Tag Archives: Don Ewell

THE PAST, PRESERVED: “TRIBUTE TO JIMMIE NOONE”: JOE MURANYI, MASON “COUNTRY” THOMAS, JAMES DAPOGNY, JOHNNY WILLIAMS, ROD McDONALD, HAL SMITH (Manassas Jazz Festival, Dulles, Virginia, Nov. 30, 1986)

One moral of this story, for me, is that the treasure-box exists, and wonderfully kind people are willing to allow us a peek inside.

A jazz fan / broadcaster / amateur singer and kazoo player, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, Jr. (1923-1990), — he was an accountant by day — held jazz festivals in Manassas and other Virginia cities, beginning in 1966 and running about twenty years.  They were enthusiastic and sometimes uneven affairs, because of “Fat Cat”‘s habit, or perhaps it was a financial decision, of having the finest stars make up bands with slightly less celestial players.  Some of the musicians who performed and recorded for McRee include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, James Dapogny, Don Ewell, John Eaton, Maxine Sullivan, Bob Wilber, Pug Horton, Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Bob Greene, Johnny Wiggs, Zutty Singleton, Clancy Hayes, George Brunis, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Tommy Gwaltney, Joe Muranyi, Danny Barker, Edmond Souchon, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Gordon, Marty Grosz, Hal Smith, Kerry Price . . . .

McRee also had business sense, so the proceedings were recorded, issued first on records and then on cassette.  I never got to Manassas while the Festival was happening, but I did buy many of Fat Cat’s lps (with their red and yellow label) and years later, when I met Hank O’Neal, he told me stories of recording the proceedings on Squirrel Ashcraft’s tape machine here.

My dear friend Sonny McGown, who was there, filled in some more of the story of the music you are about to see and hear.  The 1986 festival was dedicated to Jimmie Noone and these performances come from a Sunday brunch set.  “It was a very talented group and they meshed well. Mason ‘Country’ Thomas was the best clarinetist in the DC area for years; he was a big fan of Caceres. . . . Fat Cat’s wife, Barbara, often operated the single VHS video camera which in later years had the audio patched in from the sound board. As you well know, the video quality in those days was somewhat lacking but it is better to have it that way than not at all. Several years later Barbara allowed Joe Shepherd to borrow and digitize many of the videos. In his last years Fat Cat only issued audio cassettes. They were easy to produce, carry and distribute. FCJ 238 contains all of the Muranyi – Dapogny set except for “River…”. However, the videos provide a more enhanced story.”

A few years back, I stumbled across a video that Joe had put up on YouTube — I think it was Vic Dickenson singing and playing ONE HOUR late in his life, very precious to me for many reasons — and I wrote to him.  Joe proved to be the most generous of men and he still is, sending me DVDs and CD copies of Fat Cat recordings I coveted.  I am delighted to report that, at 93, he is still playing, still a delightful person who wants nothing more for his kindnesses than that the music be shared with people who love it.

Because of Joe, I can present to you the music of Jimmie Noone, performed on November 30, 1986, by Joe Muranyi, clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocal; Mason “Country” Thomas, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Rod McDonald, guitar; Johnny Williams, string bass [yes, Sidney Catlett’s teammate in the Armstrong Decca orchestra!]; Hal Smith, drums; Johnson McRee, master of ceremonies and vocalist.  The songs are IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (vocal, Joe); CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES (vocal, Fat Cat); MISS ANNABELLE LEE (Joe); SO SWEET; RIVER, STAY ‘WAY FROM MY DOOR; APEX BLUES; SWEET LORRAINE (Fat Cat).

Some caveats.  Those used to videocassette tapes know how quickly the visual quality diminishes on duplicates, and it is true here.  But the sound, directly from the mixing board, is bright and accurate.  YouTube, in its perplexing way, has divided this set into three oddly-measured portions, so that the first and second segments end in the middle of a song.  Perhaps I could repair this, but I’d rather be shooting and posting new videos than devoting my life to repairing imperfections.  (Also, these things give the busy YouTube dislikers and correcters something to do: I can’t take away their pleasures.)

One of the glories of this set is the way we can see and hear Jim Dapogny in peak form — not only as soloist, but as quirky wise ensemble pianist, sometimes keeping everything and everyone on track.  Joe has promised me more videos with Jim . . . what joy, I say.

