarinet, bass-clarinet, soprano saxophone and the obscure phonofiddle. The band appeared on television shows such as ITV’s Thank Your Lucky Stars and a special featuring Peter Sellers – with whom they recorded. Cooper’s quirky playing style and wheezy sound were exactly right for the band. Even so, he left in 1962 after “internal dissensions”.

Born in Leeds, he fell in with traditional jazz at the city’s college of art, where aspiring guitarist Diz Disley was a fellow student. They played together in the college jazz band, the Vernon Street Ramblers, and were founder members of the Yorkshire Jazz Band, with which Cooper turned professional, recording in London in 1949.

After national service as a flying officer, Cooper moved to London in the mid-1950s. Initially a Royal College of Art student, he became a part-time lecturer at St Martin’s School of Art and at Chelsea Art School. He also performed in a quartet with bassist Bernie Cash and drummer Lennie Hastings, and recorded in 1958 with trombonist Graham Stewart’s Seven.

After the Temperance Seven, Cooper freelanced as a musician and lecturer, deputising in the Alex Welsh and Freddy Randall bands, and also appeared regularly with the Anglo-American Alliance alongside his old Temps bandmate John RT Davies (obituary, May 29 2004) and sundry Americans then resident in London, notably cornettist/journalist Dick Sudhalter. This informal outfit were the ideal backing band for the veteran blues singer Eva Taylor and former Paul Whiteman trombonist Bill Rank when they performed and recorded in London in the 1960s.

It was during this time that Cooper created his monument to Edwardian design and style with his three-storey house in Wandsworth. Formerly owned by the water-closet pioneer Thomas Crapper, it was taken over by Cooper on the understanding that it would be left untouched by modernity. He filled it with period artefacts and statues, vintage equipment including gramophones, and old instruments. He also kept open house for musician friends but moved, after a series of burglaries, to a tower in Hay on Wye, Herefordshire, which he restored, and where he recreated the Edwardian ambiance of his former home.

Cooper joined the revived New Temperance Seven in 1969 and recorded with them before working regularly with pianist Keith Nichols and touring overseas with drummer Dave Mills. He was also an occasional guest with Bob Kerr and His Whoopee Band, and led his own small groups.

He is survived by his second wife Jenefer and sons Boris and Rollo.

· Alan Swainston Cooper, musician, born February 15 1931; died August 22 2007.

An interlude for music and for a few words of my own.  I first heard Cooper on several recordings featuring Dick Sudhalter and his father, with John R. T. Davies, Henry Francis, and others — issued as “Sudhalter and Son” on the “77” label and (perhaps without a band title) on Davies’ own “Ristic” label.  [The Sudhalter and Sons records disappeared in one or another seismic life-change and I miss them.]

Cooper was impossible to ignore, difficult to describe, more eccentric than Pee Wee or Chace, often sounding as if he had sunk his clarinet into a bowl of soup and was playing the liquefied version.  Gurglings, mutterings, and other sounds made perfect sense, and I remember feeling admiration and hilarity and befuddlement all at once.  Bent Persson, who knows and feels the music deeply, has told me of his appreciation of Cooper’s true originalities.

Here, thanks again to Mr. Evans, is a sample of Coops at work on the closing choruses of BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA:

Mr. Evans has posted seven such rare and delicious effusions here on his YouTube channel, well worth subscribing to.

Effervescent tributes, the first by Ray Smith, from Just Jazz Magazine in November 2007:

Alan always answered the ‘phone, in a rather dignified voice, by stating simply: “Cooper”. He always signed his letters “Coops”. I once made the mistake of introducing him as “My old friend, Alan Cooper”; “I’m not old” came the reply. Indeed, he wasn’t ever old. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up,” was one of his observations during a discussion about young children. We were playing, as a duo, at a school in the Middle East. I don’t quite remember why we were without the other members of the British All-Stars, but we had to play for a half hour to 5-10 year-olds. At the end of the informal concert, the children’s appreciation was loud and long. I glanced at Alan, and I believe I saw tears glistening in his eyes. Warm-hearted wouldn’t begin to describe him, as any one of his many friends will confirm.

