Tag Archives: Don Byas

“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!

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SWEET LESSONS IN MELODIC EMBELLISHMENT (1946)

I woke up yesterday morning with the melody of SHE DIDN’T SAY YES in my head — as performed in 1946 by Joe Thomas and his Orchestra for Keynote Records — and that performance insisted that I share it and write a few words in its honor.  The song comes from the 1931 Jerome Kern – Otto Harbach musical comedy THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE, and it is limited in its ambitions (words and music) but it is also irresistible.  The steplike melody is difficult to get rid of once one hears it, and the coy naughtiness of the lyric — raising the question of being “bad” when badness seems so delightful, but tossing the moral question back at the listener — combine in a kind of musical miniature cupcake.

Here is a video clip from the 1934 film version of the play — Jeanette MacDonald, looking lovely, sings SHE DIDN’T after a large clump of cinematic foolishness, including post-Code dancing, has concluded. (My contemporary perspective makes this scene slightly painful to watch, as Jeanette is bullied by the crowd into declaring a love that she seems to feel only in part.)

The song was recorded a number of times in the early Thirties (by Leo Reisman and Chick Bullock, among others) but may have surfaced again with the 1946 film biography of Kern, who had died suddenly the year before, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY.  However, since its performance in the film by the Wilde Twins goes by quickly, I think other reasons may have led to its being chosen for this Keynote Records date.  Did Harry Lim hear something in its melody — those repeated notes that Alec Wilder deplored — or did Joe Thomas like to play it?  We’ll never know, but it is a recording both memorable and forgotten.

The band was “Joe Thomas And His Orchestra,” itself a rare occurrence.  Lim had used Joe on many sessions for Keynote (the Forties were a particular period of prominence on records for him, thankfully — where he recorded alongside Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries).  The band was  Joe Thomas, trumpet; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Hy White, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Lee Abrams, drums, and it was done in New York on August 16, 1946.  I don’t know who did the backgrounds and introduction, but the recording is a small marvel of originalities.  I listen first for the soloists and their distinctive sounds and then consider the performance as an example of what one could do with texture and small orchestral touches with only an octet.

I first heard this record coming out of my radio speaker when Ed Beach did a show devoted to Joe Thomas — perhaps in 1969 — and then I got to see Joe both on the stage of Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls (with Benny Carter and Eddie Condon, consider that!) and at much closer range in 1972-74, thanks to the kindness of my dear Mike Burgevin.

I don’t want to subject this recording to chorus-by-chorus explication, but I would ask listeners to hear the individual sounds and tones these players had: Joe, Tyree, Hilton, Jerry — each man singing his own distinctively recognizable song — and the perky unflagging rhythm section, with Leighton beautifully doing Basie-Wilson-Guarnieri, and the lovely support of Billy Taylor, Sr., who had kept the Ellington band swinging.

“We had faces then!” to borrow from SUNSET BOULEVARD.

I keep coming back to the gleaming warm sound of Joe Thomas — in the first chorus, outlining the melody as if nothing in the world were more important; in the closing chorus, flavoring and shading it as only he could.  And the rest of the band.  As a friend said to me recently, “They were pros.  They really knew how to do it.”  And bless Harry Lim: without him, we would know such things happened but they would now be silent and legendary rather than tangible and glowing.

This music says YES, no hesitation.

May your happiness increase!

EVERY NOTE A BRUSH-STROKE: CHRIS MADSEN / CLARK SOMMERS: “THE DUET BOOK”

When I was in my teens, I remember a television program on not-yet-PBS where a Japanese ink-painter showed us how to draw Mount Fuji in a very few brush-strokes.  I have over simplified it in memory, reducing it to two upward slopes with some detail in the middle, and it remains in my mind’s eye. Happily, I threw out my very limited attempts in blue ballpoint pen, but the experience stays with me.  The artist didn’t “simplify” his subject, but his airy, dancing brush-strokes made its immovable solidity nearly translucent.

Here is a more elaborate version, beautiful in itself and as metaphor:

Although I could not have verbalized it then and words still seem heavier than the experience, the artist was doing with his brush what jazz musicians do, making familiar melody, harmony, and rhythm take flight.  He was improvising on Mt. Fuji and his improvisations enhanced it.