Don’t you hear me talkin’ to you?  It IS tight like that:

Who’s wonderful?  Who’s marvelous?

I’ve just found joy:

I started this post with “a” moral.  The other moral comes out of my finding this DVD, which I had forgotten, in the course of tidying my apartment for the new decade.  What occurs to me now is that one should never be too eager to tidy their apartment / house / what have you, because if everything is properly organized and all the contents are known, then surprises like this can’t happen.  So there.  Bless all the people who played and play; bless those who made it possible to share this music with you.  Living and “dead,” they resonate so sweetly.

May your happiness increase!

HANK O’NEAL CELEBRATES BOB WILBER (August 17, 2019)

Bob Wilber with the superb drummer Bernard Flegar, after their gig in Bülach, Switzerland, June 11th 2005.

Once again, it is my great privilege to have asked Hank O’Neal to talk about the people he knows and loves — in this case, the recently departed jazz patriarch Bob Wilber, whom Hank knew and recorded on a variety of rewarding projects.

But even before we begin, all of the music Bob and other luminaries (Earl Hines, Joe Venuti, Zoot Sims, Dick Wellstood, Dave McKenna, Lee Konitz, Ruby Braff, Dick Hyman, Buddy Tate, Don Ewell, Mary Lou Williams and dozens more) created can be heard 24/7 on the Chiaroscuro Channel. Free, too.

Here’s the first part, where he recalls the first time he saw Bob, and moves on — with portraits of other notables — Marian McPartland and Margot Fonteyn, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett and Vic Dickenson, the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, Teddy Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Soprano Summit, Bobby Henderson, Pug Horton, Summit Reunion, and more:

Bob’s tribute (one of many) to his wife, singer Pug Horton, from 1977, with Scott Hamilton, Chris Flory, Phil Flanigan, and Chuck Riggs:

With Kenny Davern, George Duvivier, Fred Stoll, and Marty Grosz, SOME OF THESE DAYS (1976):

Here’s the second part of Hank’s reminiscence:

and a magical session from 1976 that sought to recreate the atmosphere of the Thirties dates Teddy did with his own small bands — the front line is Bob, Sweets Edison (filling in at the last minute for Bobby Hackett, who had just died), Vic Dickenson, Major Holley, and Oliver Jackson:

Summit Reunion’s 1990 BLACK AND BLUE (Bob, Kenny Davern, Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Rosengarden):

and their 1995 WANG WANG BLUES, with the same personnel:

Too good to ignore!  DARLING NELLY GRAY:

and my 2010 contribution to the treasure-chest or toybox of sounds:

Thank you, Hank.  Thank you, Bob and colleagues.

May your happiness increase!

“WONDROUS THINGS”: A CONVERSATION WITH HANK O’NEAL: JUNE 12, 2018 (Part One)

Hank O’Neal and Qi, 2003, by Ian Clifford

Like many of us, I’ve been the recipient of Hank O’Neal‘s wise active generosities for decades.  I greeted each new offering of Chiaroscuro Records (this would have been starting around 1972) with hungry avidity; I went to concerts he produced at The New School; I devoured his prose and delighted in the enterprises he made happen, such as the book EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ.  The very energetic and kind Maggie Condon brought us together in this century, and I came to Hank’s office to chat and then have lunch.  And then Hank agreed to sit for my video camera to talk about a fascinating subject: George Wettling as painter and photographer.  Here are the videos and some artwork from our October 2017 session.  You will notice immediately that Hank, soft-voiced and at his ease, is a splendid raconteur, a storyteller who speaks in full sentences and always knows where he’s going.

I returned this June to ask Hank about his life in the record business — specifically, those Chiaroscuro records and compact discs I treasure, featuring Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Dick Wellstood, Kenny Davern, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Bob Wilber, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Wild Bill Davison, Eddie Condon, Buddy Tate, Don Ewell, Flip Phillips, Joe Venuti, and many others.

If — unthinkable to me — you’ve never heard of Chiaroscuro Records, do us both a favor and visit here — free, streaming twenty-four hours a day.  And how bad can a website be when a photograph shows Bennie Morton and Vic Dickenson in conversation?