Spending time with Coops was always good value, and we had plenty of time on the various Middle-East tours that Dave Mills put together. There are dozens of stories…. Bruce Turner was guesting on one trip. It was like working with Jimmie Noone and Johnny Hodges in the front line. Alan’s feature number was Strangler on the Floor (with apologies to Mr. Acker Bilk). Resplendent in his white dinner jacket, black bow tie, etc., his attire was completed – for said solo outing – by a battered bowler-hat which perched on the top of his head, looking slightly embarrassed by being there.

The routine went something like this: The first chorus – in the key of Eb – was played most beautifully in tribute to the original version. In the second chorus, Alan changed to the key of E Major. However… the rhythm section section stood its ground, and continued on its way – in Eb. The effect of the resulting non-euphonious sounds registered disbelief on the faces of the audience. On completing the second chorus, the clarinet was building-up for the big finish, when Dave Mills – secreted in the audience with a bird call about his person – started twittering on that very instrument. Alan – head cocked to one side – twittered back. This went on for some time; most of the audience had realized by this time that it was a spoof. Cooper remained dignified, as always, even after the big-finish – or rather “the business” to quote a Cooperism.

Unfortunately, on one occasion, a member of the audience was a native of Pensford – Acker’s home town – and set about Alan verbally, accusing him of insincerity, amongst other things. He just wouldn’t listen to Alan’s reasoning – or ‘piff-paff’, as he would have described it. Bruce Turner was jumping up and down saying, “Hit him, Dad, hit him” to no-one in particular. I had affected a burnt-cork mustache for that particular evening. Alan pointed at said affectation. “Would you say that was displaying insincerity?” “Well no, I suppose not.” “I rest my case,” and so saying, Alan strode off in the direction of the bar.  The following year, we toured in the summer time, which was stiflingly hot. Alan and I shared hotel room for four or five days in Abu Dhabi. Two single beds, one on either side of the room. The air-conditioning could be adjusted easily enough – there was a small light over the box on the wall – but knowing whether it should be left on… halfway… or turned off completely was a subject for experiment. On the first night, I adjusted the air-conditioning, and on the second night, Alan adjusted it. By the third night – my turn again – I forgot about until in bed with the lights out. I said something profane, and, without turning on the light, made my way noisily to the air-conditioning controls. Not being able to remember what the setting had been the previous night, I said, “Coops… did we have it off last night?” There was a brief silence whilst we both thought about the question. Suddenly, a sort of gurgling noise issued from the direction of Cooper.. and then gales of laughter from us both. We didn’t actually stop laughing for an hour… Well, about twenty-five years really.

The following story illustrates the regard in which Alan was held by his fellow musicians… We visited the Pizza Express one evening to listen to Kenny Davern. Having found a seat not too near the orchestra, Kenny Davern saw Coops, and whilst announcing the next number, said “Ladies and Gentlemen, there is only one clarinetist in England who scares the hell out of me, and he’s here tonight. Sitting over there – Alan Cooper.” Alan raised his hand, and sort of wiggled his fingers in acknowledgement.

The voice at the end of the telephone is no more. Thankfully, Alan’s clarinet playing can be heard on a host of recordings. It’s safe to say that we will always remember him.
God Bless, Coops.

And from Johannesburg.. (by David Mills)

On the 15 February, 1931, Gordon Alan Cooper, Alan Swainston Cooper, The Professor, and Coops – all one person – entered this world on the same day and year as Claire Bloom. Coops, as I remember him, brought with him a wealth of talent – as a painter, sculptor, teacher and musician, became one of the most original Classic jazz clarinetists in the UK and Europe – if not the World! I have very many fond memories of Coops and I list but a few. We formed the British All Stars Band in 1979, primarily to tour the Gulf States, the first time any British entertainers, let alone jazzers, had done this. Prior to that, Coops and I dreamed up the idea of taking The Temperance Seven on to Concorde, to be the first musicians to play at the speed of sound. In fact, Coops composed the Mach 2 March to celebrate this. After two years of planning and negotiating with BA, on the 31 March, 1976, we all boarded the BA Concorde flight to Bahrain and, an hour into the flight, the Chief Steward asked if the two of us would like to look at the flight deck. When Coops and I went to the flight deck, the Captain and Coops greeted each other: “Inky!” “Stinky!” Both had been pilots in the RAF at the same time, so Stinky asked Inky, “Would you like to fly us to Bahrain?” Coops took over, from Cyprus, and did! The following 25 years work in the Middle East was the result of that trip.