As an adolescent deeply under the spell of the music, I encountered the 1945 live recordings of Don Byas and Slam Stewart, performing INDIANA and I GOT RHYTHM as if the music was brand-new, the results joyous — soaring and solid both.  Then, I didn’t analyze the results as a musicologist-chemist would, noting what percentage Swing, what percentage Bop, what percentage Unclassifiable Solids, and I leave such activities to those who care to, working in their basement laboratories.  The music was dense but airy: angels chatting about clouds.

A few years later, I was privileged to see Ruby Braff in performance, often leading a quartet.  One of his architecturally spacious ideas was to play duets within the quartet — creating a series of small orchestras — so I was dazzled by Ruby in duet with string bassists George Mraz, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, and Michael Moore.

Fast forward to NOW, for beauty that transcends “less is more.”

I present to you four duets by Chris Madsen, tenor saxophone, and Clark Sommers, string bass — an enterprise they are calling “The Duet Book.”  For those of you who might mutter, “WHAT can you do with a tenor and a bass?” my answer turns out to be, “Everything.”

One, DONNA LEE, authorship debated:

Two, TRICROTISM, by Oscar Pettiford:

Three, MOVE, by Denzil Best:

Four, ORNITHOLOGY, by one C. Parker:

The beautiful videography — steady, attentive, catching every detail of sound and image — is by Brian Schwab.  Here is Chris’s Facebook page, and Clark’s is here.

One more video remains, and I wish this series were ongoing, because I cherish these effusions, where two gifted individualists show us what loving community looks and sounds like, passing the lead, being completely supportive, having fun while knowing that the serious work of life is being done.

We could say, “I wish young musicians would study these videos,” but I’d add, “Yes, young dancers, playwrights, poets, teachers, painters . . . .”

And if any member of the jazz hierarchy mutters, “Oh, they’re just playing bebop,” I would reply, “Do, please, Sir or Madam, leave this place and come back in forty years.  Devote yourself to the study of beauty, and while you’re at it, work at growing up.”

Forget Mount Fuji, forget metaphor: these air-creations are profound, their beauties not absorbed in one casual hearing.  Blessings on Messrs. Madsen, Sommers, and Schwab: quiet gracious masters all.

Postscript from September 14, 2018: Here’s Chapter Five —

May your happiness increase!

MORE INSTANT YET LASTING GRATIFICATION (Part Three): “ANIMULE DANCE” at the LOVELACE: EVAN ARNTZEN, SEAN CRONIN, ADAM BRISBIN (August 10, 2018)

This is the third and final segment of my splendid afternoon at The Lovelace (66 Pearl Street, New York City) with the “Animule Dance,” Evan Arntzen, reeds / vocal; Adam Brisbin, guitar / vocal; Sean Cronin, string bass / vocal.  The thought that it is — for the moment — the final segment makes me sad, but the realization that we can enjoy these performances again and again is cheering.

Let’s call a heart a heart. Explanation below.

For the story behind Romy’s heartfelt gift, please visit here — and you’ll also find the first two parts of the music made by this splendid trio that day.  As an aside, many musicians don’t like having their work compared to that of the Ancestors, but as I have been delighting in these videos again, I thought I heard an alternate universe where Lester Young, Milt Hinton, and Al Casey were jamming for their own pleasure.  Floating, you know.  Not imitating, but Being in 2018.

And here are the last of the savory treats from that rare Friday afternoon, so delicious.

INDIANA (with sweet hints of Don Byas and Slam Stewart):

SQUEEZE ME, which couldn’t be nicer:

A Spanish-singed I LOST MY GAL FROM MEMPHIS:

OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, which mixes Twenties soul, bluegrass tints, and a little Django and Billy Taylor as well, before Evan wins the Miscellaneous Instruments category by a nose.  Thanks to Scout Opatut for direction and continuity: her Oscars are on the way:

an easy yet impassioned RUSSIAN LULLABY:

WHEN YOU’RE SMILING served with a bowl of gumbo:

and the closing Frolick, LIMEHOUSE BLUES:

What a thrilling band!  I want lucrative gigs, public and private, club and festival, what the Youngbloods call merch — pinback buttons, hoodies, bath sponges, bumper stickers — CDs I can play in the car, the concert tour (I’ll be press agent and videographer), and worldwide huzzahs.  Nothing less.

