Tag Archives: Doc Cheatham

SIX SURPRISES: MAL SHARPE and BIG MONEY IN JAZZ at the NO NAME BAR in SAUSALITO (August 19, 2012)

Since the school year will soon be upon us, here is a one-question jazz quiz on the recent content of JAZZ LIVES.  Please turn your phones off — the answer won’t be found there — and those of you who have been paying close attention have nothing to worry about.

1.  On a Sunday afternoon at the No Name Bar in Sausalito (extra credit if you can accurately recall the street address and the hours that the band plays), when Mal Sharpe and the Big Money in Jazz Band take center stage, the results can best be described as:

a.     swinging

b.     hilarious

c.     unpredictable

d.     all of the above.

Make sure you’ve written your name at the top, and please hand them in.  The correct answer is D, although I will give partial credit for A, B, or C.  Extra credit?  757 Bridgeway, 3-6 PM.  I’ll see you all next week.

Mal and his Colleagues in Swing had a good time last Sunday and they shared the pleasure with us.  Mal offered some Dickensonian trombone asides, loose-limbed singing and comic commentaries; trumpeter John Dodgshon was mellow, on the horn and in his vocals; Tom Schmidt continues to delight and surprise on clarinet and Hodges-inspired alto (I think of Charlie Holmes, a real compliment) — he sang memorably,  too.  The rhythm section worked together splendidly, with Our Lady of the Trap Kit, sweetly pungent Carmen Cansino, tersely rocking Bill De Kuiper on guitar, and quietly eloquent Paul Smith (another videographer!) on string bass.

Here are six movements from the monumental Big Money in Jazz Suite, Opus 8.19.12.

Mal is the most generous of men, but this Sunday his resources might have been low, for he chose I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE:

August 21 is a national holiday, although you didn’t see the appropriate sales in mattress stores — it’s Count Basie’s birthday.  Here’s a version of LADY BE GOOD that starts with a Kansas City Six rhythm section chorus:

John Dodgshon seemed entirely trustworthy, reliable to the end, when I spoke with him at the start.  Thus I believed him utterly when he sang YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME:

For Louis and Benny and Bing, SHINE, with special cadenzas for Carmen near the end.  And if you still think of that song as having deplorably racist lyrics, please read this:

I have noticed how most requests from audience members make the players sigh behind their affable smiles, so I try to restrain myself.  But when asked (as I was here) I will often propose SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, perhaps because I’ve been so transformed by hearing Louis, Ruby Braff, and Doc Cheatham play it.  And Perry Como stayed quietly in the back room (the fans tend to mob him when he comes to the No Name Bar, so Nancy and Scarlet make him comfortable there):

There was a large and enthusiastic Texas contingent in the No Name Bar that Sunday, so perhaps this edged John Dodgshon away from the TIN ROOF BLUES to the 1918 DALLAS BLUES.  I didn’t know the verses that Tom Schmidt sang with such easy fervor. . . .thank you, Tom!  And pay special attention to Bill De Kuiper, the Troubadour of the Silver Subaru, as he takes an inspiring off-the-harmonies solo, immensely refreshing:

Now, don’t you wish you had been there?

May your happiness increase.

(ANOTHER) SUNDAY IN SAUSALITO WITH MAL (July 15, 2012)

It was a sunny afternoon in Sausalito, California, Sunday, June 15, but I and enlightened souls chose the semi-darkness of the No Name Bar (757 Bridgeway) from 3-6 PM for the good hot music and sweet ballads and occasional hijinks of trombonist / philosophical wanderer Mal Sharpe and the Big Money in Jazz Band.  It was fun, and often even more memorable than that.

Incidentally, yelp.com lists the No Name Bar as a “dive bar,” but as one of the patrons said, “I know dive bars, and this is no dive bar.”  The No Name is rather too clean and congenial to qualify . . . sorry!

Mal had with him Paul Smith, string bass; Carmen Cansino, drums; Si Perkoff, keyboard and vocals; Tom Schmidt, clarinet, alto, and vocal; Andrew Storar, trumpet and vocals: a very cohesive group, as you will shortly find out.

People who might only know Mal from his many public lives might be unaware of his work as a jazz trombonist and singer.  In the first of those roles, he is a fine ensemble player — simple, uncluttered, propulsive; as a soloist he emulates Vic Dickenson and Dicky Wells, happily!  Paul Smith is a subtle bassist whose time and taste are delightful; his solos are concise and tasty, and the band rests easily on his foundation.  Drummer Carmen Cansino was new to me, but she’s a wonderfully attentive drummer who catches every musical cue and never gets in the way: her solos have the snap of Wettling or Leeman — a series of well-placed epigrams.  Si Perkoff’s harmonies are supportive, his improvisations eager but never garrulous: he’s a witty, relaxed player with Monkish edges.

The clarinet, by its very nature, inspires some of the most experienced players into unedited exuberance.  Tom Schmidt’s phrases are neat constructions; his sweet / hot alto playing would make Charlie Holmes very happy.  I knew Andrew Storar as the lead trumpet in Don Neely’s Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, but was unprepared for how fine a small-band soloist he is — with a graceful, stepping approach and a burnished tone reminiscent of Doc Cheatham.

Andrew, Sy, and Tom are also first-rate singers . . . with markedly different styles.  These six players blend marvelously as a unit — the band rocked through three sets without a letup.

Mal is a sharp-edged improvisatory comedian (he doesn’t tell jokes; he invents situations and then builds them into wonderfully unbalanced edifices) who plays with and off of the crowd.

Here are some of the highlights of another Sunday in the bar with Mal.

A strolling ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, with a vocal that emphasizes the importance of proper refuse recycling:

Mal had created an extended comedy about one Randy Mancini, and other unrelated Mancinis were in the house (that’s Virgina having her photo taken with the band) so MOON RIVER, with a sweet vocal from Andrew, was just the ticket:

Take you down to New Orleans!  BOURBON STREET PARADE:

And Si reminds us that most everyone Wants A Little Girl.  Or boy.  Or someone to share popcorn with:

Keeping the romantic mood, Mal offers SWEET LORRAINE in honor of Nat and Maria Cole:

More New Orleans cuisine — although not for the lactose-intolerant — ICE CREAM:

A hot version of DINAH:

Andrew Storar favors the singing of Dean Martin, and honors him without copying, on EVERYBODY LOVES SOMEBODY:

Turning the No Name Bar into Rick’s wasn’t easy — the carpenters had to work feverishly — but Si delivers AS TIME GOES BY in a more jocular fashion than the last Dooley Wilson:

And to send everyone out into the sun with just a tinge of harmless malice (Lorna in the audience jumped when Mal said those dark words to her . . . ) here’s YOU RASCAL YOU, sung by Tom and Mal:

I know where the GPS will be pointing me next Sunday.  In fact, I think I already know how to get to 757 Bridgeway without the GPS, and given my directional skills, that is the highest tribute I can pay Mal and the Big Money in Jazz All-Star Orchestra.  And don’t forget to say GOOD NIGHT, PROVINCETOWN.  We are, after all, on the air.

May your happiness increase.

ON ALL FOURS IN BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA (July 6, 2012)

My pose wasn’t illicit, erotic, illegal, canine, or a return to some pre-evolutionary state.  And it was indoors, should you wonder.  I was down on the floor inside the Berkeley, California branch of Amoeba Music looking through their jazz long-playing records.

Even though I don’t suffer from a paucity of music to listen to, a highlight of our trips west has been my visits to the Down Home Music Store in El Cerrito (where a week ago I walked away with three records: a compendium of the Barney Bigard-Joe Thomas-Art Tatum sides recorded for Black and White 1944-45; the Xanadu session of Roy Eldridge at Jerry Newman’s, 1940; the French CBS volume of Louis with Lillie Delk Christian and Chippie Hill).  Nineteen dollars.

Not bad, you might say, but it was just a warmup for today’s treasure hunt.

The records listed below ranged from one dollar to five, so the total was slightly over thirty-eight dollars.  Some of them I once had; some I knew of and coveted; others were total surprises.  Most of them I found while standing, but the dollar ones required that I become a small human coffee table.  I was in my element, and no one stepped on me.  (Thirty years ago, New York City had stores like this, but — except for one gem on Bleecker Street — they seem to have vanished.)

In random order:

MAX KAMINSKY: AMBASSADOR OF JAZZ (Westminster, 2.99), which has no listed personnel, but sounds like an octet — I hear Bill Stegmeyer, Cutty Cutshall, and Dick Cary — and has a wide range of material, beginning with HENDERSON STOMP and THE PREACHER.

TURK MURPHY: NEW ORLEANS SHUFFLE (Columbia, 1.99), which features my friend Birchall Smith and my hero Don Ewell as well as Bob Helm.

an anthology on the Jazum label (3.99), which features two extraordinary West Coast jams — circa 1945 — which bring together Vic Dickenson, Sidney Catlett, Willie Smith, Les Paul, Eddie Heywood, and possibly Oscar Pettiford.  A present for a jazz friend.

KNOCKY PARKER: OLD RAGS (Audiophile, 2.99) which I bought in honor of one of my New York friends who had Professor Parker in college but has never heard him play the piano.

Three volumes in the French RCA series of 1973-74 recordings produced by Albert McCarthy (in Hank O’Neal’s studio) — under the SWING TODAY banner, with recordings by Vic Dickenson, Herman Autrey, Buddy Tate, Earle Warren, Zoot Sims, Jane Harvey, Bucky Pizzarelli, Budd Johnson, Red Richards, Taft Jordan, Bill Dillard, Eddie Barefield, Eddie Durham, Jackie Williams, Major Holley, Eddie Locke, Doc Cheatham, John Bunch, Tommy Potter, Chuck Folds.

BUDDY TATE AND HIS CELEBRITY CLUB ORCHESTRA VOL. 2 (Black and Blue, 2. 99), 1968 recordings featuring Dicky Wells, Dud Bascomb, and Johnny Williams.

THE LEGENDARY EVA TAYLOR WITH MAGGIE’S BLUE FIVE (Kenneth, 1.99), a recording I have been wanting for years — with Bent Persson and Tomas Ornberg.

SWEET AND HOT (Ambiance, 1.99), a half-speed disc — it plays at 45 — recorded in 1977 and featuring Vince Cattolica and Ernie Figueroa in an octet.

THE GOLDEN STATE JAZZ BAND: ALIVE AND AT BAY (Stomp Off, 1.99) late-Seventies sessions featuring Ev Farey, Bob Mielke, Bill Napier, Carl Lunsford, Mike Duffy, and Hal Smith.

RALPH SUTTON: BACKROOM PIANO (Verve, 1.00): well-played but any Sutton collection that begins with CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS is something to have.  I remember Ed Beach played tracks from this record on his Sutton shows.

LIVE AND IN CHOLER: THE WORLD FAMOUS DESOLATION JAZZ ENSEMBLE AND MESS KIT REPAIR BATTALION, VOL. 2 (Clambake, 1.00): I nearly passed this one by because of the “humorous” title . . . but when I saw it has Dave Caparone on trombone, I was not about to be deterred by some goofy liner notes.

BREAD, BUTTER & JAM IN HI-FI (RCA, 1.00), a compilation of tracks that didn’t fit on the original issues — but what tracks!  Lee Wiley, Henry “Red” Allen, Bud Freeman, Ruby Braff, Jack Teagarden, Billy Butterfield, Pee Wee Russell, Coleman Hawkins, 1956-58.

Worth getting into such an undignified position, I’d say.  Now I will indulge myself by listening to Miss Eva with Bent and Tomas!

May your happiness increase. 

JANE HARVEY SINGS: A RARE CLUB DATE (June 20, 2012)

Yes, that Jane Harvey!

JANE HARVEY RETURNS TO CATALINA JAZZ CLUB

Jazz and cabaret singer Jane Harvey, who first won fame with the bands of Benny Goodman, Les Brown, and Desi Arnaz in the 1940’s and went on to continued success on records, TV and nightclubs throughout the country, makes a rare Hollywood appearance at the Catalina Jazz Club on Wednesday, June 20, at 8 PM. accompanied by the Nick Fryman Trio with Kirk Smith on bass and Jack La Compte on drums.

She will be performing a new show featuring from her five critically-acclaimed new CD releases, featuring recordings that she’s made over past seven decades with Goodman, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Les Paul, Ellis Larkins, Zoot Sims, Doc Cheatham, Bucky Pizzarrelli, and many others.

Harvey, who was discovered by the legendary John Hammond in 1944, made many classic recordings with Benny Goodman for Columbia Records, among them “Gotta Be This or That,“ “He‘s Funny That Way,” “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” and “Close as Pages in a Book,“ later winning new acclaim at New York’s Blue Angel and recording with the Desi Arnaz Orchestra for RCA Victor.

She headlined such legendary clubs as Ciro’s in Hollywood and the Copacabana in New York City, made many radio and TV appearances with Bob Hope and appeared on Broadway with Pearl Bailey in the Harold Rome musical “Bless You All.”