I’ll never forget in Muscat, Oman, on one occasion, when he rushed around all the band members’ rooms at the Ruwi Hotel saying, “Quick, quick, you must come. The Ruler is about to open the country’s first traffic light!”

Coops was a multi-talented, eccentric, loveable character whom no-one will forget, and whose presence made my, and many other lives much richer.
Coops, we loved you and will continue to do so.

More music — the performance that sticks in my psyche as well as my ears and is the inspiration for this long tribute.  It was recorded at the 100 Club in London on June 10, 1984, by Dave Bennett.  The band, in addition to Coops, is Ken Colyer, trumpet; Graham Stewart, trombone and vocal; Johnny Parker, piano; Jim Bray, string bass; Dave Evans, drums; guests Wally Fawkes, clarinet; Diz Disley, guitar — and they embark on a leisurely GEORGIA GRIND.  Not only do you hear Coops’ singular weird majesty on clarinet, entering through the window at :41, and he continues to enhance the solos and ensemble for the remaining eight minutes, masterfully:

In the past year, I’ve seen Coops’ house in Hay-on-Wye and had tea with his widow, the charming Jenny (thanks to Martin Litton and Janice Day) who showed me some intriguing Cooper-objects and told stories.  I’ve learned even more from my dear friend Sarah Spencer, who knew Coops well, and I present these fragments.

Coops added “-iness” to words (hungriness instead of hunger and the like) and he used to say “Hem Hem,” which came from a book of tales of schoolboy mischief, when talking about anything of a slightly risque nature.  He used to ingest Fisherman’s Friends lozenges by the handful constantly and so seemed, when his temperature reached that zone, to sweat or exude that scent from his pores.  For those of us fond of Coops, the smell of Fisherman’s Friends may make us slightly nostalgic.  For others, they may smell somewhat vile.  I remember, with my parents being from Yorkshire (as was Coops), we took a trip ‘oop north’ to Sheffield and came back with some local candy.  I brought him some. When he popped them into his mouth, the look on his face was one of utter nostalgia. “I doubted I would ever taste this again!”  He played a Clinton system clarinet, a Boosey and Hawkes variant of the Albert system and practically unheard-of outside of the U.K.  I have found it almost impossible to find photographs of them online.

Sarah told me, before I’d ever heard GEORGIA GRIND, that Cooper’s term of affection and esteem for men was “Dear Chap,” or sometimes “Dear Boy.”

Dear Coops, I am sorry that I never got to admire you at close range, in person. This blogpost will have to do as one tribute to someone who went his own way always and always spread joy.

May your happiness increase!

FOR CONNIE JONES

small purple flower

Only a few words here, because the subject is, as Kris Tokarski wrote, “bittersweet.”  One of my heroes — a player and singer of amazing grace, the cornetist and singer Connie Jones, has retired from performance due to ill health.

The trombonist Charlie Halloran wrote this morning on Facebook, “Pretty amazing playing alongside Connie Jones for his final performance.  He’s headed into an unbelievably well earned retirement.  But man, how am I going to hear those melodies without him just to my right?!  Even today he played at the highest level, world class.  Congrats Connie!”

That was Connie — among friends Tim Laughlin, Michael Pittsley, Chris Dawson, Katie Cavera, Marty Eggers, and Hal Smith — in November 2012 at the San Diego Jazz Fest.

Connie’s art comes from his heart, and it has touched ours.  His music has been quiet, gentle, searching — apparently simple melodic embellishment for those who aren’t listening closely, but truly a journey of small elegant surprises.  A Connie solo is like walking in a field and discovering a small purple blossom, fragrant, fragile.