Part One, with stories about Zutty Singleton, Earl Hines, E. Howard Hunt, Earl Hines, John Hammond, and others:

Part Two, which touches on Don Ewell, Richard M. Nixon and Spiro Agnew, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Marian McPartland, Willie “the Lion” Smith and other luminaries:

Part Three, which begins with money matters, then touches on Ruby Braff, Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna, Buddy Tate, Dicky Wells, and Wild Bill Davison:

Hank shared forty-five minutes more of stories, which will appear in a later post.

May your happiness increase!

SWINGING FOR THE KID: HAL SMITH’S “ON THE LEVEE JAZZ BAND”

Edward Ory — that’s the Kid to those of us who admire and keep his name and music alive — is a fabled figure.  His 1925-28 Chicago recordings with Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Luis Russell, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin, George Mitchell, Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey, even Tiny Parham are bedrock masterpieces of the pre-World War Two jazz canon, and many bands celebrate them.

But the California climate — whether you consider the ground-breaking 1922 recordings or the evidence of Ory’s second career — must have agreed with him, because the music he made from 1943 on, while less celebrated, is as gratifying, to some even more so.  In the middle Forties, Ory’s band was not a formulaic “trad” group; like Bunk Johnson, he played popular songs.  Rather than have a two-beat rhythm section with banjo, tuba, and a pianist playing their impressions of an older style, the Ory band carried a rhythm guitarist, a string bassist who mized 2/4 and 4/4,  and often had the elegantly down-home pianist Don Ewell keeping things light, bright, and swinging.  At its most gliding, the Ory band suggested a fraternal meeting of New Orleanians still in beautiful form and a swing rhythm section with hints of Basie’s . . . quite a lovely blend.

Ory’s music of the Forties and Fifties  has been well-documented on disc, because the band was caught live on radio broadcasts, and, later, for Norman Granz, but I think many lovers of “traditional jazz” associated him with a rough-hewn trombone style over their idea of “traditional” rhythms.  That is, until the superb drummer and jazz scholar Hal Smith assembled a group of congenial players for his new “On the Levee” Jazz Band, its title referring to a San Francisco club owned by Ory, where he and his band played from 1957-61.

I asked Hal about his first awareness of this period of Ory’s music, and he told me, Back when I bought my first Lu Watters record, the owner of the record store handed me the Watters LP, looked at the label and said “Oh — ‘Good Time Jazz.’ I have another Good Time Jazz record here that someone ordered, but never came in to pick up.” The LP she offered me was “Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band, 1954.” I gladly accepted it, and from the first hearing the combination of Ory’s tailgate trombone and the swinging rhythm section (Minor Hall, Ed Garland and Don Ewell in particular) became some of my favorite sounds in Jazz.

Hal later told me, Based on our performances in New Orleans and Pensacola, I think the On The Levee group most closely resembles the GOOD TIME JAZZ ensembles, circa 1953 – 1955. A lot of that is due to Kris’ admiration for Ewell, and Josh Gouzy’s Ed Garland-inspired bass. (Ory’s sound changed considerably after Ewell and Garland left, and even more in the late ’50s and early ’60s).

The band has already played gigs in New Orleans and in Pensacola, Florida, with Clint Baker nobly filling the Ory role; Ben Polcer, trumpet; Joe Goldberg, clarinet; Kris Tokarski, piano; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Joshua Gouzy, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.  And early in 2018 they will again play in New Orleans . . . and will appear at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November.  I am sure that there will be many other opportunities to hail this group in between.

For now, here is the band’s website, and here are a few videos.  Many more are on YouTube, and the site has a whole cloud of audio-only performances, more than enough to roll up the rugs (if anyone does that) and invite the neighbors over for swinging cheer.

WEARY BLUES:

DOWN HOME RAG:

CARELESS LOVE:

PANAMA:

Many bands are playing this repertoire, but few are doing it in this fervent;y swinging way.  And since the club no longer exists on the Embarcadero — 987 would be part of the Ferry Plaza Maketplace — we should embrace this new band, so nicely keeping a jazz legacy vibrantly alive.

May your happiness increase!