Her critically-acclaimed solo albums through the years have appeared on the Dot, Audio Fidelity, RCA and Atlantic labels.   Little Jazz Bird Records recently issued a five-CD set of the singer’s rare archival material that amazingly spans 1944 to 1996, with the titles “Lady Jazz,” “I’ll Never Go There Anymore,” “The Jazz Side of Sondheim,” “Travelin’ Light” and “The Undiscovered Jane Harvey,” featuring never-issued tracks with Ellington and Les Paul.

Reviewing a recent performance at Feinstein’s, critic Rex Reed wrote: “She knocked their socks off and is living proof that real talent never fades. It would be hard to imagine a more natural or heartfelt interpreter of this material. Jane Harvey is a true treasure brought back to life just when we need her most.”

The Catalina Jazz Club is located at 6725 Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood and the phone is 323-466-2210. Find the club online here.   Visit Jane’s website here; for bookings, call Alan Eichler, 818-507-8918.

May your happiness increase.

BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD

People who listen to jazz, read about it, write about it, seem to be entranced by drama.  So many of them are drawn to artists whose careers and lives are boldly delineated: the arc of early promise and a life cut short through self-destructive behavior or illness; the narrative of great achievement that tails off into stark decline.  Early Fame, Great Decline.  Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Jimmie Blanton, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young . . . the list is long.

But what of those musicians who had long careers, functioned at a high level of creativity, were undramatic in their professionalism?  They get less media attention in life and in death; their sheer reliability makes them almost shadowy figures.  (Of course, if they happen to live long lives — Doc Cheatham, Benny Waters, Eubie Blake, Hank Jones, Lionel Ferbos — then they may get a story in the paper.  But that’s another subject.)

One of the greatest trumpet players — also a wonderful composer and arranger — doesn’t get the attention he should: Buck Clayton from Parsons, Kansas, whose recordings over a thirty-year span are exceptional but not always celebrated as they should be.  Anyone familiar with the best music of that period can call to mind a dozen sessions that Buck not only plays on, but elevates: consider the dates with Basie, the Kansas City Five and Six and Seven, Billie, Mildred, Teddy and Ben, Hawkins on Keynote, Ike Quebec on Blue Note, his own dates for HRS, the Jam Sessions for Columbia and the later ones for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label, his recordings with Mel Powell at Carnegie Hall, the Vanguard sessions, a Verve date with Harry Edison, his own small band (circa 1961), recordings with Jimmy Rushing and Ada Moore and Mae Barnes, with Earl Hines, Bill Coleman, Don Byas, Flip Phillips, Horace Henderson, Sir Charles Thompson, Charlie Parker, Ed Hall, Alex Combelle, Joe Turner, Big Joe Turner, “Jazz From A Swinging Era,” Humphrey Lyttelton, Eddie Condon, J. J. Johnson, Benny Goodman . . . and I am sure I am leaving out many sessions.

Shanghai, 1934

Even though Buck was playing jazz in Shanghai in 1934, before he came home and stopped off in Kansas City, he seems to have been a rather undramatic man for all his exploits.  He showed up on time for the gig; he could talk to the audience; he wrote excellent charts and swinging originals; he was beautifully dressed; he transcended late-in-life health problems to launch a new career as a bandleader when the trumpet no longer responded to his urgings.  How unfortunate to be so bourgeois.

I only encountered him in person once: in 1971, there was a New York Jazz Museum Christmas party (if I have this right) where he was among a large number of musicians advertised as performing.  Buck was there, not playing, but splendidly dressed and very polite to a young fan who asked for his autograph.  (A side story: the musicians who actually did play, beautifully, were Chuck Folds, Gene Ramey, and Jackie Williams.  Someone requested MISTY and Ramey, upon hearing the song title, said, quietly, “I don’t play that shit,” and leaned his bass against the wall for the next three minutes, returning when the music was more to his liking.)

I also saw Buck — perhaps in 1980 — at a Newport in New York concert possibly paying tribute to Billie, with musicians including Zoot Sims and Harry Edison — attempting to return to playing.  His beautiful tone was intact on a fairly fast SUGAR, but he was having trouble hitting the notes one could sense he was aiming for . . . heroic but painful.)

Let’s listen to Buck again.

Here are the two takes of WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS from the 1938 Kansas City Six session for Commodore — with Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones.  It’s hard not to focus on Lester — but it can be done. Hear Buck, golden, easeful, and lithe . . . the only trumpet player I know who approaches his sly mobility is Bill Coleman of the same period.  Like Louis, he constructs his solos logically, one phrase building on its predecessors and looking forward to the next, each one acting as a small melodic building block in a larger arching structure — melodic embellishment with a larger purpose:

Any improvising musician would say that Buck’s solo choruses are not the work of an immature musician and not easy to do; his graceful ensemble playing is the work of a master.  But it sounds so easy, as if he were singing through his horn.  And that tone!

Here he is in a 1954 session that few know of — a Mel Powell-led jam session at Carnegie Hall, with Ruby Braff, Jay Brower (trumpet), Vernon Brown, Urbie Green (trombone), Tony Scott (clarinet), Lem Davis (alto sax), Buddy Tate, Eddie Shu (tenor sax), Romeo Penque (baritone sax), Mel Powell (piano), Steve Jordan (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Jo Jones, Gene Krupa (drums):

Buck appears near the end –just before Gene and Jo trade phrases.  And, yes, you read that correctly.  A marvel!

Here’s Buck with Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Hank Jones, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones in C JAM BLUES (1959):

And after his playing days had ended, as leader / composer / arranger of his own Swing Band, captured in France (1991) on RAMPAGE IN G MINOR:

The other swingers on that stage are Gerry Dodgion, alto; James Chirillo, guitar; Joe Temperley, baritone sax; Randy Sandke, trumpet; Matt Finders, trombone; Doug Lawrence and Arthur “Babe” Clarke, tenor saxophones; Phillipe Combell, drums.; Dick Katz, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Bobby Pring, trombone; John Eckert, Greg Gisbert; trumpet.

Someone who hasn’t forgotten Buck Clayton is the UK bassist / writer / radio host Alyn Shipton, who has performed often with Buck’s compositions and arrangements as the Buck Clayton Legacy Band.  Here they are in this century performing Buck’s tribute to his friend and fellow brassman Humph, SIR HUMPHREY:

That band is full of people who understand Buck and his music (some of them heroes of mine): Menno Daams, Ian Smith, Adrian Fry, Alan Barnes, Matthias Seuffert, Martin Litton, Martin Wheatley, Alyn Shipton and Norman Emberson.

I would encourage anyone reading this post to go to his or her shelves and take down a recording by Buck and revel in its glories.  Milt Hinton used to have a memo pad with this heading (because of his nickname “The Judge”):”You are hereby sentenced to thirty days of listening to good music.”  If you were to explore and re-explore Buck Clayton’s jazz world, you would have more than a month of pleasure.

He never provoked controversy; I doubt he will ever have his own online forum with vigorous acrimonious discussion of the minutiae of his life . . . but he created beauty whenever he raised his trumpet, composed a melody, or led a band.

May your happiness increase.

JANE HARVEY SINGS!

Like many other listeners, I knew Jane Harvey as a wonderful singer with a singular voice (its charm immediately apparent) beginning with her 1945 recordings with Benny Goodman, later ones with Zoot Sims and Dick Wellstood, among others.  Although Jane first recorded as a very young woman in the Swing Era, she is active and vibrant — appearing at Feinstein’s in New York City less than a year ago and continuing to perform.  Here she is, appearing in 1988 with Jane Pauley on the Today Show — singing a medley of Stephen Sondheim classics with delicacy and emotional power:

and on a V-Disc with BG, showing off her beautiful voice and innate swing:

Jane’s recordings have never been that easy to find, so it was a delightful surprise to learn of five new compact discs devoted to her — including much music that no one had heard before.  This bonanza isn’t a box set — not one of those unwieldy and often costly artifacts that we crave and then don’t always listen to.  And it has the even nicer fact of not being posthumous!  The CDs can be purchased individually (at surprisingly low prices at Amazon).

Here’s the first. Originally issued in 1988 by Atlantic, this disc originally featured Jane in an intimate setting with Mike Renzi, Jay Leonhart, and Grady Tate.  In an attempt to reach a wider audience, Atlantic added a large string orchestra, overdubbed.  The CD issue presents the music as originally recorded, with a new version of SEND IN THE CLOWNS.

This CD finds Jane in front of Ray Ellis’ large string orchestra (which works) for a collection ranging from the familiar (MY SHIP) to old favorites refreshed (THE GLORY OF LOVE) to the little-known title tune, with music by Moose Charlap, Bill’s father:

LADY JAZZ presents Jane amidst jazz players, including Doc Cheatham, Bucky Pizzarelli, John Bunch, Gene Bertoncini, Richard Davis, Bill Goodwin, Don Elliott (a session originally supervised by Albert McCarthy for English RCA), as well as six performances from Jane’s time with Goodman, two songs with Zoot Sims, Kenny Davern, and Dick Wellstood, and a duet of SOME OTHER TIME and THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME with Mike Renzi:

TRAVELIN’ LIGHT has been even more obscure, not for any musical reasons — an album originally recorded for Dot in 1960 which pairs Jane with the Jack Kane Orchestra.  Eight bonus tracks show Jane off in front of orchestras conducted by Billy Strayhorn and others or the Page Cavanaugh trio:

THE UNDISCOVERED JANE HARVEY might have been the title for any of the preceding discs, but it truly fits the final one.  When a disc begins with two performances where Jane is backed by the Duke Ellington orchestra — Strayhorn on piano and Ellington talking in the control booth — listeners are in a magical place.  Other performances on this disc have Jane paired with Les Paul, Ellis Larkins (an eight-minute Arlen-Koehler medley), and larger studio orchestras:  

The five CDs have been lovingly produced — with Jane’s help — by her friend, publicist, and booking manager Alan Eichler.  They feature enthusiastic liner notes by Will Friedwald, Nat Shapiro, Albert McCarthy, Nat Hentoff, and James Gavin.

The time is always right for Jane Harvey.  Her energy, jazz feeling, and empathy are undimmed.  Her voice is a pleasure to listen to; she honors the melodies, and she deeply understands the lyrics: no pretense, no overacting.  The Amazon link to the CDs can be found here

And for any other matters pertaining to Miss Harvey, please contact Alan Eichler at aeichler@earthlink.com.

If you remember Jane only as the lovely voice on the 1945 Goodman red-label Columbia version of HE’S FUNNY THAT WAY . . . or if you’ve seen her in more recent times, you’ll find these new issues full of pleasures.

OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNIN’: TIM LAUGHLIN, CONNIE JONES, CLINT BAKER, CHRIS DAWSON, KATIE CAVERA, MARTY EGGERS, HAL SMITH (Sept. 5, 2011)

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.

RIFFTIDE: FRAGMENTS FROM A DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE BY JO JONES

I’ve never before seen a YouTube video promoting a book, but if any book deserved one, it would be RIFFTIDE: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF PAPA JO JONES (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), edited and compiled by Paul Devlin from taped conversations that drummer and raconteur Jo Jones had with writer Albert Murray:

Like its subject, RIFFTIDE is simultaneously enthralling, elusive, irritating, and unsettling.  Jones (1910-85) was a great innovator and an equally great synthesizer of percussion technique, someone who understood that the drummer could liberate both himself and the band by rethinking jazz rhythm, by creating a flow rather than a series of demarcations.  Although Henderson drummer Walter Johnson was working towards similar goals, Jones’ great sound was that of the floating, whispering hi-hat cymbal, carrying any band forward and upwards — but most especially the Count Basie band in its most glorious years.  Behind the drums, at his best, he was both Loki and Dionysus — unpredictable, boyish, shape-changing, his sound always right.  Away from the drums he was someone else, a monologist who rarely let his listeners know the plot of his play.

Jo Jones would have been furious if described as “normal.”  That condescending description was for the “nine-to-fivers.”  A self-described “nut,” he was a cosmos unto himself: elliptical, often enraged in conversation, given to diatribes that served to push most listeners away, the result seeming at best irritating, at worst irrational.  (On that score, many have theorized that Jones’ behavior was the result of syphilis contracted early and not entirely cured.)

In the Seventies and early Eighties, Jones was eager to get his stories on paper, and he spoke to (rarely “with”) the African-American scholar Albert Murray, while Murray was working on another “as told to” book, the unsuccessful autobiography of Count Basie, GOOD MORNING BLUES.  (Either Basie was too modest or he didn’t entirely trust Murray; the real stories went with Basie to the grave.)  The tapes of Jones’s “autobiography” came to Devlin when Murray was too ill to edit and transcribe them, although the two men discussed what Devlin had come up with.

RIFFTIDE is made up of several short parts: an informal essay by Devlin, part reminiscence, part explanation of his editorial method, part graduate-school essay on Jones.  What closes the book is a more effective (although cliché-ridden) twenty-two page essay by Phil Schaap, who knew Jones for the last thirty years of Jones’ life.  Those two sections contain some fascinating information: Devlin’s comments on editing the tapes reveal much about Jones, although I wished Devlin had been willing to incorporate the stories Jones categorized as “private stock” to Murray.  Schaap’s section is characteristically windy, he was a first-hand observer and participant: for example, musicians as mild-mannered as Buddy Tate and Doc Cheatham refused to ride in cars with Jones; Cheatham going so far as to purchase a small car because it would make it impossible to have Jo as a passenger.  The book closes with useful footnotes and rare photographs.