His has never been a loud art.  It doesn’t abuse the air.  But it has been the most singular lesson: how to breathe warm air into metal and create lasting song. How to take familiar words and melody and infuse them with new yet lasting truth.

Another example.

When I was a semi-Californian, I had the privilege of seeing and hearing Connie in performance in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 (as well as in New Orleans at the Steamboat Stomp in 2015).  I came to him late in his career, and thus missed thousands of opportunities, but Connie never objected to being video-ed . . . so I have posted more than a hundred of his quiet poetic masterpieces on this blog and on YouTube.  (And more have not yet been seen.)  Most of those performances have had Connie at the side of Tim Laughlin, someone who completely understood Connie’s genius and took very good care of him.

I urge you to return to those performances and to Connie’s recordings with Tim, with Dick Sudhalter, and in other contexts.  Connie’s delicacy, his striving to find deep emotions in familiar material, has always shown him the most subtle of poets.

I wish him joy and health and ice cream in his retirement, alongside Elaine.  I send love and admiration and gratitude.

May your happiness increase!

A MENU WITH ONLY THREE ITEMS

If I end up in a restaurant with a six-page menu, I can be sure that I will stare helplessly, dither, and then order something that I will regret three ways: instantly, while I am eating it, and while I am paying for it.  Alas.  Too much choice induces a kind of paralysis in me.

COFFEE SANDWICH

So that’s one reason this bouncy Twenties romance-song (mixing love and food, always a pleasing idea) has always appealed to me.  I like all three items on this musical menu!

Did someone think of modernizing Omar Khayyam’s jug and loaf — because of Prohibition or modesty?

Of course I wonder about the depth of Billy Rose’s contribution to the lyrics and would credit to the always-clever Al Dubin, who — as his daughter’s reminiscences of him describe — was so devoted to food that it shortened his life.

I am amused by the sheet music cover, where He has the coffee (one cup only) and She sits demurely, hands folded, in front of what looks like one-half of the most chaste sandwich imaginable.  (Finally, my proofreading self yearns to put a comma after SANDWICH, but one cannot edit the untidy universe. On the Roger Wolfe Kahn label below, there isn’t a serial comma in the Spanish title, either.)

Here’s a rather sedate version by Jack Buchanan and Gertrude Lawrence which is intriguing — although not jazz-tinged at all — because it has both Boy and Girl choruses and the verse:

Now, something more heated: the Roger Wolfe Kahn version from December 1925 — with beautiful playing throughout: the trumpets on the verse, the reed section on the first and last sixteen (with a sweet interlude on the bridge). And, yes, that’s Venuti swinging out, followed by the pride of Roosevelt, Long Island, Miff Mole — noble support from Schutt and Berton as well.  New York’s finest.

Tommy Gott, Leo McConville, trumpet; Chuck Campbell, Miff Mole, trombone; Arnold Brilhart, Owen A. Bartlett, Harold Sturr, reeds; Arthur Schutt, piano; Domenic Romeo, banjo / guitar; Arthur Campbell, tuba;  Joe Venuti, Joe Raymond, violin; Vic Berton, drums; Roger Wolfe Kahn, leader.

If you couldn’t dance to that record, something was wrong.

Something quite different, possibly from the mid-Fifties, a recording that mixes big-band conventions and hipster cool, making me wonder what was in the coffee Matt Dennis was offering the fair maiden, what flavoring:

Incidentally, attentive viewers will see that the executives at RCA Victor (I assume) thought it clever wordplay to call this record WELCOME MATT and have the star apparently arriving with one under his arm.  No one thought, “Hmmm.  You stand on the WELCOME mat, you wipe your shoes on it. Does this work for all of you?”

And this delicious oddity on the Starck label, in 1926, when the song was new, a performance by the seriously energetic pianist Vera Guilaroff and singer Herbert S. Berliner — son of Emile Berliner, who invented the flat disc record.  I love the dissonance between her rollicking playing and his stiff “singing”:

Now, some of you might be getting impatient.  “Where’s the Hot Jazz, Michael?”  Calm yourselves.  All things come to he, she, it, who wait.