May your happiness increase!

“EVAN ARNTZEN MEETS LA SECTION RHYTHMIQUE” (DAVE BLENKHORN, SEBASTIEN GIARDOT, GUILLAUME NOUAUX, 2017)

The way art is perceived, explained, and marketed can be distant from the art itself.  Some critics and fans pounce on an artist, decide that (s)he does one thing superbly, and make that an identity.  Dick Wellstood = Stride Pianist.  Vic Dickenson = Dixieland Trombonist.  Gerry Mulligan = Modernist. And so on.  However, artists find these identities imposed by others are rather like clothes two sizes too small.  Happily, through the history of jazz we find musicians who can and want to do more than their “role” asks of them.

One such person is the reed virtuoso, composer, and singer Evan Arntzen.

Evan Arntzen, photograph by Tim Cheeney

This modern age being what it is, I believe I first encountered Evan through video and compact disc before I met him face-to-face in New York, but I admired his deep swing, cheerful musical intelligence, and deep feeling in all the media I saw and heard.  And since I’ve had many more opportunities of late to savor his work because of the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, I have come to value him all the more.  He can easily play alongside Terry Waldo in the darkness of Fat Cat, read the notes flying by as a member of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawk rhythm section, fit right in with the EarRegulars . . . as well as being a shining light of a dozen other bands, including his own (one such aggregation was called the Scrub Board Serenaders and may now be called the Animule Dance).  And he’s a compelling singer (hear I’LL GET BY) that had he been born decades earlier, we’d be reading about girls swooning at the Paramount.  This new CD, recorded in France in January 2017, is a marvel because it shows how well he can be himself in many ways, all rewarding.

Here’s Chris Smith’s venerable BALLIN’ THE JACK from this CD:

Some of you might think that is heretical, and you are welcome to do it, because it doesn’t follow the paths you hear in your head, those strictures created by famous records — but it sounds like fine inventive witty music to me.  I know, as do you, how BALLIN’ THE JACK is “supposed” to sound — a performance should, by the laws of whatever Deity you like, start with an ensemble version of the last eight and then go right in to it.  None of this Fifties television mood-setting vamp, no Second Line beats, no exploration, right?  I much prefer these four fellows finding joy in the mildly unexpected and sharing it with us.

“La Section Rhythmique” is not simply your average pianoless trio, but a small stellar musical attraction on its own, lyrical, inquisitive, and impassioned.  They know the past but they live in the present, which I commend.

And this quartet creates immensely pleasing variations on the familiar — Evan’s sweetly intense vocal on MISTER JELLY LORD (is it sincerely audacious or audaciously sincere?); a hip serpentine line on I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU called HALF EYES (wordplay worthy of Mel Brooks); a clarinet-guitar duet on ISN’T IT ROMANTIC, taken a little faster than usual, perhaps in the name of Modern Romance; a glorious TICKLE-TOE that summons up, without imitation, the blessed Lester Young – John Collins live version; a tender PLEASE that begins with a questing improvisation, perhaps to keep the listener from falling into complacencies; a LITTLE WHITE LIES that tips its 1945 fedora to Don Byas; AFTERTHOUGHT, a happy improvisation on a jazz standard with a similar title that works its way in from the outside; I’LL GET BY that so tenderly explores this dear song in a multiplicity of ways, vocally and instrumentally; a TWELFTH STREET RAG that would have made Milt Gabler very happy; the concluding LOTUS BLOSSOM, deeply reverent, quietly emotional.

Evan, in addition to his other talents, is a marvelous bandleader, someone devoted to getting the most out of the other people on the stand.  A musician with a much more limited vision would see himself as The Star and the others as The Supporting Cast, thus performances would be Ensemble-Solos-Ensemble or some other formula.  Evan is untrammeled by conventions unless the conventions work in gratifying ways: like my hero Ruby Braff, he views a quartet as four equal voices, with imaginative possibilities resounding.  If you sit down with one track that especially pleases you and chart who’s-doing-what-now for the three or four minutes, you will be pleasantly astounded at the richness and variety.

