Tag Archives: “Dixieland”

DISMISSED, DERIDED, DELICIOUS: THE VARSITY SEVEN: 1939 and 1940

If you consider an artist’s works in chronological sequence (bibliography as well as discography) certain landmarks blot out their neighbors.  In the case of Coleman Hawkins, there’s BODY AND SOUL, then the Hampton Victor date, then his big band — leading up to the small-group sessions of 1943-44 for Signature, Keynote, Savoy, and more.

The Varsity Seven sides — full of delights — recorded in December 1939 and January 1940 — haven’t received the admiration they deserve.  Hawkins’ admiring biographer, the diligent John Chilton, calls them “a pastiche of Dixieland.”  I disagree.

The Varsity label (please note the transparent pseudonyms for Hawkins and Carter) was run by Eli Oberstein, and it never seems to have been entirely out in the open.  I don’t know that Oberstein was the equal of Herman Lubinsky of Savoy, but Eli seems to have been ingenious in his dealings.  I believe the masters of these and other sessions were bought by Savoy, and thus the trail to licit reissues is complex.  Were they Victor sessions, they would have been available straightforwardly for decades now, including “official” CD issue.

Another side-note is that the session — one or both? — was co-produced by Leonard Feather and Warren Scholl, which may account for a Feather composition being there.  I knew two sides from this date because my Long Island friend Tom Piazza played them for me, forty-plus years ago: SHAKE IT AND BREAK IT and A PRETTY GIRL IS LIKE A MELODY.  I don’t know where each of the musicians was working in 1939-40, whether Fifty-Second Street or Cafe Society or uptown, but they come together to create great jazz.  Cheerful Jeanne Burns (known for work with Adrian Rollini and Wingy Manone) is a liability, but we’ve all heard less polished singers.  Here’s the information for the first session.

Benny Carter, trumpet, alto saxophone; Danny Polo, clarinet; Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Joe Sullivan, piano; Ulysses Livingston, guitar, vocal; Artie Bernstein, string bass; George Wettling, drums; Jeanne Burns, vocal.  New York, December 14, 1939.

IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (Burns, vocal).  The first two choruses — bless Sullivan and Wettling, who are bringing Jimmy Ryan’s to a record date or doing the Commodore? — are flawless.  Ms. Burns has pitch trouble, but I concentrate on Sullivan behind her.  Polo and Livingston (the latter sounding much like a sweet Teddy Bunn) aren’t derailed by the young lady, and then Hawkins charges in, “I’m back from Europe, and let me remind you who is still King!”  My idea of perfection is of course subjective, but the instrumental portions of this recording stand up with any other of this period:

EASY RIDER (Burns, Livingston, vocal).  Hawkins starts off rhapsodically, and is then relieved by Polo, whose sound in itself is an aural landscape, no matter how simple his phrases.  (In this, he reminds me of poets Joe Marsala, Raymond Burke, and Edmond Hall.)  Ms. Burns Is much more at ease at this tempo and in this range, and her unusual mixture of Mae West and Mildred Bailey is her most successful vocal.  Livingston’s vaudeville couplets are harmlessly archaic counterpoint, leading in to an ensemble where Carter and Polo take up most of the space, leaving Hawkins little to do.  One must admire the lovely drumming of Wettling — and how beautifully Artie Shapiro’s bass comes through — before the consciously “old-timey” ending:

SCRATCH MY BACK is the one Leonard Feather composition, and a charming one, revisited by Dan Barrett a few years ago.  I can’t figure out the changes beneath the melody — an experienced friend / musician says the first strain is similar to YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME.  I love the opening ensemble, and Shapiro’s deep notes behind Polo, then Sullivan’s rollicking solo chorus, where Wettling is having a wonderful time — and the passage where Sullivan abstracts the melody for great dramatic effect.  Then — what’s this? — a glorious alto solo by “Billy Carton” (heir to the cardboard box fortune) punctuated by a Livingston blues-pastoral.  Everyone steps aside for Hawkins, and a recap of the theme with Livingston adding sweet arpeggiated chords.  No complaints here:

SAVE IT PRETTY MAMA (Burns, vocal).  Aside from the ending, I don’t think of this as “Dixieland”: rather a series of splendid improvisations from Carter, Sullivan, and two choruses from Hawkins — over a gently propulsive and balanced rhythm section.  I find Burns’ version of Mildred Bailey’s upper-register-vibrato jarring, but I was listening to Polo, murmuring sweet limpid asides, and the rhythm section while she sang:

Fast forward to January 15, 1940: the same personnel except Big Joe Turner replaces Burns, an improvement.