YouTube is like eBay.  I cannot predict what I am going to find there at any moment, but it teems with surprises.  I went looking for versions of COFFEE yesterday morning to play for a friend who had never heard it, and I nearly leaped out of my chair when I saw that someone had posted Jeff Healey’s 2001 version from AMONG FRIENDS, one of my favorite recordings.  Ever.  Healey (much-missed) is on vocal and guitar, and then there’s the Anglo-American Alliance contingent, Dick Sudhalter, trumpet; John R.T. Davies, alto saxophone; Jim Shepherd, trombone . . . and Reide Kaiser, piano; Colin Bray, string bass.  From the opening wink at YOU’RE THE CREAM IN MY COFFEE, this record soars:

And when you’ve listened to it once, go back and savor all the other pleasures and in-jokes.  What a fine singer Healey was.  Sudhalter’s ANYTHING GOES. Healey’s Fats-like asides about hot coffee and smooth butter.  Shepherd’s individual approach and fine sound.  Ristic’s HUCKLEBUCK.  Sudhalter and Shepherd humming behind the bridge.  Bray’s slap-bass; Kaiser’s relentless stride push.  Healey’s guitar solo — Django meets Lang — and then the riotous ensemble, bass break, and out.  I wish this band had made a hundred recordings. I never tire of this, a delicious, satisfying Fats Waller ebullience without imitation.

I saw Healey only once in person — at a 2006 benefit for an ailing Sudhalter, and Jeff was gone in 2008.  But with music like COFFEE, I can’t think of him as dead, merely taking a set break.

I hope that wherever you are, the menu offerings please.

May your happiness increase!

BOILERMAKERS, FRENCH FRIES, AND SORROW

Let us remember, mourn, and celebrate Richard McQueen Wellstood in three ways, for he was too expansively singular to be contained in one alone.

The first is a blessing — the man himself — on a 1981 BBC video, the program called Pebble Mill At One,” where Wellstood plays AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ and RUSSIAN RAG, then we have the immense happiness of Dick, Kenny Davern, and Kenny Clare for A PORTER’S LOVE SONG and BLUE MONK:

The second is prose — what my briefly-known friend, the late Leroy “Sam” Parkins, reedman and thinker, called “random mutterings” wrote about Dick in 2002:

Dick Wellstood, pianist / catalyst, died in 1987.  Died of boilermakers, french fries, and sorrow.

In somewhat over 50 years of playing this music, there’s only been two accompanists that gave me the vitamins I need.  Roger Kellaway . . . and Dick. On 6 of the 9 records I’ve made – well – let’s take it from wherever the top is.  Oh yeah – the boilermakers. Tapered tall glass of Guinness Dark, and a 3 oz. glass of Wild Turkey.  Repeat ad libitum . . .

Some random mutterings about Dick.  The basics.  Law School; Editor, Columbia Law Review [that’s what he told me.  His biographer says NYU]. Folks, that’s big time.  Passed the bar exam, went right back to the Metropole to play with Red Allen.

Brilliant.  Funny.  Fast forward. Late in his life, with considerable saloon burn-out, he took up an offer from some customers from a Wall St. law firm to join them at work.  The first thing he learned was that lunch was billable time.  You don’t do lunch.   They put him to beginners’ shit work, but he was so brilliant that after about six weeks got the class stuff.  Hated it.  After eleven months he returned to Hanratty’s and his beloved piano.  Dick Sudhalter went to visit him real soon at the club.  Wellstood said, sitting down at the piano, “The law don’t take no fucking brains.  This [plays piano] takes brains.”

One weekend night that summer of ’86 I stayed to the end and closed the joint. Remember it’s six nights a week.  He got paid. $500.00.  For the week.  Got it? This is a superstar in Europe, the tippy top of his craft, raved about in newspapers in 5 languages. Making 1/10th – wrong – make it 1/20th – of what he would have been making by then in law . . . .