“A SWELL FELLOW”

I don’t know what the proliferation of inscribed photographs of Jack Teagarden says about his, the circumstances, his popularity.  But since I’ve loved his music since childhood, I prefer to see these photographs as indications of a generous character, a man who appreciated his fans and was happy to make even the most fleeting connection with them.  For a start, “Edith” must have been made happier by this:

JACK EDITH

and this later pose:

JACK AUTOGRAPH

and a long sweet [although general] inscription, when Jack was being managed by MCA — circa 1939, if you know his lyrics to JACK HITS THE ROAD:

JACK TEAGARDEN Successful and Happy

and “Warmest regards to a Swell Fellow ‘Pat'”:

JACK TEAGARDEN Warmest Wishes

Then, some official business from 1943:

JACK TEAGARDEN union card front

and the other side:

JACK TEAGARDEN union card back

Even late in life — perhaps a year before his death — Jack retained his mastery, a mastery so deep that he made his great art look casual.  Here he is in Chicago, on television (the host is Willis Conover) performing BASIN STREET BLUES with Don Goldie, Henry Cuesta, Don Ewell, Stan Puls (I think), and Barrett Deems:

May your happiness increase!

DAVE RADLAUER’S MUSICAL GENEROSITIES

The somber-looking fellow here might not be known to you, but he is the most generous of excavators, finding rare jazz treasures and making them available for free to anyone with a computer and many free hours.  His name is Dave Radlauer, and his site is called JAZZ RHYTHM.

RADLAUER portrait

As is often the case in this century, Dave and I have never met in person, but know each other well through our shared fascinations.  But first a word about JAZZ RHYTHM.  When you go to the site’s home page, you’ll see a left-hand column with famous names from Louis Armstrong to Lester Young, as well as many lesser-known musicians.  Click on one to hear a Radlauer radio presentation, with facts and music and anecdotage nicely stirred together.  The long list of names testify to Dave’s wide-ranging interest in swinging jazz.

But here comes the beautiful part.  Click on “Bagatelle jazz club,” for instance, and you will be taken back in time to a rare and beautiful place where delicious music was played.  Possibly you might not know Dick Oxtot, Ted Butterman, Frank Goudie, Bill Bardin, Pete Allen well, but their music is captivating — and a window into a time and place most of us would not have encountered: clubs in and around San Francisco and Berkeley, California, in the Fifties and Sixties.

Dave has been an indefatigable researcher and archivist, and has had the opportunity to delve into the tape collections of musicians Bob Mielke, Wayne Jones, Earl Scheelar, Oxtot, and others.  And the results are delightful sociology as well as musically: how else would I have learned about clubs called The Honeybucket or Burp Hollow? And there are mountains of rare photographs, newspaper clippings, even business cards.

When I visit Dave’s site, I always feel a mild pleasurable vertigo, as if I could tumble into his treasures and never emerge into daylight or the daily obligations that have to be honored (think: ablutions, laundry, bill paying, seeing other humans who know nothing of P.T. Stanton) but today I want to point JAZZ LIVES’ readers in several directions, where curiosity will be repaid with hours of life-enhancing music.

One is Dave’s rapidly-expanding tribute to cornet / piano genius Jim Goodwin — legendary as musician and singular individualist.

jim-goodwin

And this treasure box, brimful, is devoted to the musical life of Frank Chace — seen here as momentarily imprisoned by the band uniform.

CHACE Radlauer

On Dave’s site, you can learn more about Barbara Dane and Janis Joplin, James Dapogny and Don Ewell . . . all presented with the open-handed generosity of a man who wants everyone to hear the good sounds.

Dave has begun to issue some of these treasures on beautifully-annotated CDs, which are well worth your consideration.

RADLAUER CD one

I’m told that the music is also available digitally via iTunes, but here is the link to Amazon.com for those of us who treasure the physical CD, the photographs, and liner notes.

A postscript.  Until the middle Eighties, my jazz education was seriously slanted towards the East Coast.  But when the jazz scholar and sometime clarinetist John L. Fell befriended me, I began to hear wonderful musicians I’d known nothing of: Berkeley Rhythm, Goodwin, Skjelbred, Byron Berry, Vince Cattolica, and others. So if the names in this piece and on Dave’s site are new to you, be not afeared.  They made wonderful music, and Dave is busily sharing it.

May your happiness increase! 

THE LATEST PRANCE, WORDS AND MUSIC

Thanks to Dick Karner of TradJazz Productions for providing inspiration and source material for this blogpost. (You could look into the label’s inspiring hot backlist for some good sounds, too.)