And in his honor, they began with HOW LONG, HOW LONG BLUES.  In the opening ensemble, Hawkins is nearly submerged (could this have been what irritated Chilton?) which leads into a lovely chorus by Polo — with plain-spoken rhythm section work.  Then, Big Joe, in glowing voice, supported by a very powerful Sullivan, with lovely ensemble encouragements.  It almost seems as if Hawkins has been waiting his chance, and he takes it eloquently, before Big Joe and the band return.  At 2:23, apparently Turner has momentarily forgotten the lyric couplet or has gotten distracted.  A fine improvised ensemble closes off the record, with a Wettling accent.  This side seems slightly under-rehearsed, but the looseness adds to its charm:

SHAKE IT AND BREAK IT has always been a favorite, and this vocal version is a prize.  If there’s a sound more engaging than this rhythm section following Sullivan, I have yet to hear it.  Big Joe sounds positively exuberant (in touch with the lyrics); Polo and Livingston keep the forward motion going , and everyone is even more gleeful for Joe’s second chorus (“rub it all over the wall”) before particularly hot choruses by Carter and Hawkins follow, leading to jamming (with Wettling happily prominent) to end the record.  If this is “Dixieland,” I want many more sides:

A PRETTY GIRL IS LIKE A MELODY was not a song much utilized for jam session recordings, but to have it here is a pleasure.  I wonder if Oberstein said, “No more blues, fellows!  Let’s have a hot one!” as Big Joe left the studio.  Or it just seemed like a melodic yet under-played Berlin song, taken a little quicker than I imagine it was done in the Ziegfeld Follies.  A very simple — even cliched — vamp led by Livingston starts things off before Polo takes the lead — which surprisingly turns into an ensemble passage, then a wonderfully quirky Sullivan solo AND Hawkins leaping into his chorus with the zeal of a great athlete (powerful playing from Shapiro, Livingston, and Wettling) — then a magnificent Carter solo and a romping ensemble close.  This is one of the most successful sides of the eight:

And, finally, POM POM, a Carter original which might be a phrase from one of his solos scored for small band, with a particularly light scoring: I would have thought the opening 16 was scored for alto, clarinet, and tenor, but for the speed with which Carter plays trumpet on the bridge.  Polo’s chorus is so tenderly levitating that if you, hearing his work on this session, don’t want to hear more, then I have failed.  Hawkins is energized in his two-chorus solo, reminding me of the trio records he made in 1937, especially in his powerful second chorus — but Carter is as elegant a mountain-climber as I can imagine (with a distinct similarity to Joe Thomas or Bill Coleman of this period); another piece of swing lace-weaving from Livingston, and the record gracefully winds down — simultaneously hot and gentle.  Is that a recording engineer’s “fade” or simply everyone getting softer?  I don’t know, but it’s very sweet:

These aren’t flawless records. Some of them might have benefited from a second take.  But they are uplifting examples of the stars willing to come in and play two dates for what I imagine was scale.  All in a day’s work — and how glorious the results are.

May your happiness increase!

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“IRISH BLACK BOTTOM”: TERRY WALDO, JON-ERIK KELLSO, JIM FRYER, EVAN ARNTZEN, JOHN GILL, BRIAN NALEPKA, JAY LEPLEY (Fat Cat, January 29, 2017)

okeh-irish-black-bottom

No, this isn’t an early celebration of Saint Patrick, nor is it a lesson in North American vernacular dance.  A week ago today, I had the delightful good fortune of being in the basement known as Fat Cat (75 Christopher Street) to hear Terry Waldo’s Gotham City Band — Terry, piano; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jim Fryer, trombone; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; John Gill, banjo; Brian Nalepka, string bass; Jay Lepley, drums.  And one of the lively excursions into hot archaeology that they offered was Percy Venable’s novelty number, IRISH BLACK BOTTOM, premiered by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five in Chicago in 1926.  For the full history of this song and that performance, read on in Ricky Riccardi’s quite magnificent Louis blog.