Third, Wellstood in an excerpt from a 1977 CBC documentary, THEY ALL PLAY RAGTIME, offering CAROLINA SHOUT and his own SNATCHES.  At several points in the second performance, his left hand is a blur:

I think we only intermittently understand ourselves, so our comprehension of what is going through another person’s mind and heart can be at best empathic guesswork.

So although I prize Sam Parkins’ recollections of Dick Wellstood, friend and hero, I hope Sam was wrong.

I hope that Wellstood, someone who created so much joy — a joy that continues now — was not sorrowful, that there was not a direct causal relationship between the low pay and insufficient recognition and his too-brief life.  But only he could tell us, and he might not even have known it fully for himself.  His ebullient quirky music and his singular personality remain, and they are too large and too beautiful to be quantified in any small way.  He gave generously of himself, and that lives on.

But there’s always more than just one truth.  Dan Morgenstern, who’s lived with the music in ways most of us — no, all of us — haven’t, wrote this to me [on April 6] about Dick.  It is worth a careful reading.

Since Dick was a dear friend–first met him in 1947!–I was a little unhappy about that screed from Sam (whom I didn’t know quite that long, but also well, back to when he was Leroy P.). Funny thing, they were both brilliant minds and fine writers with interests ranging far beyond music (about which they also went beyond jazz boundaries). But Sam, clearly still upset about Dick’s sudden death, as we all were, paints too gloomy a picture. Dick’s encounters with the law began when, having fathered a bunch of daughters and pretty certain that jazz would not provide a good road to support, he decided to get into the legal field, upon which he managed to get a BA and pass the bar within record time (it was NYU).

He then hung out his shingle (at the time he and his wife Flo lived on the East Side, off Lexington). The work he was offered was in the main divorces and minor matters not even nearly as interesting as what you can see on Judge Judy, He soon despaired and next time I visited, the shingle hung in the bathroom. It would be quite a while before he used his legal skills, this time after they’d moved to City Island, where Teddy Charles had resided for along time, running his boat. Teddy knew half the population and got the bright idea of creating some extra income for Dick by turning paper work (tax matters and such) his way, something that only requires minimal personal contact.

That ended when Dick and Flo split up–after a while of bachelor life in a cozy basement apartment on Second Avenue, where he introduced me to the classical piano magic of Josef Hoffman and other rarities, and his excellent Lentil Salad (think I still have the recipe somewhere), as well as the wonderful gospel of the Davis Sisters. (He was not a record collector, but everything he had was a gem).

Next phase was life in New Jersey, with that steady gig on the jazz Ferry Boat in Brielle, a new marriage, and the deep friendship with neighbor and fellow ferry man Kenny Davern. The final legal stage, the one Sam writes about, did not come from some Wall Streeter, but from a lawyer fan; by now, Dick and new wife Diane lived right near Hanratty’s, where Dick not only had gigs. but selected the piano and did most of the booking–not surprisingly, of a high order. This legal work did require the wearing of three-piece suits (soon too tight) and yes, social imbibing, which came too easily. And Sam is right that Dick really disliked it. But this marriage was a good one, and of course he didn’t put the music on the back burner.

Last time I visited, not long before that awful news, Dick had some of his usual salty things to say about life, but also seemed at peace with things, and cooked up a great stew. What did him in wasn’t depression or anger. A good doctor could have weaned him off too much booze and too much unhealthy eating, gotten his blood pressure under control, and this unique and wonderful man might still be with us…..Edward Meyer’s “Giant Strides” bio is a
good read.

May your happiness increase!

NO COMEDY, JUST MUSIC: “THE BOB AND RAY SHOW” (BOB SCHULZ / RAY SKJELBRED)

The CD I present to you is a good idea whose time has come — growing out of the inevitable amusement one would have at a jazz duo CD titled THE BOB AND RAY SHOW.  No Elliott or Goulding, just Schulz (cornet, vocals), and Skjelbred (piano) in duets recorded in 2009 and 2013.