The center of this paperback is, of course, Jones’ recollections, rants, enthusiasms, stories, anecdotes, score-settling . . . fervent yet digressive.  I’m not sure if Jo was at this stage unable or unwilling to narrate a conventional autobiography in chronological sequence.  I think his mind went in violently associative ways, so that everything reminded him of something or someone else he couldn’t bear to leave out.  Early on in RIFFTIDE I felt as if I had signed on for an often airless monologue by someone with great energies and purposes known only to himself.

That, however, is the beauty of RIFFTIDE: Jo spoke at me several times in this period, when I met him at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop or asked for an autograph or the like, and the book captures those experiences.  One listened while he spoke; one did not converse or attempt to direct the flow of conversation.   The book is most readable in Jones’ brief portraits of people he knew, liked, or detested as fraudulent. He praises Ralph Ellison, Duke Ellington, the Harlem Globetrotters, Louis Bellson, his colleagues in the Basie band, the jockey Isaac Murphy, Bill Robinson, violinist Claude Williams, Basie’s manager Maceo Birch; scorns James Baldwin and John Hammond (the latter is a “R.P.P.,” a “Racist Prejudiced Prick”), is ambivalent about Count Basie in the present.

Here is a brief sample of his voice, digressive, oratorical: “Take me forty-something years to earn my keep.  I’m fifty-six years in show business.  I have earned my keep.  There won’t be but two people in the United States can tell you.  Now ask the president of France.  I got my picture with the president of France.  You know what I’m saying?  But I’m into something heavy.  Like when I go down with Grace Kelly; she’s got Josephine Baker’s thirteen children!  I’m with the policeman that held the umbrella overhead when they’re dispossessing her.  See, I’m kinda odd out here.  I sleep with my door unlocked: me and my Bible.  My friend comes in, she locks the door.  I’ve never locked my door in fifty-six years.  Everybody understands how I play: I play free.  I’m not afraid of a living person. I fear God: I got four hundred religions and five hundred cults. There are two people that give me strength: Billie Holiday and Lester Young.”

These excerpts and portraits are both elusive and invaluable: as close to hearing Jo Jones as most will ever come.  If at times I thought I had wandered into a Beckett play or reborn into a Browning dramatic monologue, that was the feeling that an encounter with Jo in the flesh created.

We are lucky to have RIFFTIDE, although its fragmentary nature makes me wish that a more comprehensive oral history had been taken and made accessible while Jones was eager and able to tell his stories.

For those who wish to read about my own encounters with the great man, here is SMILING JO JONES: https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/smiling-jo-jones/ — complete with the photograph I took of Papa Jo in action at the West End Cafe in New York City, circa 1981.

TRULY WONDERFUL: THE RAIN CITY BLUE BLOWERS (May 7, 2011)

The post’s title isn’t hyperbole.  A friend sent me a few YouTube videos of this new band — holding forth on May 7, 2011, at the Bellingham Jazz Club (in Washington State).

I got through about fifteen seconds of the first clip before becoming so elated that I stopped the clip to make a few phone calls . . . their import being “You HAVE to see this band!  You won’t believe how wonderful they are!”

For a change, let’s begin with the rhythm section.  You can barely see Candace Brown, but you can hear her firm, flexible pulse — she’s playing a Thirties National steel guitar.  On her left is her husband Dave on string bass — strong yet fluid.  Closer to the camera is that monument of unaging swing, Ray Skjelbred on piano — the hero of the steady, varied left-hand and the splashing, striding right hand.  (His right hand knows what his left is doing: no worries!)  The front line is a mere duo but with multiple personalities — great for Jimmie Noone / Doc Poston ecstasies — of two gifted multi-instrumentalists.  On the left is Steve Wright — cornet, clarinet, soprano sax, vocal; to his right is Paul Woltz, bass, alto, soprano, tenor sax, and vocal.  Their repertoire moves from New Orleans / ancient pop classics to Bix and Tram to Condonite romps with a special emphasis on Noone’s Apex Club.

You’ll hear for yourself.  I began with MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS (homage to Bing and to Cutty Cutshall, who called this tune MAHONEY’S . . . . ):

Pee Wee Russell had a girlfriend named Lola (this would have been in the late Twenties and onwards, before Mary came along); legend has it that Lola was violently jealous and when she got angry at Pee Wee, she’d take a big scissors and cut his clothes to bits.  The Mound City Blue Blowers (with Coleman Hawkins and Glenn Miller) recorded a wonderful song and called it HELLO LOLA — were they glad to see her or merely placating her, hoping she hadn’t brought her scissors along?  We’ll never know, but this version of HELLO, LOLA (with comma) has no sharp edges — at least none that would do anyone harm:

The young man from Davenport — forever young in our imaginations — is loved so intensely that the RCBB offer two evocations of his music.  Young Bix Beiderbecke is on everyone’s mind for a romping IDOLIZING (memories of those Goldkette Victors):

And we think of Bix at the end of his particular road — with I’LL BE A FRIEND (WITH PLEASURE):

Now do you understand why I find these performances so enlivening?  This band has tempo and swing, heart and soul, rhythm in its nursery rhymes!  Seriously — what lovely rocking ocean-motion, heartfelt soloing and ensemble playing.  This band knows and plays the verse and the tempos chosen are just right.  And that beat!

I want Ralph Peer or Tommy Rockwell to hear the RCBB and I want them to be under contract to Victor or OKeh right this minute!  I would invite John Hammond to hear them, but John tends to meddle so – – – he’d want to replace half the band with people he liked better.  And I can’t think of people I would prefer . . .

How about two more selections?

This one’s for Mister Strong — his composition, you know! It’s MUSKRAT RAMBLE at the nice Hot Five tempo:

And just for fun (and because Red McKenzie sang it so wonderfully), the DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL — with the verse:

By day and by profession, I am an academic — which explains the didactic streak in my character — but this is a suggestion aiming my readers towards happiness rather than a graded assignment.  You might want to consider visiting Steve Wright’s YouTube channel — “” and indulging yourself in the other performances by this band.  How about SWEET SUE, EVERY EVENING, KING JOE, ONE HOUR, STACK O’LEE, CHANGES MADE, GEORGIA CABIN, LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART, and I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY.

Multi-instrumentalist Steve Wright told me this about the band’s instant creation, gestation-while-you-wait:

“We pulled this together in a hurry.  Chris Tyle’s Silver Leaf Band was originally booked, but Chris got a call for some work in Europe and gave the gig to Dave and Candace (who play with him in Silver Leaf).  I play occasionally with the three of them in Candace’s Combo De Luxe, so I was looped in, and then we decided to pull in a second horn player (Paul) and Ray on piano.  I pulled together some leadsheets and two-reed arrangements from previous bands, and off we went.  Even the name was a rush job: I got a call from the Bellingham folks needing a band name for their publicity, and an hour to figure something out. Since I was already planning to use some Red McKenzie material from the First Thursday book (Hello Lola, for example), I thought of taking off from the Mound City Blue Blowers.”

Now . . . suppose the names of these players are new to you?  Ray Skjelbred has his own website — go there and feel good!

http://www.rayskjelbred.com/

— but Wright, Woltz, and the Browns might be less familiar to you.  Don’t fret.  Here are some facts for the factually-minded.

DAVE BROWN began his musical career decades ago, on banjo and guitar, later expanding his impressive talents to string bass.  He lays down solid rhythm with an energetic style influenced by Steve Brown and Pops Foster. Dave’s credits include membership in the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band, Stumptown, Louisiana Joymakers, Chris Tyle’s Silver Leaf Jazz Band, Combo de Luxe, Glenn Crytzer’s Syncopators, Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band, Gerry Green’s Crescent City Shakers and others.  Many West Coast bands call Brown for gigs, including Simon Stribling’s New Orleans Ale Stars, Red Beans and Rice, Vancouver Classic, Solomon Douglas Sextet, and Jonathan Stout’s Campus Five.  Over the years he has appeared at national and international jazz festivals and has been privileged to play alongside jazz greats “Doc” Cheatham, Spiegle Willcox, Jim Goodwin, and others.

STEVE WRIGHT has been a sparkplug of many fine bands, including the Paramount Jazz of Boston, the Happy Feet Dance Orchestra, the Stomp Off “studio” band (The Back Bay Ramblers).  He’s even substituted a few times with the Black Eagles on clarinet.  After moving to Seattle in 1995, he  joined the Evergreen Jazz Band as a second reed player and then moved to mostly playing cornet as personnel changed.  In the last few years, he’s played a great deal with Candace’s and Ray’s bands, as well as with a local Lu Watters-style two-cornet band, Hume Street Jazz Band.

CANDACE BROWN is one-half of the Jazzstrings duo with husband Dave, Combo de Luxe, Louisiana Joymakers, and she has subbed in many other bands (including Simon Stribling’s Ale Stars and Mighty Aphrodite) as well as playing in the pit orchestra for musical theater. Candace has been heard at a number of festivals including the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, on an Alaskan jazz cruise, at several jazz society concerts, and in July of 2007 she was a member of the pit orchestra for a production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”  Candace is also a splendid writer — if you haven’t read her inspiring blog, GOOD LIFE NORTHWEST, you’re missing out on deep pleasure:  http://goodlifenw.blogspot.com/

PAUL WOLTZ began playing music in his youth, in California.  He performed frequently at Disneyland for a decade, worked as a studio musician in Hollywood, and was a member of the Golden Eagle Jazz Band.  In the Seattle/Everett area, he is a member of the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band (with whom he has performed at countless jazz festivals and on jazz cruises) is principal bassoonist in the Cascade Symphony, occasionally performs with the 5th Ave Theater, and is called as a sub in numerous bands in the Puget Sound area and beyond — all over the United States and abroad.

TRULY WONDERFUL!

DRUMATIC CYMBALISM is COMING!

Artist Alex Craver, Mike Burgevin, and Sadiq Abdu Shahid

“DRUMATIC CYMBALISM” CONCERT SERIES

May – October 2011, Stamford, New York

Two of Central New York’s top kit drummers will perform six concerts of  spell-binding rhythms and creative drumming. The focus will be The American Drum Kit from the 1930’s until the present day.

Professional drumming is a way of life for these seasoned performers “Mike” Burgevin and Sadiq Abdu Shahid (formerly Archie Taylor, Jr.).

“Sadiq,”who resides with his family on their farm in Masonville, New York, was born and raised in the Midwest and studied with Cleveland Symphony Orchestra percussionist Charles Wilcoxon.  He performed and recorded with many famous avant-garde jazzmen: Pharaoh Sanders, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor (among others) and was a resident drummer for Motown Records in Detroit, there recording many albums backing R&B groups.

His father, Archie Taylor, Sr., was also a famous drummer accompanying Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, and the one and only Billie Holiday.

Michael “Mike” Burgevin, now a resident of Bainbridge, New York, began drumming professionally at age 15.  From the mid 1960’s through the 1980’s he worked regularly at famous NYC jazz clubs, Jimmy Ryan’s, Sweet Basil, Eddie Condon’s, and Brew’s side by side with many of the great jazz “Swing” players (now legends) Max Kaminsky, “Doc” Cheatham, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, Roy Eldridge, Wild Bill Davison, Warren Vaché and many, many others.

He has had the honor and privilege of playing with Joe Thomas, Herman Autrey, Vic Dickenson, Bobby Hackett, Benny Morton, Bobby Gordon, Rudy Powell, Dill Jones, Dick Wellstood, Al Casey, and many others.  It was my privilege to see him swing the band every time he started a gentle beat with his brushes or tapped his closed hi-hat.

Mike studied with Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra percussionist Richard Horowitz.  He also performed in several of the “Journey in Jazz” concerts with saxophonist Al Hamme in Binghamton University’s Anderson Center as well as producing many jazz concerts in the historic Town Hall Theatre in Bainbridge between 2001 and 2007.

No two DRUMNASTIC CYMBALISM concerts are ever the same!

Drumming becomes a musical art form in the hands of these outstanding percussionists.  A show may begin with “Curious Curlicues & Nimble Noodles” then move to whisper-quiet ruffs and other rudiments… then pass through sonorous tonalities before roaring into layered polyrhythmic styles of Jazz, and Free Form drumming.  Sadiq and Mike totally explore the drum set with all its possibilities.  Their concerts open with a brief discourse on the history and development of the drum and the evolution of various styles of drumming.

A Master Creative Drum Workshop will take place on July 16th from 3:00 to 5:00 at The Gallery East, 71 Main Street, Stamford, NY.  Workshop fee is $25. Students should bring sticks, a practice pad or snare drum and stand.

Questions?  Call The Gallery in Stamford at 607 652 4030.

Before the concerts: Come early and enjoy dining in one of Stamford’s fine restaurants.  Then visit artist Timothy Touhey’s two galleries, both located on Main Street (Route 23).

You will be uplifted by the art and music!

So mark your calendar: May 21st / June 18th / July16th / August 21st / Sept.17th / Oct.15th — Performances begin at 7:00. Tickets at the door are $10.00 / $8.00 in advance.