And now, from 1926 to 2017, with a performance calculated to warm you more efficiently than heated seats in a new car:

The genial joyousness of that performance could win anyone over, even without the history.  But I also post this musical episode to reiterate a point.  Many “jazz critics” see the chronological advance of the music as one improvement succeeding another: Roy Eldridge was more “sophisticated” than Louis, Charlie Parker more than Roy, Miles and Trane and Ornette even more so. “Sophisticated” is a weighted word, especially when the appearance of complexity is taken as the highest good.  But for those who look at “Dixieland” as simple, I’d suggest that even a tune as lightweight as IRISH BLACK BOTTOM has its own sophistication, its own complicated routine, and it is not something one could pick up at one hearing, the Real Book notwithstanding.  Court adjourned.

May your happiness increase!

“WESTWARD HOT”: RAY SKJELBRED, KIM CUSACK, CLINT BAKER, KATIE CAVERA, JEFF HAMILTON (July 7-10, 2016)

ray skjelbred

Every year at about this time, Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs make a tour of the Bay Area in Northern California, including visits to the Dixieland session at Rossmoor, the Cline Wine and Dixieland Festival, Pier 23, Cafe Borrone, and other fortunate locations.  (Don’t let the “Dixieland” label throw you; what Ray and Company play is light-years away from that manufactured product. Marketing isn’t music.)

Note: I realize that my title is geographically inaccurate, since everyone in this band lives in the West, as one of my Corrections Officers is sure to point out, but it made more sense than titling this post SOUTHBOUND, in honor of Alex Hill.

Here are the details from Ray’s own site, a remarkable place to spend a few hours.

Ray and his Cubs onstage at Rossmoor, perhaps 2014.

Ray and his Cubs onstage at Rossmoor, perhaps 2014.

Ray has the good luck to have a dedicated videographer and archivist, RaeAnn Berry, somewhere between tireless and indefatigable, who will offer up large helpings of the music performed in these few delightful days.

Here’s a deliciously satisfying taste: DARKTOWN STRUTTERS BALL at an enticing tempo — in a thoroughly Commodore manner that reminds me, and perhaps you, of TAPPIN’ THE COMMODORE TILL:

That’s one performance from their July 7 concert at Rossmoor.  I encourage you to subscribe to RaeAnn’s channel, where you can see the other dozen or so performances from that concert (made possible by the energetic devotion of Robert Burch and Vonne Anne Heninger, to give that kind pair their full monickers) and several thousand other musical delights.

As I write this in New York, RaeAnn is surely videoing something . . . and I know there will be more Ray / Cubs epiphanies to come.

May your happiness increase!

IN THE MAIN STREAM: HOWARD ALDEN, EHUD ASHERIE, FRANK TATE, PETE SIERS, RANDY REINHART, DAN BLOCK, BILL ALLRED at CLEVELAND (September 10, 2015)

Long-playing high fidelity turned into song by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler:

as-long-as-i-live-cotton-club-parade-24th-ed-1

and performed here at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party (formerly known as the Allegheny Jazz Party) on September 10, 2015, by Howard Alden, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass; Ehud Asherie, piano; Pete Siers, drums; Dan Block, tenor saxophone; Bill Allred, trombone; Randy Reinhart, cornet.

“Mainstream” was the term invented by jazz critic Stanley Dance to describe this easy, uncluttered, floating kind of improvisation — a music that had carefully dismantled all the boundaries created by sectarian listeners and journalists to take a wide-ranging approach to jazz without ruling anything out if it drank deeply of melody, swing, and harmony.  Hank Mobley and Buster Bailey could talk about reeds; Tommy Benford and Art Blakey could discuss calfskin versus plastic.  You get the idea: a sweet world that no longer saw “Dixieland” and “bebop” as hostile antitheses.

Music of this free-breathing variety happens all the time in the places I frequent, but one of the most comfortable places for it is the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, which will happen again this September 15-18, 2016.  Get in the Main Stream.