Here’s how the duo sounded — on a slightly crowded bandstand — on May 26, 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival:

The songs on this wonderful CD, each one with singular associations, are ‘T’AIN’T SO, HONEY, ‘T’AIN’T SO (Robison, Bix, Whiteman, Crosby); WININ’ BOY BLUES (Mr. Morton); I AIN’T GOT NOBODY (everyone from Bessie Smith onwards); SHOE SHINE BOY (Louis, Basie, and Bing); SAVE IT, PRETTY MAMA (again Louis, Earl Hines, Don Redman); BECAUSE MY BABY DON’T MEAN ‘MAYBE” NOW (Bix, Whiteman, Bing); PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Bing, Louis, and almost everyone else from Billie to Dick Wellstood); MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND ( Clarence Williams into the twenty-first century); ‘TIL TIMES GET BETTER (Jabbo Smith); REACHING FOR SOMEONE (Bix and Tram, also Dick Sudhalter); I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA (Bix and Jimmy Rushing); MONDAY DATE (Earl, Louis, and more); KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW (Fats, Ruby Braff, and more); OH, BABY! (Tesch, Sullivan, Condon, Krupa, and more); WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS (Bing, Louis, and many others); WEATHER BIRD RAG (King Oliver; Louis and Earl; Braff and Hyman, and more).

The tempos chosen for this disc are primarily pretty Medium Tempos, reminding us of the infinite variations possible in that sonic meadow, the results neither soporific nor hasty.

I imagine that the improvising duet of cornet and piano goes back to the late eighteen-hundreds, when that brass instrument was a feature of homegrown ensembles and pianos were in many parlors. On record, I think of Oliver and Morton, first in a long line including Louis and Earl, Ruby and Ellis, Ruby and Dick, Sweets and Earl, a long series of trumpet duets with Oscar Peterson . . . a lineage continuing as I write this.

The duo of Schulz and Skjelbred is special — for its consistent pervasive lyricism. Many of these pairings have a playful acrobatic quality, with one of the musicians saying to the other, “Oh, yeah?  Top this!”  Some of the playfulness becomes cheerfully competitive, assertive or even aggressive. The two players trot along through each song as friendly equals, neither trying to overpower the other. Bob and Ray aren’t out to show off; they like beautiful melodies and the little surprises that can be found within even the most familiar song.  Hear, for instance, Skjelbred’s harmonic surprises and suspensions that he offers early in the video of SHOE SHINE BOY.

One of the pleasures of the disc is the easy, ardent yet understated singing of Bob — he is known to burst into song when the mood and the material are appropriate during a session of his Frisco Jazz Band, but I find his vocals particularly charming: a Crosby mordent here or there. His singing — clear, unaffected, gentle — is the expression of his cornet playing, which is a model of middle-range melodic improvisation. (In it, one hears a spring-water clarity out of Bix and Hackett, then a Spanier-intensity when Bob takes up the plunger mute.)

Bob’s partner in these explorations, Ray Skjelbred, continues to amaze and delight: his off-center approach, original yet always elating, his rollicking rhythms, his bluesy depths. Ray takes risks, and his playing is deliciously unpredictable, but it is always in the  groove. (With headphones, I could hear Bob say, softly, “Yeah!” at a felicitous Skjelbred pathway — over the rough road to the stars.) Yes, that’s a Sullivan rattle, a Stacy octave, or a Hines daredevil-leap you are hearing, but it’s all transformed in the hands of Mr. Skjelbred, who is one of the finest orchestral pianists I will ever hear — but whose orchestra is shot through with light and shade, never ponderous.

And this is not a disc of two great soloists who happen, perhaps against their will, to find themselves asked to become members of a team and do it with some reluctance. It’s clear that Bob and Ray are musical comrades who look forward to exchanging ideas, celebrating the dear old tunes while making them feel just like new.  Incidentally, the disc offers — in the best homage to George Avakian — an example or two of judicious overdubbing, with Bob both singing and playing at once. . . . something we would like to hear and see in real life, but he hasn’t managed such magic on the stand. Yet.