For information in advance call:   THE GALLERY EAST 71 MAIN ST. STAMFORD, NY @ 607 652 4030.   On the day of the concert please call 607 353 2492.   Tour The Gallery at www.touhey.com.

ALLEN LOWE’S NEWEST [BLUES] CORNUCOPIA

Musician, composer, and scholar Allen Lowe doesn’t hold back — either in generosity, scope, or opinions.  And he has perhaps the widest range of any musician I know: from Louis, Eubie, and Doc Cheatham (as well as the shade of Jack Purvis) reaching forward to Julius Hemphill, Matthew Shipp, and Marc Ribot. 

His book and CD set, THAT DEVILIN’ TUNE, was a re-presentation of the history of recorded jazz, and it did so with audacious delight across thirty-six discs, from the eighteen-nineties to the nineteen-fifties.  Lowe’s criteria for inclusion (and exclusion) excited some listeners and irritated others, but no one could ignore the heroic sweep of music presented in those four neat boxes.  

Some music scholars operate by exclusion and create their own criteria for artistic purity: if a performance doesn’t fit in the box they’ve made, it can’t be considered valid.  (Think of the airlines’ measurements for carry-on luggage and you get the idea.)  Like Whitman, Lowe is fascinated by elasticities, by stretching rather than closing-off. 

Lowe wants us to hear as if for the first time — in much the same way that Conrad said the novelist wanted to make us see.  He arranges his music, delighting in pushing aside the limiting constructs of race, gender, or “genre.”  So the expected nestles in beside the surprising, and this collage-approach encourages or forces the listener to hear just how explosive a Bert Williams, a Jelly Roll Morton, a Ma Rainey, was — as well as the artists we’ve not yet heard. 

The other parallel motion of a Lowe set is to say to us, “Listen to this!  You have large music collections, but I’ll bet you haven’t heard this.”  And few of us will be able to say, “I know all of the music presented here.” 

The question mark says a good deal about Lowe’s inquiring approach to this or any other musical subject. 

When I initially heard that he had completed one of his astonishing cornucopias on the loosely-defined subject of the blues, I was fascinated and more that a bit worried.  How would anyone endure thirty-six compact discs (nearly a thousand tracks) trapped within the twelve-bar blues form, with the occasional detour for the eight-bar and sixteen-bar varieties.  “My man’s gone,” “My woman’s gone,” “My old daddy’s got a brand new way to love,” “It hurts so good,” “Money all gone,” “Flood washed my house away,” “Why am I poor?” and variations on those tropes . . .

I needn’t have worried.  Always relying on his own imoulses, Lowe trusts himself, so his collection isn’t restricted to “official” blues performances using three chords only.  And the juxtapositions are thrilling — consider this sequence of four recordings from 1922 and 1923: Society Blues (Kid Ory and Mutt Carey); Teasin’ the Frets (Nick Lucas); I Ain’t Got Nobody (Marion Harris); Midnight Blues (Ethel Waters).  Although perhaps it is not something most jazz / blues listeners would like to admit, they would privilege some names above others as “authentic” (Ory and Waters) and others as “popular,” “derivative,” “vaudevillian.”  For many listeners, race would enter into their assessment.  There’s no question that Waters bursts upon the ear with a great soulful immediacy, but then again so does Harris.  And Nick Lucas has just as much fervor as Ory’s Sunshne Orchestra.  The surprises come thick and fast: I saw Sophie Tucker as a huge elderly Hot Mama on television some forty-five years ago: her 1922 AGGRAVATIN’ PAPA is fresh and lively, belying its age, her race, and the musical associations Ms. Tucker is saddled with.  So does Eddie Cantor in 1924. 

And since many listeners tend to burrow deeply but narrowly into their chosen loves, I wonder how many jazz / blues fanciers will know the music of The Pebbles, The Two of Spades, the Old Pal Smoke Shop Four, and others (I am leaving aside the early gospel recordings as an area many have never ventured into.)

The juxtapositions — both theoretical and actual — are vivid and fascinating.  Consider this list of thirteen recordings — all except one from the second half of 1927:  PENN BEACH BLUES (Venuti – Lang ) / BLACK HEARSE BLUES (Sarah Martin – Sylvester Weaver) / COLD PENITENTIARY BLUES (E.F. Shelton) / SHAKIN’ THE BLUES AWAY (Ruth Etting) / THE CROWING ROOSTER (Walter Rhodes) / CREOLE LOVE CALL (Ellington) / GOD’S GOING TO SEPARATE THE WHEAT FROM THE TARES (Blind Joe Taggart) / JAZZ ME BLUES / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES (Bix and his Gang) / CHATTANOOGA BLUES (Allen Bros.) / NEW ORLEANS LOWDOWN (Ellington) / BARRELHOUSE MAN (Will Ezell) / I AM BORN TO PREACH THE GOSPEL (Washington Phillips). 

It is rather like coming to stay with the world’s most avid and generous collector of music who throws his or her shelves open to the listener, offering treasures, “common” recordings, and rarities, without a pre-set ideology or value system.  Lowe doesn’t say that everything is equal or important, but that it all means something in the larger picture of a culture, of shifting musical landscapes.  This is the first leg of a thrilling journey, and (to carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion) we couldn’t have a better guide. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of deep listening and reconsidering to do!  (So do you, if I may be so bold.) 

You can order the first volume of four at http://www.allenlowe.com

Here’s the link to the complete track list for the entire 36-CD set (in four volumes):

http://www.allenlowe.com/alpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Really-The-Blues-Song-List.pdf

WHILE YOU’RE UP, CLICK HERE: ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!

https://.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQASwww

CHARLESTON MAD! (The SCANDINAVIAN RHYTHM BOYS)

The Scandinavian Rhythm Boys are a deeply rewarding hot band, and they’ve just come out with a new CD, CHARLESTON MAD.  I’ve been excited by the band for a few years now.  And I was delighted to be able to write a short liner note for this new release, which I’ve reprinted below.

I first encountered the SRB on YouTube and was astonished and delighted by their skill and feeling, their wit and casual intensity. I didn’t feel the need for a pianist, a trombonist, a drummer. They swung; they were complete; they lived within the jazz tradition without imitating its recorded artifacts. Even better, they had solved the problem common to musical groups and larger communities (world leaders take note): how to gather individuals with strong personalities and blend them into a cohesive whole without trampling on anyone’s identity.

Who are the Scandinavian Rhythm Boys? I’ll start with the one musician I’ve been privileged to meet: reed master Frans Sjostrom. (I’m especially happy that I’ve learned how to pronounce his name correctly.) Frans’ rhythm is irresistible; his solos are haunting songs. The easy assessment on hearing Frans play the bass sax is to compare him to Adrian Rollini, but why define his creativity in such a narrow way? When I hear Frans play any saxophone I think of Coleman Hawkins; I think of Pablo Casals.

Then there’s Ole Olsen, whose clarinet playing has the deep feeling and down-home ease of Louis Cottrell and the New Orleans masters. On string bass, he supports and guides the group with his simple, neat lines, his woody sound, his strong pulse. His partner is the splendid Michael Boving, whose banjo rings and whispers – never a threat to communal serenity. Ole and Michael could rock a seventeen-piece band and have energy left over after the gig. Michael is also an astonishing singer whose vocals come from his heart. When he sings, “How long will I have to wait?” it has the mournful shouting force of a soul in torment; when he tells you he’s “Charleston mad,” we know it’s true.

Robert Hansson must have daredevils and acrobats in his genetic makeup, because he knows no fear: his spinning, shining lines, light as air, leap and dance high above the crowd. I think of early Bill Coleman, of Doc Cheatham, of Bob Barnard when I hear Robert – and of bright traceries in the twilight sky.

These four players combine to make lovely music, an art that doesn’t show off how difficult its achievements are. Whether they’re playing the classic jazz repertoire of Joe Oliver, Clarence Williams, Lovie Austin, or the ODJB, or Scandinavian pop classics – they spread joy and inspire us to smile, to dance, to exult. What a delicious accomplishment this CD is!

The website for the SRB is http://www.srbjazz.com.  There you can hear two performances from the CD, HESITATING BLUES and CLARINET MARMALADE, and there you can buy the CD.  Or, as Michael Boving suggested, “JAZZCLUB Copenhagen is our best jazz record shop in town.  They have
got the CD and it can be ordered now – your readers can find Jazzclub Copenhagen on Google and it’s there.”

Here are two video clips recorded by our mutual friend Flemming Thorbye — of the Scandinavian Rhythm Boys on a harbor cruise in Copenhagen.  One of the sweetest things about this CD, by the way, is that the SRB create swinging versions of Scandinavian classic pop tunes — giving listeners like myself something new to hum (something new that we can’t get out of our heads no matter how hard we try)!

Here’s TRUBBLE:

And here’s the title tune, with a thrilling, rough-cut vocal by Michael Boving, CHARLESTON MAD:

There are many video clips of the SRB on YouTube, including a few with the esteemed Joe Muranyi, but none of them will substitute for the pleasure of this CD — which I’ve been playing while driving through Central Park, for instance, with my window rolled down and the volume up to respectable (I hope not annoying) levels, sending this Good Hot Music out into the world.  It deserves to be heard!  (One of the best vignettes on this disc is the Richard M. Jones song — I associate it with the Oliver band — I AIN’T GONNA TELL NOBODY — which I’ve never heard with lyrics.  That is the very opposite of the way I feel about this music.)

JIM FRYER AND FRIENDS, SWEETLY (June 2, 2010)

I was at Birdland last Wednesday, listening to David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band.  The LACB always attracts first-rank players, but this edition was remarkable because it was an All-Star All-Leader Band (with none of the expected tensions): David on tuba and vaudeville commentaries; Vince Giordano on banjo, vocal, and guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Dan Block on clarinet and alto sax; Jim Fryer on trombone and vocals. 

Although it has nothing to do with his musical virtues, Jim might be the least-celebrated of this group, although I’ve admired his playing since I first heard him a few years ago — perhaps as a member of the Nighthawks and certainly as someone sharing the stage with Bria Skonberg at one of Bill Taggart’s informal jazz gatherings.  He is a modest player but an exuberant player, taking risks when appropriate, never coasting.  I’ve also known him as a fine understated singer — but I’ve never heard him sing as wonderfully as he did last Wednesday.

As much as he enjoys playing the music and talking about Louis Armstrong, David Ostwald loves to connect with the people in the audience.  Occasionally it takes the form of comedy, as when he earnestly implores those of us who are driving to be sure we have a car, but sometimes it’s much more personal and endearing.  At the end of the first set, David noticed that there were a number of well-dressed women of varying ages in the front row; he chatted with them and found that they were at Birdland to celebrate someone’s birthday — which turned out to be the nicely coiffed Lorraine . . . someone obviously surrounded by love from the other women in her party. 

Because the LACB draws much of its repertoire from music that Louis played and recorded, SWEET LORRAINE was a natural choice — something the great man recorded in the Fifties on Verve with Oscar Peterson.  So the band launched into a sweet, slow version, but no one had yet chosen to take the vocal.  Vince had sung a few numbers before this with great style, but no vocal was announced . . . until Jim took the microphone to deliver the refrain in the most tenderly endearing manner:

Lorraine, sitting right in front of me, was delighted. 

And I, watching this performance again, find it full of human moments: the pleasure of Dan Block’s chalumeau register; Jon-Erik’s steady, winding phrases (and how unflappable he is while a good deal of microphone-hunting is going on behind him); Vince, making jokes as he plays; the pulse of the rhythm section, and Jon-Erik’s quiet Muggsy Spanier ending.  Masterful all around!

Sometimes bad things pile on: this was a rare night when one outpouring of affection succeeded another.  Vince Giordano came over to Lorraine at the end of the night (he is ever hopeful of garnering some fascinating piece of first-hand experience from someone who saw and heard his heroes) but Lorraine didn’t recall the names of bands; she didn’t have Victor Home Recording discs in her attic; she did, however, tell Vince that she was an avid fox-trotter, which pleased him.

Then David Ostwald brought himself and his tuba over and tenderly chatted with Lorraine . . . and said, “I’m going to play something for you.”  He proceeded to play a tender, legato, singing version of HAPPY BIRTHDAY — sweet and slow — on the tuba, ending with a Louis-flourish.  He sang through that brass tubing as if it were a cello — a very moving experience!  I was sitting there, possibly with my mouth open, too struck by what was going on (it seemed private) to record it for YouTube, so you will have to imagine it.

When I caught up with Jim later, to tell him how much this particular performance moved me, he reminded me that one of his and his wife Rosita’s daughters is named Lorraine — a choice the prospective parents made after hearing Doc Cheatham sing the song with unaffected grace on Sunday brunches at Sweet Basil.  It pleases me immensely to be able to offer this lyrical moment for the Lorraine in the audience, Lorraine Fryer, and all the people out there who answer to other names. 

What is all this?  Love in the shape of music.