If it isn’t clear by now, I think this disc is a treasure.

You can buy a digital download ($10), an actual disc ($15), and hear sound samples here.  Although it’s only by purchasing the disc — how archaic to some! — that you can read the typically splendid notes by Dan Morgenstern.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN RECALLS GENE AMMONS, DEXTER GORDON, ERROLL GARNER, DON BYAS, AND CHICAGO DAYS (September 29, 2017)

On this wintry day — the blizzard outside my New York window looked like bits of ripped-up tissues falling from the skies — what could be more warming than thirty-five minutes with Dan Morgenstern telling tales of his Chicago days, including the story of Gene Ammons’ release from jail?  And Dan reminds us that jazz “is a communal music,” and tells tales of King Kolax and jazz on television as well:

and here’s the second part where Dan talks about jazz on television — the wonderful show “JUST JAZZ,” produced by Robert Kaiser and featuring Erroll Garner, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson:

Thank you, Dan, for warming not only this day but any other day you’re on the scene.

May your happiness increase!

“SPREADIN’ RHYTHM AROUND”: JONATHAN STOUT AND HIS CAMPUS FIVE

I did my own private Blindfold Test, and played a track from this new CD for a very severe jazz friend who prides himself on his love of authenticity, and he said, “Well, they’ve GOT IT!” which is how I feel about Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five.

Here’s a sample of how they sounded in 2016 at the Lindy Blossom Weekend:

The first piece of good news is that this group knows how to swing.  Perhaps “knows” is the wrong word, because I never believe that genuine swing feeling could be learned in a classroom.  They FEEL it, which is immediately apparent. Second, although some of the repertoire will be familiar, this isn’t a CD devoted to recreating the fabled discs in better fidelity; the group understands the great recorded artifacts but uses them as jumping-off places to stretch out, to offer their own creations.

I hear traces of the Goodman Trio on LIMEHOUSE BLUES, the 1937 Basie band on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE; Don Byas and Buck Clayton drop by here and there; as do Louis and Astaire; NAUGHTY SWEETIE owes some of its conception to Jimmie Noone, as SUNDAY does to Lester . . . but these versions are expressions of the blended personalities that make up a working band, and are thus precious for us in this century.

Jonathan’s two originals, MILL HOUSE STOMP and DANCE OF THE LINDY BLOSSOMS, work on their own as compositions with their own rhythmic energy. The former bridges the late Hampton Victors and 2 AM at Minton’s; the latter suggests EVENIN’, in mood more than chord changes.

Those familiar with the “modern swing dance scene,” however you define it, will recognize the musicians as energized and reliable: the leader on guitar; Jim Ziegler, trumpet; Albert Alva, tenor saxophone and clarinet (both of the horn players bringing a variety of selves to the project — but often I thought of Emmett Berry and Illinois Jacquet, players I am grateful to hear evoked — and a rhythm team of Chris Dawson (yes!) piano; Wally Hersom, string bass; Josh Collazo, drums.  Jim takes the vocal on CHEEK TO CHEEK, sincerely but with a light heart, and several of the other songs are charmingly sung by Hilary Alexander, who has an engaging primness and delicacy while swinging along.  “Special guests” for a few numbers are the splendid Bryan Shaw, trumpet; Marquis W. Howell, string bass.

The individual soloists are a pleasure: everyone has the right feeling, but I’d just like to single out the leader, because his guitar work is so much the uplifting center of this band.  Stout has obviously studied his Charlie Christian but his solos in that context sound whole, rather than a series of patented-Charlie-phrases learned from transcriptions strung together for thirty-two bars.  His chord work (in the ensemble) evokes Reuss, McDonough, and VanEps in marvelous ways — glimpses of a near-vanished swing landscape in 2017.

And here they are in 2017, once again at the Lindy Blossom Weekend:

When I had heard the CD once again this morning, for purposes of writing this post with the evidence in my ears, I put it on for a second and third time, with no diminution of pleasure.  Later, I’ll play it in my car with the windows open, to osmotically spread joy as I drive.  Look for a man in a Toyota: he’ll be smiling and nodding rhythmically, although both hands on the wheel in approved position.  Rhythm, as they say, will be spread.  Around.

May your happiness increase!