May your happiness increase!

JUST ANOTHER “DIXIELAND TUNE,” BUT OH HOW GOOD IT SOUNDS: DAN BARRETT, ED POLCER, DAN BLOCK, JOHN COCUZZI, FRANK TATE, ED METZ at the 2014 ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY

Even though now and again I feel the signs of a ROYAL GARDEN BLUES overdose approaching, there’s new life in “old music” that nobody can deny.

JAZZ ME BLUES

The JAZZ ME BLUES is surely an old chestnut, a “Dixieland classic,” a “good old good one” that some listeners and musicians assume comes from the era of faux-jazz: straw hats and striped jackets, jazz half-recreated rather than created.  But no material is in itself alive or dead; it depends on the energy, wit, ingenuity, and feeling that musicians can bring to it.

Thus, this artifact —

JAZZ ME BLUES 78

became something quite vivid and lively in an April 25, 2014 performance at the Atlanta Jazz Party by Dan Barrett, trombone; Ed Polcer, cornet; Dan Block, clarinet; John Cocuzzi, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Ed Metz, drums (and a cameo appearance by Chair):

Notice the nice relaxed tempo, the little ingenuities, the backing figures, the eloquent but understated playing.  Nothing’s dead unless we choose to make it so is the moral of this particular story.  Also that the Atlanta Jazz Party is alive and well in 2016!  More details as the date approaches.

May your happiness increase!

CHAPTER TWO of SWEET AND HOT IN CLEVELAND: DUKE HEITGER, DAN BARRETT, DAN BLOCK, SCOTT ROBINSON, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT, HOWARD ALDEN, RICKY MALICHI (Allegheny Jazz Party 2014)

THAT DA DA STRAIN

It felt so good that another helping was the only thing.  Two days ago I posted a delicious performance of WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE, from the 2014 Allegheny Jazz Party — no, the Allegheny Jazz Party September 10-13, at the very comfortable Inter-Continental Hotel on Carnegie Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, with music from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon by some of the finest in the world.  The AJP website can be found here.  And you can visit MAGGIE here.

Now for the reason for all these words.  I went to my first Allegheny Jazz Party in 2004 — when it was still Jazz at Chautauqua — and it was and continues to be a high point of my year.  Why?  How about Duke Heitger, trumpet; Dan Block, clarinet; Scott Robinson, taragota, C-melody saxophone, cornet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Howard Alden, guitar; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums . . . . playing two.  One, a venerable Dixieland classic, THAT DA DA STRAIN:

How that romps!

And something definitely pretty — a sweet ballad by Louis and his lyric-writer, Horace Gerlach, IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN:

I think that’s glorious music.  Hot and sweet, too.

IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN

Tickets and  prices and other necessary information here.  I hope to see some of my readers there.  And I will offer more sterling music from 2014 as we get closer to September 10.

A postscript: more than one musician and listener has asked about the source of THAT DA DA STRAIN.  Either the answer has been a shrug or a hopeful association with Marcel Duchamp and Dada.  It was a song with lyrics — a self-referential opus: “That Da Da Strain” was such irresistible music that it could cause a delightful mental instability.  Hear Eva Taylor (in 1923) make it perfectly clear:

May your happiness increase!

A WARMING TREND: TIM LAUGHLIN, CONNIE JONES, DOUG FINKE, CHRIS DAWSON, MARTY EGGERS, KATIE CAVERA, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 28, 2014)

As I write these words, it is once again snowing in New York.  This calls for drastic measures.  More than a snow shovel or ice scraper, more than a down parka or silk underwear.

I need to heat things up.  And I know just the source of gentle but persuasive warming:

Just as a public service, I will point out that the song is the venerable yet still very lively JAZZ ME BLUES, played here on November 28, 2014, at the San Diego Jazz Fest, by a collection of swing superheroes: Tim Laughlin, clarinet; Connie Jones, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

If every JAZZ LIVES reader now enduring a cold climate would turn the volume up and open a window, I believe we would have the best kind of global warming, with no deleterious side effects.  Or if that theory does not appeal, I suggest you do what I’ve been doing — playing this performance over and over, admiring its broad structure and many subtleties.

May your happiness increase!