BREATHING THE SAME AIR

Were I a different sort of person, I could blame my parents, who were lovingly overprotective.  I could be irked at them now for not encouraging me to leave my suburban nest at 14 or 15 to go into New York City.  Had they been more adventurous souls themselves, I might have seen Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart in the flesh.  But by the time I began to make the trek, Ben Webster had left for Europe; Coleman Hawkins had died. 

Rather than lament the ones I’ve missed, I will list the names of the heroic players and singers  — now dead — I did get to see.

Trumpets / cornets: Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett, Buck Clayton, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Ray Nance, Louis Metcalf, Herman Autrey, Doc Cheatham, Pat Jenkins, Joe Newman, Joe Thomas, Max Kaminsky, Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Erwin, Dick Sudhalter, Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield, Jimmy McPartland, Johnny Windhurst, Taft Jordan, Franc Williams, Jimmy Maxwell.

Trombones: Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Benny Morton, Bobby Pratt, Georg Brunis, Dick Rath, Tyree Glenn, Eli Robinson.

Reeds: Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Al Klink, Herb Hall, Kenny Davern, Sal Pace, Russell Procope, Benny Carter, Johnny Mince, Bud Freeman, Buddy Tate, Phil Bodner, Sam Margolis, Harold Ashby, Earle Warren, Rudy Rutherford, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Clifford Jordan, Rudy Powell, Budd Johnson, Eddie Barefield, Lockjaw Davis, Allen Eager, Barney Bigard, Paul Quinichette, Illinois Jacquet, George Kelly.

Pianos: Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Claude Hopkins, Dill Jones, Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Jane Jarvis, Hank Jones, John Bunch, Jimmy Rowles, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans, Ross Tompkins, Joe Bushkin, Ellis Larkins, Sammy Price, Art Hodes.

Guitars: Eddie Condon, Freddie Green, Wayne Wright, Herb Ellis, Al Casey, Bernard Addison, Carmen Mastren, George Barnes.

Basses: Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Charles Mingus, Al Hall, Bill Pemberton, Gene Ramey, Jack Lesberg, Bob Haggart, Franklyn Skeete.

Drums: Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Cliff Leeman, Chauncey Morehouse, Buzzy Drootin, Tommy Benford, Oliver Jackson, Eddie Locke, Sonny Greer, Sam Woodyard, Gus Johnson, Jake Hanna, Connie Kay, Freddie Moore.

Vibraphone (or Vibraharp): Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo.

Violin: Joe Venuti.

Vocals: Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, Lee Wiley, Bing Crosby, Al Hibbler, Maxine Sullivan.

I miss them all, but feel so fortunate that I was there to breathe the same air, to hear their sounds.

WHERE THE DARK AND THE LIGHT FOLKS MEET

Unfortunately, the history that seems to stick in the mind is oversimplified beyond belief.  Although jazz is a reasonably young phenomenon, it has attracted too many watery half-truths.  When enthusiasts began to write about the music and its performers in the Thirties, they were so in love with what they heard that they created and embellished myths appropriate to its magical, transporting nature.  Perhaps we have come some distance from Buddy Bolden’s cornet being heard miles away and Bix Beiderbecke carrying his horn in a paper sack, but the myths have been maintained tenderly for decades.  Closely examined, these cherished bits of apocrypha turn out to be dangerous rather than dreamlike. 

In his new book, musician, harmonic theorist, and writer Randall Sandke (we know him as Randy) has done a magnificent job of spring cleaning jazz’s mythic house, writing truths others wouldn’t.  It might be the only book of its kind; it needed to be written.  More to the point, it needs to be read.

Sandke’s WHERE THE DARK AND THE LIGHT FOLKS MEET: RACE AND THE MYTHOLOGY, POLITICS, AND BUSINESS OF JAZZ (Scarecrow Press: 2010, 275 pages) takes its title from the verse to “Basin Street Blues,” but it is neither an exercise in jazz nostalgicizing (“Oh, the glories of the past . . . all gone now . . . how those boys could play . . . who remembers them?”) nor is it a spattering of irascibility (“Those damned hip-hop musicians . . . those promoters . . . Oprah . . . those record labels . . . the end of beauty as we know it.” 

Sandke is angry, but his is a righteous indignation.  The book isn’t his story of how badly he’s been treated, but a wide-ranging evidence-based study of the distortions that pass for received wisdom.  His goal is to point out the fallacies, inconsistencies, and contradictions that have become jazz history (and by extension, the curricular truths on which jazz education has been built).  He can be sharp-tongued, especially about biased statements made by people who don’t play instruments — but the book is not a vindictive jamboree.

What Sandke is particularly unhappy about are attempts to portray jazz as a racially divided music, where African-Americans took their inspiration directly from Africa (where else?) and brought it to America only to have it stolen by greedy, ignorant Caucasians who copied their innovations, ran record labels and jazz clubs. 

Jazz, to Sandke, isn’t Black music popularized by White men: it is a musical continuum where Ornette Coleman can speak sadly about young “Scotty” LaFaro, his favorite bassist, where Louis Armstrong and Doc Cheatham can speak reverently of Bix Beiderbecke.  The musicians know that the notes are not connected to skin pigment. 

The critics, Black and White, have not gotten that point. 

And the writers who have, intentionally or through ignorance, nurtured alsehoods are famous — Rudi Blesh, John Hammond, Hugues Panassie, Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, Marshall Stearns, Amiri Baraka, Martin Williams, Gary Giddins. 

If this ideological slant had only been condescension to Benny Goodman and Bix because as, Rob Gibson (the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center) told someone, Benny and Bix didn’t write any jazz compositions of significance, it would be foolish and sad.  If this racial perspective had only ignored the creative White improvisers, Sandke’s work could have been seen as a continuation of Richard Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS — but Sandke has larger aims in mind than simply saying, “You know, when Louis and Bunk were playing jazz in New Orleans, the Prima brothers, the Brunies brothers, Tony Parenti, Johnny Wiggs, and fifty more people whose names aren’t caled, were also playing.”

What Sandke wants is fairness, not music being distorted to serve anyone’s ideology.  He wants readers to know the reality of the music business — something he’s learned from experience on the bandstand and off — and to examine how race applies to jazz, which it certainly does.  He wants us to know what musicians were paid in different contexts from New Orleans gigs to current festivals.  He would like us to think deeply about the problems of “authorship” — when a composition was re-copyrighted under a different title, when such august figures as Clarence Williams made money off more credulous younger players, one being Louis Armstrong. 

And he poses philosophical questions without being didactic, merely by positioning first-hand narratives side-by-side, so that we are asked to think about Duke Ellington’s taking the ideas his musicians brought to him and making hit songs out of them, adding his name . . . and the same process done to those compositions by Ellington’s White manager Irving Mills. 

Many readers will be drawn to Sandke’s careful yet impassioned examination of what he calls “the Wynton Marsalis phenomenon,” giving Marsalis credit as a player and influential figure but taking issue with the social and poitical implications of his elevation to a primary role as jazz’s sole figurehead.  But Sandke is not out to win notoriety by attacking Marsalis, as will become obvious even to the most Marsalistic of readers.

Sandke also works hard to remove the mythic accretions of decades in favor of first-hand narratives: the racial balance in the recording studios; the complex and sometimes painful relations between musicians and record companies, managers, and promoters, and the role of White listeners as essential to the survival and continuation of jazz.  For jazz, he sees a hopeful future — that is, I think, if much could be left in the hands of the musicians rather than the ideologues.

This book will be greeted with some dispeasure.  Sandke is Caucasian; he will be seen by some who do not read his book closely as writing as a jealous, disgruntled outsider.  He does portray some musicians and writers, living and dead, as unfair, hardly objective.  But five pages of his book will easily dispel any sense that he is acting out of acrimony.  Those tempted to call him racist will have to ignore the evenhandedness on every page. 

And — to back away from disputation for a moment — Sandke is a fine literate plain-spoken writer.  The book is heroically researched without being dull or stodgy.  And it comes to seem a series of brief interconnected essays on the larger theme, essays that can successfully stand on their own.  I dream of an upper-level jazz course for musicians as well as educators that would take each essay as a seminar text: perhaps some perceptive university will offer Professor Sandke a steady Tuesday-afternoon gig. 

Ultimately, it all comes back to the book’s title.  Jam sessions and jazz clubs have long been places where dark and light folks met in joyous exploration, creative harmony.  Eddie Condon was arranging “mixed” record sessions long before this country could accustom itself to the possibility of Barack Obama.  Jazz, rather than having been the reactionary, nearly moribund phenomenon some of its critics see it as, could still be the vision of a loving collective world.  Now, that’s hopeful!

“KEEP HOT!”

In THE SPIRIT OF LOUIS, 2009, not long ago, I posted three video performances where the Scandinavian Rhythm Boys were joined by one of the remaining Elders, clarinetist Joe Muranyi.  (https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2009/11/02/the-spirit-of-louis-2009/)

If those videos eluded you, or the SRB are new to you, here they are, in Toronto, playing BLUE (and BROKEN-HEARTED).  The “Boys” in this incarnation are Hans Jorgen Hansen, bass saxophone and other reeds; Robert Hansson, trumpet; Paul Waters, bass; Michael Bøving, banjo and vocal.  And the nicely-done video is by Flemming Thorbye, who has preserved so much fine jazz on YouTube.   

I find this very affecting.  It takes experience to play with such emotion yet to be so restrained.  As the late Leroy “Sam” Parkins often said, a group like this is in no hurry; they are taking their time.  And they get there!

A package arrived the other day, STARDUST, a CD with two sessions by the SRB — one with Joe Muranyi.  I had been impressed with the YouTube clips I had seen, but they were nothing compared to the sound of the SRB in the recording studio.  For one thing, the studio itself is spacious — I would guess that the musicians get to see each other and hear other without baffles and headphones.  Thus the result is like being very close up to a live performance in a space with ideal acoustics and ambiance. 

And the SRB plays its collective heart out, without strain.  Waters’ bass is propulsive without being pushing; his slap-technique is never monotonous or wooden.  Hansen has a fine, eloquent facility on all his horns, and he is a masterful ensemble player.  Boving is a steady, serene banjoist without the excesses of enthusiasm often connected to that instrument, and he is a compelling singer — idiosyncratic but with a huge, exuberant voice and attack, a heroic vibrato that made it seem as if every song was his own personal, passionate utterance.  And Hansson is simply a magnificent trumpeter — with a casual daring that honors Louis and Bix, without copying their phrases.  His easy mountain-scaling reminded me of Hackett, Cheatham, and Bob Barnard — and it’s supported by a sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic awareness.  Muranyi, the guest star, brings his own amused fervor to the proceedings, whether playing or singing his own gleeful I DIG SATCH.  And the SRB, with or without Joe, is clearly having fun without being self-consciously silly.  They are a wonderfully rewarding band, and this CD is just delightful, with repertoire that goes from Handy to Lyttelton to Jobim and back to Bix-associated tunes without anything sounding forced.  (A prize goes to listeners who recognize the Armstrong ending that brilliantly concludes SMILES!)

The CD is available through the SRB website (www.srbjazz.com.) and email inquiries can be sent to srbjazz@srbjazz.com

And my title?  It’s how Michael Boving signed his little note along with the CD.  The music it contains shows that he and his colleagues are keeping the faith.

TRAVELING BLUES: TOMMY LADNIER

Ladnier 5For the second time this season, a jazz book has so astonished me that I want to write about it before I take the time to read it at the leisurely pace it deserves.  This book is published in a limited edition of 500 copies, so I hope that someone might be moved sufficiently to order a copy before they are all gone.  TRAVELING BLUES: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF TOMMY LADNIER, byBo Lindstrom and Dan Vernhettes, is a lively yet scholarly study of the life and music of the short-lived trumpeter.  Many jazz books are enthusiastic but lopsided; books that collect beautiful photographs sometimes have minimal or unsatisfying text; scholarly books are often not appealing to the eye.  This book strikes sparks in every way: the diligent research that has gone into it, the expansive prose; the wonderful illustrations.  I have been reluctant to put it down.  Each page offers surprises.    Ladnier 1

Tommy Ladnier isn’t widely known: he has been dead seventy years.  The fame he deserved never came, even though he had enthusiastic champions in Mezz Mezzrow, Hughes Panassie, and Sidney Bechet.  But a brief list of the people Ladnier played alongside will testify to his talent: Bechet, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkins, Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Noone, Fletcher Henderson, Clarence Williams, Sam Wooding, Doc Cheatham, Noble Sissle, Chick Webb, James P. Johnson, Teddy Bunn, Walter Page, Jo Jones.  He was known as a “sensational” trumpeter in Chicago in 1921: he appeared in Carnegie Hall in 1938.   

The reasons he is so little known have nothing to do with the quality of his art.  Ladnier did not enjoy the high-pressure urban scene, and he occasionally retreated from it (in 1934-8, when he could have been playing more often in the city, he he lived upstate); he also spent a good deal of his playing career in Europe (including a sojourn in Russia) before it was fashionable.  And in a period when hot trumpet playing was fashioned in splendidly extravagant Louis-fashion, someone like Ladnier — quieter, even pensive, choosing to stay in the middle register — might have been overlooked.  (At times, he makes me think of a New Orleans version of Joe Thomas, Shorty Baker, or Tony Fruscella.) 