Before we get to Dick’s beneficience, I must ask a difficult question.  Do you know how to do the SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE?  Or, like me, are you simply someone who loves the 1917 song?  Hark to the lyrics and perhaps you can learn.

SHIM 1

The verse:

SHIM 2

The chorus:

SHIM 3

Like the very best teaching, it leaves ample space for personal improvisation. You’re on your own.  But you look perplexed.  Before you start to “bounce ’round like a big rubber ball” in silence, I have something that will help.  For the impatient listeners, the music takes about nineteen seconds to start:

Frank Chace, clarinet; Don Ewell, piano, Beale Riddle, drums.  Ewell’s apartment, either Chicago or Baltimore, c. 1952.

Isn’t that brave lovely music?  Please don’t write in to say that Ewell sounds just like Jelly or that Frank imitates Pee Wee: I don’t have the psychic army that will protect you from their avenging spirits.  Emulation, homage, but not imitation: these are courageous swinging melodists getting under the skin of the music to have their own glorious say.

Now you can truly do the SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE.

May your happiness increase!

I’M GETTING MY BONUS IN STRIDE: JAMES P. FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Everyone who follows jazz devotedly has theories about why some musicians become Stars and others remain Obscure.  It clearly isn’t artistic quality, as one could find out quickly by playing recordings of famous and neglected artists. No, other factors interfere.

In that wonderfully uplifting sub-genre known as Harlem stride piano, the pantheon seems to have room for only one man, Fats Waller.  His fame is well-deserved: his genial embellishments, his rhythmic drive, his delicious pianistic surprises.  But we also have to consider the effect of Fats as a Personality (many recordings and some film appearances) and a Composer.  (In the jazz mythology, he is also remembered as a joyous Dionysiac child who died young — elements that stick in our minds.) Willie “the Lion” Smith seems a collection of delightful eccentricities — melodies, derby hat, cigar, scraps of Yiddish, an elegant braggadocio.  In our time, pianists Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Don Ewell, and their current counterparts have (or had) the advantage of being accessible.

But what of the man who came first (leaving aside Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts), Fats’ teacher, James P. Johnson?  He was not a Personality; the one or two times he sings on record he seems uncomfortable; a quiet man, almost shy, he did not thrust himself forward.  It would seem that he didn’t record sufficiently, but the discographies prove otherwise.  Wellstood once said in print that James P.’s recordings didn’t always document his greatness — although for those of us who didn’t see and hear James P. at all, that would be a moot point.

Mosaic Records, blessedly, has seen fit to put Wellstood’s casual assertion to the test.

JAMES P. Mosaic

This box set will be available in mid-December; it offers the usual Mosaic largesse spread over six CDs; rare material (eleven sides not previously issued), beautiful photographs; a lengthy essay by Dr. Scott Brown, James P.’s biographer, familiar material in the best sound.

And should some worry about six CDs of stride piano, fear not: we hear James P. accompanying blues and pop singers (including Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Clara Smith, and Ethel Waters) and as a sideman in bands that include Frank Newton, Jabbo Smith, Clarence Williams, Garvin Bushell, Louis Metcalf, Fats Waller, Cootie Williams, Arthur Whetsel, King Oliver, Jimmy Archey, Teddy Bunn, Lonnie Johnson, Roy Smeck, Tommy Ladnier, Sidney DeParis, Mezz Mezzrow, John Kirby, Cozy Cole, Sidney Catlett, Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Christian, Ed Hall, and others.

Here‘s the discography, for those who (like myself) find listings of music we are going to hear very enticing.  And if you haven’t heard James P. recently — someone Thelonious Monk admired — scroll down on this Mosaic page and listen.

My holiday shopping list is now complete — my gift to myself, I mean.

May your happiness increase!

“THINK ABOUT THAT LEAD”

Louis Armstrong said it clearly: “. . . there’s people all over the world, they like to hear that lead.  Ain’t no sense playing a hundred notes if one will do, Joe Oliver always used to say, ‘Think about that lead.'”

What many people cherish in the music they call jazz is improvisation.  I understand this: much of the pleasure in hearing a jazz musician at work or at play is observing the new beautiful structures (s)he builds on familiar melody, chords, and rhythms. Consider Lester Young playing I GOT RHYTHM.  As I write now, someone is creating something lovely and surprising on familiar themes. Experienced listeners can discern the original structure as they admire the variations on the theme.