The thoughtful musical conversations Bob and Ray have on this disc are emotionally sustaining. Each performance has its own dramatic shape, its own structure — more than a series of ensemble / solo choruses — and I would send copies of this disc to all the young musicians in and out of this idiom.  And a test: I would ask purchasers to pick out what they think is the most “overplayed” song on the disc and listen seriously to the Bob-and-Ray version, to see what magic can be made when two earnestly playful masters go to work on rich materials. Not incidentally, the sound on this disc captures all the nuances without any engineering-strangeness, and the neatly comprehensive liner notes by drummer / historian / writer Hal Smith are a pleasure.

You can hear musical samples here (go to the “CD” section — this disc is at the top of the page). Even better, you can search out Bob or Ray at an upcoming gig and press some accepted local currency into one or the other master’s hand. As I’ve noted, Ray is touring California (that’s San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Menlo Park, Sonoma, and back to San Francisco) between July 8 and the 14th, so you can have the double pleasure of hearing him live and purchasing a CD.

Unlike the shows put on by Elliott and Goulding, I didn’t find myself laughing while I was listening, although I was smiling all the time, at the beautiful, wise, mellow music.  Get yourself some.

May your happiness increase!

 

THE NEWTON-LEACOCK PAPERS

Having good friends is a delight in themselves.  When the friends are generous, that’s more than one can hope for. Here’s evidence: Jeanie Gorman Wilson, who took very good care of the singer Barbara Lea in Barbara’s last years, shared these pieces of paper with me . . . and with the readers of JAZZ LIVES.

What you’ll see below is admittedly a small collection but absolutely irreplaceable: two 1951 missives from trumpeter / composer Frank Newton to the youthful but impressive Miss Barbara Leacock.  These aren’t simply rare pieces of paper, but artifacts from a gifted man, his life too short — but testimony to his humanity, his affectionate wisdom.

The envelope, please:

NEWTON letter 1 envelope

And the contents:

NEWTON letter 2 first

Dear Barbara:

     Here’s thanking you for whatever contribution you made toward the wonderful birthday party.

     Let me wish you lots of success with your singing. Don’t be discouraged by a lot of your friends’ opinions, neither feel too exalted by their compliments, but try to work as hard as time will allow, out of which will come something of which you are deserving and will be proud of.

     Give Larry [Eanet] my regards.

     As ever, your well-wishing friend.

                                          Frankie Newton

Eight months later, when Newton was working as a counselor at KIDDIE KAMP in Sharon, Massachusetts (the postcard’s motto is “Thanks feller, for the swell vacation!”):

NEWTON letter 3 front of Kiddie Kamp

And his note, which ends “hurry and write”:

NEWTON letter 4 Kiddie Kamp

Hello Barbara: — Just to let you know where I am, and what I am doing. I am counsler at this camp for kids and I am having a ball.  I shure wish you could drive over here and see the camp it is only 20 some miles from Boston George Wein and the band were up here last week. If you can write me and tell me what’s what is happening to you

hurry and write

love

Frankie Newton

Yes, Newton’s handwriting, spelling, and punctuation are much more informal, but I imagine him dashing off this note, leaning against a tree, while children around him demanded his attention.

More information on KIDDIE KAMP can be found here — thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Thanks to Jeanie for allowing us to read some of Newton’s words.  He has been gone for nearly sixty years. If his sound isn’t distinctive in your ears, here is a deep, mournful sample: his 1939 THE BLUES MY BABY GAVE TO ME (with Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Brown, James P. Johnson, Al Casey, John Kirby, and Cozy Cole — the session supervised by Hughes Panassie):

Barbara Lea is nearer to us: December 26 was only the second anniversary of her death, but it’s always a privilege to hear her remarkable voice once again. Here she is, with Dick Sudhalter and James Chirillo, performing the uplifting IT’S ALL IN YOUR MIND:

And since we can all dream of hearing Mr. Newton and Miss Leacock together, I offer here (yet unheard) evidence of such a musical meeting. Newton’s actual birthday was January 4, so it is possible that this disc was cut at the birthday party he mentions in his first letter.  Someday . . .

May your happiness increase!