Ladnier 3

I first came to Ladnier’s music indirectly, by way of his most enthusiastic colleague, reedman, pot-supplier, and proseltyzer Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who saw Tommy as someone with pure jazz instincts.  Mezzrow idolized Tommy as a quiet prophet of soulful New Orleans jazz, music not corrupted by the evil influence of big-band swing.  My youthful purchase of the RCA Victor record THE PANASSIE SESSIONS (circa 1967) was motivated by my reading of Mezzrow’s autobiography, REALLY THE BLUES.  But Mezzrow played and improvised so poorly, never stopping for a moment, that I could hardly hear Ladnier properly.   

Ladnier 4

Eventually I heard the 1932 New Orleans Feetwarmers session, where Ladnier and Bechet were effectively the front line, and too-brief live performances from John Hammond’s 1938 FROM SPIRITUALS TO SWING concert where Ladnier, Bechet, Dan Minor, James P. Johnson, Walter Page, and Jo Jones roared through WEARY BLUES.  Finally, I understood what it was that others admired so in Ladnier’s work.  A terse, nearly laconic player, he placed his notes and phrases perfectly.  His solos never overwhelm; his forthright earnestness is convincing; he doesn’t care to shout and swagger, but he is intense.  

As is this book.  Other scholars might have rearranged the easily accessible evidence: the recollections of Mezzrow, Bechet, and Panassie, written admiringly of Ladnier’s recording career, and left it at that.  Some writers might have brought melodrama to the facts of Ladnier’s life — his ambitious wife jeopardized a number of opportunities for him (one possible drama).  Ladnier died of a heart attack at 39, and could perhaps have been saved (another drama).  One could cast him as a victim of a variety of forces and people including the recording supervisor Eli Oberstein.  But the authors avoid these inviting errors.

They succeed not only in examining every scrap of evidence they could find — their research has been cautious, comprehensive, and lengthy — about Ladnier as a musician, born in Louisiana, migrating to Chicago, taking on the life of a jazz player in the Twenties and Thirties, dying in Harlem. 

But there’s more.  These scholars are also thoughtful historians who delight in placing the subject of their loving scrutiny in a larger context.  “What did it mean?” I can hear them asking.  So that their inquiry broadens beyond the simple chronological tracing of Ladnier’s life.  When we learn (through a beautiful reproduction of Ladnier’s draft card) that he worked for the Armour meat-packing company — so justly excoriated in Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE — we can read about Armour and what it meant to Chicago and Chicagoans.  What did it mean to be an African-American musician traveling overseas in the Twenties?  The appropriate footnotes are easily accessible on each page.  The book also concludes with a detailed discography — noting not only the labels and issues, but on which performances Ladnier has a solo, a break, accompaniment, and the like. 

And the book is also visually quite beautiful.  A large-format book (the size of a 12″ record, appropriately) it is generously illustrated in color, with fine reproductions, nicely varied.  I was happily reminded of a beautifully-designed history or biology textbook, where the book designers had sought to set up harmonious vibrations between print and illustrations.  Indeed, one could spend an afternoon immersed in the illustrations: maps, a handwritten letter from Ladnier, record labels, photographs of individual players and of bands.  One illustration I particularly prize is an advertising handbill for a dinner-dance, “A Night At Sea,” to be held at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights, New York, on January 22, 1939.  In part, the music was provided by “Milton ‘Mez’ Mezzrow and his Bluebird Recording Orchestra featuring Tommy Ladnier.”  Even better: heading the bill were Henny Youngman and Molly Picon.  Without this book, I would never have known.

The music?  Well, the authors have taken care of that, too.  As part of the complete Ladnier experience, they have created a CD containing all 189 of Tommy’s recordings in mp3 format.  I don’t entirely understand the technology, but the CD is certainly the ideal companion to the book — containing the equivalent of eight CDs of music. 

I urge you to visit http://www.jazzedit.org/Traveling-blues.html and see for yourself.  In this era of deeply discounted books, the initial price of this one might seem serious, but its beauty, thoroughness, and devotion make it a masterpiece.

As a coda: the noted jazz scholar and collector of rare photographs Frank Driggs wrote an introduction to the book.  Here’s its closing paragraph: “This remarkable book is loaded with details on the lives of Tommy Ladnier and most of the people he played with.  There are hundreds of illustrations, photos of people I’ve never even seen before and I’ve seen most of the photos of jazz musicians over the last fifty years.  The depth of research is I believe unparalleled.  God bless these two fanatics who have devoted so much of their time and energy to bring this work of love to fruition.”

My sentiments exactly! 

THE FINAL SEASON: “HIGHLIGHTS IN JAZZ”

Jack Kleinsinger has been putting on jazz concerts every year in New York City for thirty-seven years — including just about everyone alive and playing, including Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Hines, Buddy Rich, and Big Joe Turner.  2009 will be the end of the incredible run for “Highlights in Jazz.” 

I have fond memories of the concerts: in fact, I was in the audience for Jack’s second concert — a 1972 tribute to Fats Waller at the Theatre deLys.  At other times, I recall seeing Teddy Wilson, Buddy Tate, Dicky Wells, PeeWee Erwin, Bobby Hackett, Dick Hyman, Vic Dickenson, Milt Hinton, Kenny Davern, Jon-Erik Kellso, David Ostwald, Doc Cheatham, and many others.  My memory isn’t deep enough (Jack’s is) to delineate all of the surprise guests, but they were happy to be there. 

So consider these concerts!  There won’t be another season, and I don’t see new series emerging that give so much loving attention to Mainstream and earlier styles of jazz.

Here are the details:

Thursday, September 10, 2009 – 8 pm
Cabaret Jazz: featuring Barbara Carroll and Paula West

Thursday, October 8, 2009 – 8 pm
Hot Jazz From New Orleans To Israel: featuring Evan Christopher, Duke Heitger, Anat Cohen,
Ehud Asherie, George Masso, Jackie Williams, Johnny Varro, Joe Ascione

Thursday, November 12, 2009 – 8 pm
Living Jazz Legends: featuring Buddy DeFranco, Jay Leonhart, Joe Cohn, Ron Odrich, Ed Metz, Jr.
and Bucky Pizzarelli, John Pizzarelli, Martin Pizzarelli, Mickey Roker

Thursday, December 10, 2009 – 8 pm
Celebrating the Swing Masters:
Ken Peplowski Recalls Benny Goodman
Terry Gibbs Recalls Lionel Hampton
Freddie Bryant Recalls Charlie Christian

All Shows at TRIBECA Performing Arts Center
Borough of Manhattan Community College, 199 Chambers Street
TRIBECA Box Office at (212) 220-1460  http://www.tribecapac.org/music.htm 
Subscriptions $130, individual tickets $35, students $32.50.  Make checks payable to & mail to: Highlights in Jazz, 7 Peter Cooper Road, New York, NY 10010 (enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope)

P.S.  In a more enlightened time, Knopf would have published Jack’s memoirs, and Columbia Records would have been issuing a sustained series of concert CD / DVD packages.  These things haven’t happened, which is perhaps all the more reason to celebrate what has taken place.

ALISON KERR CELEBRATES JABBO SMITH

This is a wonderful piece by the Scottish journalist and friend of jazz, in celebration of one of the music’s most free spirits, the trumpeter Jabbo Smith.  I would add only that the 1961 sessions she refers to have priceless playing not only by Jabbo, Marty Grosz, and Mike McKendrick — but astounding solos and ensemble alchemy from clarinetist Frank Chace. 

The Contender

In Jazz Profiles on June 24, 2009 at 1:07 am

Jabbo 1 Amongst the many notable jazz anniversaries of recent months, one important one has been pretty much universally overlooked. December 2008 was the centenary of a trumpet legend with whom jazz history has been particularly careless. He was lost, found and lost and found again – so it’s almost fitting that his centenary went by unnoticed. Even in death, he’s an elusive character.

His name was Jabbo Smith, and, at the peak of his powers and the height of his celebrity, he was regarded by many as the only serious challenge to Louis Armstrong’s position as the greatest trumpet player of them all. But just over a decade later, he had slid out of the limelight and was all but forgotten.

Born in Georgia in December 1908, Jabbo Smith was christened Cladys to complement the name of a cousin, Gladys, who was just a few days older. His mother, who played the church organ, struggled to raise him by herself. Eventually, when Jabbo was six, she was forced to hand him over to the care of the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina. This institution supported itself by teaching the children to play music and then sending its student bands all over the country, to all the major cities. Jabbo quickly mastered trumpet and trombone and was duly sent out on tour from an early age. He invariably used these excursions as a launchpad for an escape bid..

When he was 14 years old, he ran away and remained free for three months, during which time he worked with a professional band in Florida. Two years later, he left the orphanage for good and headed for his half-sister’s home in Philadelphia. There, he immediately found work.

In 1925, at the age of just 17, he was playing in one of the most popular bands of the day, the Charlie Johnson band in New York – having already made his recording debut with no less a bandleader than Clarence Williams.

Jabbo – whose nickname came from an Indian character in a William S Hartman western – was already beginning to be regarded as something of a sensation when he replaced Bubber Miley for the Duke Ellington band’s November 1927 recordings of Black and Tan Fantasy. So impressed was Ellington with Jabbo’s playing that he offered him a job. Happy with the Charlie Johnson band and unimpressed by the money being offered, Jabbo turned him down – a move which he may not have regretted, but subsequent generations of his admirers undoubtedly have.

He went on, in 1928, to join Fats Waller, James P Johnson and Garvin Bushell in the band playing for the Broadway show Keep Shufflin’ – the results can be heard on the four numbers this band, known as the Louisiana Sugar Babies, recorded together.

Keep Shufflin’ closed suddenly in Chicago in 1929 when its backer, Arnold Rothstein, notorious as the mobster who had fixed the 1919 baseball World Series, was the victim of a gangland murder. Jabbo may have found himself stranded in the Windy City, but the show’s impromptu closing had fortunate results for jazz recording history: the Chicago-based Brunswick Record Company offered him the chance to record 19 sides designed to compete with Louis Armstrong’s hugely successful Hot Five and Hot Seven records, which were making money by the bucket-load for the rival Okeh label.

For what became the definitive Jabbo Smith sides, Jabbo not only led the band, which was assembled by the banjo player Ikey Robinson and christened the Rhythm Aces, but he also wrote all the numbers and sang on many of them – in his distinctive scat style. He was still only 20, and his youthful energy simply explodes out of tracks such as Sau-Sha Stomp, Take Your Time and Boston Skuffle.

Not only that, but his style of playing is dazzling. He was technically brilliant, completely at ease playing in the upper register and able to deliver one fantastic break after another. In 1955, the bass player Milt Hinton was quoted as saying: “Jabbo was as good as Louis then. He was the Dizzy Gillespie of that era. He played rapid-fire passages while Louis was melodic and beautiful.” Another trumpet great who was around at the same time as both Jabbo and Louis was Doc Cheatham who said that in the late 1920s, Jabbo was as good as Armstrong but that they were “very different players and that Jabbo shouldn’t be judged by comparisons”.

Despite his astonishing and highly individual style of playing on the Brunswick sides, Jabbo couldn’t shake off hims image as an Armstrong imitator – much to his chagrin. The record company pulled the plug on the Rhythm Aces recordings because the records weren’t the commercial success that they’d hoped for. A year after their release, Jabbo went to Milwaukee and spent several years playing with different bands there and in Chicago. He seems to have drifted between the two cities. Late in his life, he told the trumpeter Michel Bastide: “You get into a little trouble in Chicago – you run to Milwaukee… You get into a little trouble in Milwaukee – you run to Chicago.”

In 1936, the bandleader Claude Hopkins heard Jabbo as he passed through Milwaukee and signed him up for two years. Then, in 1938, Jabbo made what would turn out to be his last recordings for over 20 years, when he recorded four more of his own compositions for Decca – including the gorgeous ballad Absolutely and the jaw-droppingly complex Rhythm in Spain.

Jabbo slid into obscurity but seems to have been content to do so. Although he was wild and unruly as a young man, he has been described by many who knew him later in his life as a quiet, introverted character – something of a loner – who seems to have been quite happy to take whatever came his way. He certainly never sought fame – which is just as well, because he never again reached the heights he scaled when he was just 20.

Jabbo was more or less forgotten about by the mid-1950s when Milt Hinton’s comments for the Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya oral history prompted renewed interest in him. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that he was tracked down to Milwaukee and brought to Chicago for a recording session with a local rhythm section which included the guitarist Marty Grosz.

Grosz has described Jabbo as a free spirit, someone who followed his own path. It’s an assessment which ties in with Milt Hinton’s statement that if Jabbo made enough money for drinks and women in any small town, he would stay put. Michel Bastide, whose Hot Antic Jazz Band toured and recorded with Jabbo in the trumpeter’s seventies, believes that Jabbo was easily distracted by women and might have fared better in his musical career if he had had someone to look after him and advise him in the way that Lil Hardin did for Louis Armstrong.

When Jabbo was tracked down in 1961, he hadn’t touched his trumpet for nearly two decades and had been working for Avis car hire for many years. He said that he had married and settled down in Milwaukee, playing trumpet in a nightclub at first. When the club closed down, he simply put his horn under his bed and found himself another job. But he did continue composing.

After his rediscovery in the early 1960s, Jabbo seems to have retreated from the limelight once more. He next popped up in the mid-1970s when the impresario George Wein invited him to New York to receive an award as one of the greatest living musicians in jazz history. This time, he was back to stay: he began practising the trumpet again thanks to the encouragement of the clarinettist Orange Kellin who invited him to New Orleans, to play in his band. This led to his being hired for the show One More Time which earned him euphoric reviews.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jabbo enjoyed a last blast of glory. He played the New York jazz clubs and worked with such diverse names as Thad Jones and Don Cherry. He also toured in Europe, in the company of a French jazz band which had been born out of a shared love of his recordings. The members of the Hot Antic Jazz Band – led by trumpeter Michel Bastide – spent three years mastering Jabbo’s 1929 repertoire and were thrilled when he agreed to come on tour and record with them.

Their affection for him and enthusiasm for his music clearly paid off: the resulting LPs (Zoo and We Love You Jabbo) are delightful and provide a happy ending for what could have been yet another sad jazz tale. Jabbo Smith died in January 1991, leaving his trumpet to the Antics’ Michel Bastide.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

* Jabbo Smith: The Complete Jabbo Smith Hidden Treasure Sessions (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10352) is newly out

* Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces 1929-1938 (Classics Records 669)

SMILING JO JONES

As a high school student, I supplemented my intermittent jazz record purchases by listening to the records available at my local public library.  One of the librarians was hip.  Someone had good taste!  The collection included Ellington and George Lewis, Jimmy Rushing and Vic Dickenson, Benny Goodman and “The Sound of Jazz,” among others.  On those records — particularly the Vanguard sessions supervised in the early and middle Fifties by John Hammond — I first heard the sound of Jo Jones, his swishing hi-hat cymbals, his emphatic rimshots, his irresistible swing. 

I had already fallen in love with the propulsion and pure sounds of Catlett and Wettling, but Jo was a revelation: I can still hear the way he brought the band in on Vic’s RUNNIN’ WILD, or the three perfectly placed accents (all different) he used to propel Tommy Ladnier in a fast WEARY BLUES at the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert.  And, a little later, when I bought my first Billie Holiday records, the Kansas City Fiva and Six, the Decca Basie band . . . I wanted to hear every record Jo Jones had ever been part of.   

Here is Jo — exuberant, explosive, grinning, soloing at the end of a fast blues, on a 1957 Nat King Cole television show devoted to Norman Granz and the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe.  This clip begins at the end of Roy Eldridge’s solo (in mid-scream) and at the end Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown are visible:

But that clip gives way to my own memories of Jo in person, onstage and off. 

This post is motivated by a recent conversation I had with the Beloved about the subject of retiring from one’s job, leaving a career behind.  I told her one of the stories below and she said, astonished, “You spoke to Jo Jones?  Smiling Jo Jones?” hence my title. 

Not only did I speak to Jo Jones: I took this photograph of him in 1981:

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

True, the shot is amateurish: a head is in the way, my flash’s explosion is visible, the overall hue suggests Halloween . . . but Jo’s slow-motion mallet, on its ways down, pleases me greatly.  And the photo evidence that I was there, capturing this moment, which is no small thing.

Many other moments come back to me now. 

My friend Stu Zimny found out, sometime before 1972, that one could see Jo at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop.  We decided to go there, as if we were making a pilgrimage to some sacred place.  Was Jo holding court there, as befits an artist and aristocrat, or was he making a few dollars in a job unworthy of him, as I have read?  I don’t know.  I do remember buying a pair of 5B parade drumsticks from him — to practice with — and snippets of this conversation. 

In person, Jo was animated, inscrutable, vehement.  Something in his manner and approach defied easy explanation.  It felt as if we were speaking to a character in a play — and only Jo had the script.  There was also some element of unpredictability, even of danger, as if he might suddenly get furious at you in the middle of a conversation, as I saw happen with Ruby Braff.   

(Ruby, incidentally, told us a wonderful story about working with Jo at Storyville, almost twenty years earlier: Jo would never say, “Let’s play ROSETTA,” but start a rhythmic pattern and tempo on his hi-hat or snare and leave it up to the musician to guess which tune might best go with that tempo.  Ruby shook his head in disbelief when he recalled, somewhat in desperation, picking some song that he thought might be fine at that tempo, and Jo saying, “That’s it!  You got it!” as if Ruby had telepathically found the answer.  “I don’t play with him any more.  He’s nuts,” said Ruby.) 

Even when speaking to people he knew and liked, Jo had a particular tone of voice that in someone else might have been ironic verging on contemptuous.  But with him it was a form of emphasis.  You could hear capital letters, boldface, italics in his voice.  And he had a fierce energy in his speech: a conversation with him was like being strapped into a centrifuge, an untiring monologue, rising and falling. 

Spotting Jo at Ippolito’s, I imagine that we introduced ourselves as jazz listeners, fans, admirers.  And then one of us asked Jo where we could hear him play.  Was he gigging anywhere?   

He looked at us with weary resignation, two innocent Caucasian college boys who had asked a silly question.

“I’m re-ti-red,” he said, by way of explanation.  “I don’t play the drums anymore.  Leave all that to the kiddies,” he continued.  We couldn’t believe it, and asked him again.  He wasn’t playing any gigs, no festivals?  All he would say was that he was “re-ti-red.”  If we needed a drummer, he suggested that we call Buddy Rich.  Stu points out that Jo offered no contact information for Buddy.  

We went away from that encounter half grieving, half amazed.  We had gone to the mountaintop to meet one of the elders, to receive counsel and inspiration, and the elder had said he had packed it in.

The sequel to all this is that some months later we saw Jo’s name prominently advertised as one of the musicians who would appear in the Newport-New York Jazz Festival.  I think, now, that he had been putting us on.  But perhaps in his own head he had decided to retire.      

In the next decade, we had the opportunity to see him in a variety of situations: concert halls and jazz clubs.  He drove Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS at their 1972 concert appearance (a band that included Joe Thomas, Benny Morton, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and an out-of-tune Bernard Addison) and took a long solo in the middle of SLEEP — a virtuosic exercise that stopped the song and the show.  Two years later, he appeared at the Newport “Hall of Fame,” as part of a quintet with Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Wilson, and Hinton, his playing was immaculate, sensitive, not showy — Hackett turned the last bridge in “Body and Soul” over to Jo, who filled the air with urging, whispering brush strokes and accents.  

Tom Piazza, then a student at Williams College, arranged a concert of the jazz elders — when such things were still possible: Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Morton, Budd Johnson, Claude Hopkins, and Jo.  Stu and I went there, armed with a heavy tape recorder, and (in the face of numerous obstacles: an inebriated Budd, a student running the sound board who turned the record level up and down for no reason, an over-exuberant audience) we focused on the band.  Jo traded eights and fours with Milt on a leisurely STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and did his volcanic version of CARAVAN, with every grimace, every surprise firmly choreographed. 

He smiled incessantly when he played: he glowed.  But when we saw Jo in clubs, at close range, he often appeared to be brimful of some barely contained anger.  And though we had come to the gig hoping to hear something delicate, witty — that magical hi-hat sound, those quietly insistent brushes that had levitated so many recordings — he would beat out the time loudly, indefatigably, on a brassily resonant ride cymbal.  It was clear that there were two Jonathan David Samuel Joneses: one, the player we had heard on records, lifting the band with what Donne called “gold to airy thinness beat”; the other, furious at something, wanting to control it by pure sound and pure volume.  Stanley Dance told me about producing a 1961 session that paired Jo with some Ellington alumni — Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby, Ray Nance, Sir Charles Thompson — and Jo being infuriated about something, then playing as loudly as he could. 

I recall several instances of this irritation-translated-into-music.  When there was a ragtag band of “Basie alumni” assembled at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage: sic transit gloria mundi), Jo walloped the ride cymbal as if wanting to drown everyone out.  At a short-lived spinoff of the Half Note, “The Onliest Place,” a venture that lasted only a few weekends, Jo led a little band one night.  If I remember correctly, it included bassist Tommy Bryant, Ben Richardson on clarinet, Skeeter Best on guitar, and one or two other players.  They embarked on a nearly forgotten Thirties pop tune, CALL ME DARLING, which was not terribly familiar, and some members of the band got lost.  I can hear Jo shouting, “The middle!  The middle!” although I am not sure that this advice averted chaos.  Irritability and delighted in-jokes always characterized his appearances with “The Countsmen,” a group that included Doc Cheatham, Benny Morton, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Chuck Folds, Franklyn Skeete, and Jo.   

Jo could play magically in clubs, though.  I remember going to Gregory’s, a tiny room, to hear Ellis Larkins and Al Hall.  That duo played splendid embroidered jazz for one set and then Jo walked in, unfurled his newspaper, took out a set of folding wire brushes, spread the paper on a chair, and played with elegance, amusement, and grace.   

At the West End Cafe, thanks to Phil Schaap, Jo had a fairly steady gig: “Jo Jones and Friends,” which was most often a quartet of Harold Ashby on tenor, a pianist (sometimes Don Coates), and bassist John Ore, who had played with Monk.  One rainy night in particular stands out.  It was time for the band to begin and Ore had not arrived.  Jo began his sets with a medium-tempo blues in G, and, muttering to himself, he set the tempo by tapping his snare drum with his fingers.  Ashby soloed; the pianist soloed, and when it came to the two or four choruses that would have been taken by Ore, Jo grimaced, muttered loudly and incomprehensibly to himself, and played choruses of accompaniment — as if Ore had been there — with the tenor and piano silent.  It was mildly eerie.  Ore came in soon after, apologized for being late (he lived in Brooklyn), but it took the rest of the night for Jo to become calmer.      

One summer on Long Island, I read that Buddy Tate would be bringing a band, including Jo, to play a free outdoor concert somewhere miles from Manhattan on the North Fork.  It may have been Southold.  We drove out there and saw Tate’s outfit play the first half of the concert, with some of their members, including Jo, missing.  Jo’s son may have subbed for his father on drums.  Eventually, much later, a fire engine drove up, with a few cars following.  Jo came out of one of them.  They had gotten lost and asked directions at a firehouse.  I would like to report that the Tate band, plus Jo, played magnificently, but that wasn’t the case.  The group reassembled itself, and Jo demanded his feature on CARAVAN.  It went on, no nuance or flourish omitted, for something like eleven minutes.  After that, there was only time for Tate to play a hasty LESTER LEAPS IN, and the concert ended.  Perhaps it was because of episodes like this that when we mentioned Jo’s name to musicians of a certain era, their expressions grew wary and guarded.  “He’s crazy, man,” was the response we got from more than one well-established player.

But he could be politely accessible to fans.  I recall approaching him at the West End, before the gig had started, with a new vinyl copy of a record, FOR BASIE.  I had bought it that afternoon and hoped that Jo would autograph it for me.  Recorded in 1957 for Prestige-Swingville, it brought together Shad Collins on trumpet, Paul Quinichette on tenor, Nat Pierce on piano, Walter Page on bass (one of his last recordings), and Jo.  The cover picture showed Jo in a heavy flannel buffalo-plaid shirt with wide suspenders over it, and he grew animated and showed the other musicians at the table.  “See that?” he demanded of them.  “That is style!” he insisted, happily.  And he autographed the back side of the cover in a large ornate hand.  When he was through signing, he said to me that he had never heard the music.  I could take a hint, and offered him this copy (I had another at home).  I hope that it gave him pleasure. 

At another, later West End gig, I had with me a new record, OUR MAN, PAPA JO! — on the Denon label, which had a picture of Jo in full glower at his drum set, on the cover.  Thinking that one can never have too many Jo Jones signatures, I asked him to autograph this one also.  He stared at the cover, held it at arm’s length.

This will keep the burglars from your house!” he gleefully told me. 

In 1981 and early 1982, he was getting more frail and having more difficulty.  Jo played with great delicacy at a “Salute to Pres” concert, offering his familiar dancing trades with Milt Hinton — but he had to be helped up on the drum throne.  At the last West End gig I recall, playing was becoming more and more arduous for him.  When I heard about him next it was the news of his death in 1985.

Photographer Richard H. Merle was at Jo’s funeral, and he caught this poignant moment of Max Roach at Jo’s coffin — the flag draped over the back because Jo had served  — with great reluctance — in the Army in World War Two. 

 

Jo Jones Funeral

Jo Jones’s body has been gone for almost twenty-five years.  Yet his sound remains, and his smile — like the Cheshire Cat’s — has never been effaced.  

Copyright 1985 by Richard H. Merle.  All rights reserved.

TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS!

As a characteristically generous response to my post on the trumpeter Joe Thomas, my longtime friend Rob Rothberg sent me pictures of these two records from his collection.  It isn’t exaggeration to say that they made me catch my breath.

 GWet

That would be enough — that it happens to be a magnificent record is not at all incidental.  But here’s something much more remarkable:

BigSid

The whole notion of “getting an autograph” is reasonably strange but I’ve always found it irresistible.  Why should we stand in line or wait shyly, reverently for One of Our Heroes to write his or her name on something — be it an index card, a menu, a record label or jacket, even now a CD’s liner notes? 

Comes the day everything exists only in cyber-space without any tangible reality, what will we ask someone to sign?  “Oh, Mr. Jazzman!  Would you autograph my mp3 download, which neither of us can see?”  But I digress.

I waited for Joe Thomas, Louis, Bobby Hackett, Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton,  Ruby Braff, Jo Jones, Zoot Sims, Bob Wilber, and a half-dozen others to sign their names for me, and I recall each instance.  From this distance, it seems as if I was asking the musician to acknowledge me and take notice of me, a worshipful hearer holding out a rare record, some treasured music.  That signing his name for a stranger was an odd ritual that did not mean a great deal to the musician didn’t matter at the moment. 

Acquiring an autograph has a great deal to do with the urge we all have to give our memories physical shape; an autograph gave me something I could pretend was unique to take home as well as the sounds captured in my memory and my cassette recorder.  Occasionally, my hero would say, “What’s your name?” and inscribe the record jacket to me — a small sweet polite moment which made me feel seen.

For the musicians, the act of signing autographs had long since become a task to be performed between sets when they would much rather have been left in peace to chat with their peers, a responsibility they had to take care of before going home.  Cultivating their audience, perhaps.    

But to have something that Sidney Catlett or George Wettling touched!  To me, these two record labels are miraculous relics of our own saints.

REMEMBERING JOE THOMAS

The trumpeter Joseph Eli Thomas — fabled but truly little-known — is almost always confused with his higher-profile namesake, who played tenor sax and sang in the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. 

But a quick scan of the people our Joe Thomas played with should suggest that his colleagues thought very highly of him.  How about Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Guarneri, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Catlett, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Emmett Berry, Cozy Cole, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Claude Hopkins,  Buddy Tate, Pee Wee Russell, Tony Scott, Buck Clayton, Woody Herman, Trummy Young, Rudy Powell, Eddie Condon, Benny Carter, Jo Jones, Benny Morton, Al Hall . . . . ?  Clearly a man well-respected.  But he is an obscure figure today. 

He can be seen as a member of Art Kane’s famous 1958 Harlem street assemblage.  Shirtsleeved and hatless, he stands with Maxine Sullivan and Jimmy Rushing to one side, with Stuff Smith on the other.  Fast company, although the sun must have been bothering him, for he looks worried. 

In another world, Thomas would have had little reason to worry, but he came up in jazz when hot trumpeters seemed to spring out from every bush.  To his left, Red Allen and Rex Stewart; to the right, Bill Coleman, Emmett Berry, Bobby Hackett.  Rounding the corner, Buck Clayton, Cootie Williams, Benny Carter, Frank Newton.   So the competition was fierce.  And Thomas often had the bad fortune to be overshadowed: in Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS band — the one that recorded extensively for Victor and Vocalion — his section-mate was a fireball named Eldridge.  In Fats Waller’s big band, Thomas played section trumpet and the prize solos in Fats’ Rhythm went to Herman Autrey or Bugs Hamilton.  And then there was a colossus named Armstrong, apparently blocking out the sun.  John Hammond was busy championing other players, all worthy, and never got around to pushing Joe Thomas into the limelight.  Although he recorded prolifically as a sideman, he never had a record date under his own name after 1946. 

But Thomas got himself heard now and again: his solos shine on Decca recordings (alongside Chu Berry) under Lil Armstrong’s name, and on a famous Big Joe Turner date for the same label that featured Art Tatum and Ed Hall.  On the much more obscure Black and White label, he recorded alongside Tatum and Barney Bigard; for Jamboree, he was captured side-by-side with Don Byas, Dave Tough, and Ted Nash. 

Later in his career, the British jazz scholar Albert McCarthy featured him on a Vic Dickenson session (Vic, like Tatum, seems to have admired Joe’s quiet majesty), and he popped up on sessions in the Fifties and Sixties in the best company.  Whitney Balliett celebrated him in an essay, and the drummer Mike Burgevin used him on gigs whenever he could.

Thomas’s most important champion has to have been the Javanese jazz enthusiast and record producer Harry Lim, whose biography should be written — producing jam sessions and heading one of the finest record labels ever — Keynote — then shepherding another label, Famous Door, through perhaps a dozen issues in the Seventies.  I gather that his day job was as head of the jazz record section in the Manhattan Sam Goody store: probably I saw him, but was too young and uninformed to make the connection. 

Lim loved Thomas’s playing and featured him extensively on sessions between 1944 and 1946.  Regrettably those sessions were reissued in haphazard fashion in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies — vinyl anthologies on the Emarcy and Trip labels — then in a wonderful box set first appearing in Japan, then briefly in the US, then disappearing for good.  A number of compilations drawn from that set — featuring Hawkins, Eldridge, Norvo, and Young — made it to CD but seem to have gone out of circulation.  And wise collectors aren’t putting them up on eBay.  Thomas also appears on a few sessions for the HRS (Hot Record Society) label, and those sessions have been collected in a Mosaic box set, which I believe is still available — although the Keynotes show him off far better. 

What made Thomas so special?  His tone was luminous but dark, rich — not shallow and glossy or brassy.  His notes sang; he placed his notes a shade behind the beat, giving the impression of having all the time in the world at a fast tempo.  Like Jack Teagarden, he wasn’t an improviser who started afresh with every new solo.  Thomas had his favorite patterns and gestures, but he didn’t repeat himself.  Listening to him when he was on-form was beautifully satisfying: he sounded like a man who had edited out all the extraneous notes in his head before beginning to play.  His spaces meant something, and a Thomas solo continued to resonate in one’s head for a long time.  I can still hear his opening notes of a solo he took on CRAZY RHYTHM on a New York gig in 1974. 

What made his style so memorable wasn’t simply his tone — a marvel in itself — or his pacing, steady but never sluggish.  It was his dual nature: he loved upward-surging arpeggios that spelled out the chord in a gleaming way, easy but urgent.  Occasionally he hit the same note a few times in a delicate, chiming way (much more Beiderbecke than Sweets Edison) — and then, while those notes rang in the air, he would play something at one-quarter volume, which had the shape of a beautiful half-muttered epigram, something enclosed in parentheses, which you had to strain to hear.  That balance between declarations and intimacy shaped many a memorable solo. 

And when Thomas was simply appearing to play the melody, he worked wonders.  I don’t know where a listener would find the Teddy Wilson V-Disc session that produced only two titles (and one alternate take) with a stripped-down version of Wilson’s Cafe Society band in 1943: Thomas, Ed Hall, Wilson, and Sidney Catlett.  I mean them no disrespect, but Benny Morton and Johnny Williams may have wanted to go home and get some sleep.  The two titles recorded were RUSSIAN LULLABY and HOW HIGH THE MOON — the latter of interest because it is one of the first jazz recordings of that song (including a fairly straight 1940 reading by a Fred Rich studio band with Benny Carter and Roy Eldridge as guest stars!) that I know of.  But RUSSIAN LULLABY is extra-special, taken at a slow tempo, enabling Thomas to illuminate the melody from within, as if it were a grieving anthem. 

Alas, there are no CD compilations devoted to Thomas; someone eager to hear him on record might chase down the Keynotes in a variety of forms.  One session finds him alongside Eldridge and Emmett Berry, and it’s fascinating to see how easily Thomas’s wait-and-see manner makes his colleagues seem a bit too eager, even impetuous.  His playing alongside Teagarden and Hawkins on a session led by drummer George Wettling couldn’t be better, especially on HOME and YOU BROUGHT A NEW KIND OF LOVE TO ME. 

But he came to prominence, at least as far as the record studio executives were concerned, most often in the years of the first record ban, during World War Two.  After that, he emerged now and then in a variety of Mainstream revivals — he played at Central Plaza on an elusive “Dr. Jazz” broadcast; he was a member of an Eddie Condon troupe in the Forties that did a concert in Washington, D.C.  

I was lucky enough to hear him a few times in the early Seventies, primarily because of the enthusiastic generosity of Mike Burgevin, a classic jazz drummer whose heroes were Catlett, Tough, and Wettling — someone who also sang now and again, his model (wisely) being early-and-middle period Crosby. 

For a time, Mike took care of the jazz at a club named Brew’s — slightly east of the Empire State Building — that had a little room with tables and chairs, a minute bandstand, a decent upright piano.  His sessions usually featured himself and the quietly persuasive stride pianist Jimmy Andrews (or Dill Jones), perhaps Al Hall on bass, and a noted horn player.  It could be Ruby Braff or Kenny Davern, but often it was Max Kaminsky, Herb Hall, Herman Autrey, or Joe Thomas.  (One week, blessedly, Vic Dickenson played three or four nights with a shifting rhythm section: glorious music and a rare opportunity to observe him on his own.) 

The sessions were even noted in The New Yorker.  I remember noting that these players — people I had heard only on record — seemed to be gigging about ten minutes away from Penn Station.  When Joe Thomas’s name came up in print, I was nearly-incredulous.  Could this be our Joe Thomas, the trumpeter who was nearly luminescent on his choruses on SHE DIDN’T SAY YES?  I think I prevailed on my friend Stu Zimny to come into the city and see whether this was miracle or mirage, and I remember one brilliant set — Joe, Waller-altoist Rudy Powell, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, and Burgevin — that featured Rudy on WHERE OR WHEN and there was a closing CRAZY RHYTHM for the whole band.  Of course I had my cassette recorder, but where these tapes are I cannot say.  Joe’s chorus, however, is fresh in my mind’s ear.  

We struck up a friendship with Mike Burgevin, who was thrilled to find college-age kids who were deeply immersed in the music he loved, and he told us that Joe and he would be leading a quartet for an outdoors concert in a park at the very southern end of Manhattan.  I remember that Stu and I brought a heavy reel-to-reel tape recorder, the better to capture Joe’s golden sound, and set it up in the shade, near a tree.  This provoked the only conversation I remember having with him.  Understandably, perhaps, the sight of young strangers with a big tape recorder made him nervous, and he kept on telling us that we shouldn’t do this, because “the union man” could come by.  Perhaps impatiently, we assured him that Local 802 representatuves didn’t seem to be hiding in the bushes, and that we would take the blame if anyone came around.  He could pretend that he had no knowledge of our criminalities.  It was a less memorable occasion: the quartet was filled out with someone of moderate abilities on a small electric keyboard, the bassist played an over-amplified Fender.  Joe fought his way upstream, but it was difficult.  In retrospect, I feel guilty: was he worrying about the union man all the time he was playing?  I hope not. 

He also got a chance to shine twice at the 1972 Newport in New York concerts, once at an affair devoted to Eddie Condon and his music.  It was a characteristically uneven evening.  The sound engineer at Carnegie Hall amplified the piano so that it sounded other-worldly, and Thomas (perhaps playing the role of a more modest Hot Lips Page) was brought on, along with J.C. Higginbotham, for a closing version of IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE.  Of that occasion, I remember a stunning Bobby Hackett chorus and break, but Thomas didn’t get the space to do what we knew he could.  He also was a member of Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS big band — its rhythm section featuring Teddy Wilson, Bernard Addison, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones (!) and Thomas took a wonderful solo on a very fast rendition of SLEEP.

I don’t know what kept him out of the limelight after that, whether it was ill health or tiredness?  Was it that more showily assertive trumpeters (and there were plenty) got the gigs?  Whatever the reasons, he seems to have faded away. 

Ironically, Mike Burgevin had issued three vinyl recordings on his own Jezebel label that featured Herman Autrey, Jack Fine, Rudy Powell, and Doc Cheatham . . . which, in a way, led to Cheatham’s rediscovery and second or third period of intense (and well-deserved) fame.  Had circumstances been different, perhaps it would have been Joe Thomas playing alongside Nicholas Payton, and that is to take nothing away from Cheatham.

I had begun to write a post about Joe Thomas very shortly after beginning this blog, but shelved it because so little of his work is now available on CD.  But the impetus to celebrate him came in the past few days when the Beloved and I had the great good luck to hear Duke Heitger on a brief New York City tour.  I have admired Duke’s work for a number of years, and think of him as one of those players who honors the tradition — subtly yet passionately — without imitating anyone.  But on a few occasions this last week, Duke would get off a beautiful phrase that hung, shimmering in the air, for a second, and I would think, “Who does that remind me of?”  And the answer, when it came, startled me: the last time I had heard something quite so lovely was in listening to Joe Thomas in his prime.  Duke is too much his own man to have copied those Keynotes, but it’s an honor (at least in my estimation) to come close to some of Thomas’s quiet majesty. 

One other person who thought Joe Thomas was worthy of notice was the esteemed photographer William P. Gottlieb.  In this shot, taken at the Greenwich Village club “The Pied Piper,” sometime between 1946 and 1946, Thomas is third from the left, the only African-American.  To his left is Harry Lim:

Joe Thomas 1

Here he is playing alongside pianist Jimmy Jones, at the same club:

Joe Thomas 2

Ultimately, Thomas got a number of opportunities to record and to perform, so that a few people still remember him, but it’s sad that his work is so difficult to find.  He deserves so much more.