But melody still has so much to say to us, to give us, and while melodic embellishment with a swinging harmonic and rhythmic underpinning may not be the only way to present creative improvised music, it can still be deeply satisfying.

Two examples, from mid-1946: Bunk Johnson, trumpet; Don Ewell, piano; Alphonse Steele, improvising on melodies that were “pretty” and well-established even then.  KATHLEEN was written in 1875; DOLL in 1911:

and

I don’t espouse this as the only rewarding way to play, but it still sounds very good to me.

May your happiness increase! 

HOT MUSIC TRAVELS WELL: ALVIN ALCORN IN AUSTRALIA WITH THE YARRA YARRA JAZZ BAND 1973

We take our personalities with us wherever we go. In the case of creative musicians, this is always a good thing, and a new double-disc set showcasing the fine New Orleans trumpeter Alvin Alcorn in concert with a nifty Australian jazz band is a very rewarding example of how well hot music keeps its essential self no matter how many miles from “the source” it is.  The set, from the Victorian Jazz Archive (VJAZZ 026), is subtitled “Rare Collectible Jazz From the Archive,” and that’s accurate.  By itself, the VJA is a fascinating place: read more here.

The VJA has been quietly yet steadily releasing a series of compact discs of previously unheard or at least quite rare material — featuring Tom Baker, Fred Parkes, Ade Monsbourgh, Frank Traynor, Graeme and Roger Bell and other luminaries, as well as several CDs for “The Progressives”. Details — and sound samples — here.

ZZ 610 Alvin Alcorn

The newest release in the series is a double-disc package spotlighting New Orleans trumpeter / singer Alvin Alcorn and the Yarra Yarra Jazz Band in concert in 1973.  The selections are a comfortable mix of “good old good ones,” with several very fine impromptu vocals from Alvin and one from Kay Younger: THE SECOND LINE / I WANT A LITTLE GIRL / TIPI-TIPI- TIN / EENY MEENY MINEY MO / SAY “SI SI” / BUGLE BOY MARCH / BOURBON STREET PARADE / THAT’S A-PLENTY / BEALE STREET BLUES / INDIANA / TIN ROOF BLUES / JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE / MUSKRAT RAMBLE / I CAN’T GET STARTED / HINDUSTAN / SOME OF THESE DAYS / FIDGETY FEET / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES / BILL BAILEY / ST. LOUIS BLUES / PANAMA / OH, DIDN’T HE RAMBLE – SAINTS.  Each disc is nearly seventy-seven minutes of music, and the sound is better than one hears on other concert recordings of this vintage.

The Yarra Yarras (a band formed in 1960) had fine credentials and connections with musicians as diverse as Don Ewell and Ken Colyer, and they bring a fine springy bounce to the sessions.  I did notice the rhythm section being slightly at sea on a few of the more unfamiliar songs, but this wasn’t enough to disturb my pleasure.

The real pleasure, for me, is in Alcorn.  I came to jazz from a “later” perspective, musically: Forties and Fifties Louis, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Buck Clayton . . . so I often find “authentic” New Orleans trumpet playing — that I am expected to admire if not revere — a bit rough around the edges.  But Alcorn was obviously someone with great subtleties, even when playing the most familiar repertoire. The band rocks and powers along around and below him, and he creates tidy filigree — sounding more like Jonah Jones or Doc Cheatham than Kid Thomas. Everyone seems happy, and Alvin’s vocals are delightful.  I encourage you to investigate this set and its colleagues at the VJA site.

May your happiness increase!

GOODBYE, RED BALABAN. FAREWELL, BOB GREENE

I’ve written very sparingly about the deaths of jazz musicians in JAZZ LIVES — for one reason, thinking that turning this blog into an ongoing necrological record was at odds with its title. But without saying that one musician is more important than another (Bobby Gordon, Frank Wess, Al Porcino, Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Sam Ulano, and a dozen others I am not mentioning here) I want to write and share a few words about two deaths of late 2013.

One was the bassist / guitarist / singer / impresario Leonard “Red” Balaban, the other, pianist Bob Greene.  Both of them were ardent workers in the jazz vineyards, and both (in their own subtle ways) did as much to advance the music as more-heralded musicians.

I had occasion to observe and interact with Red Balaban many times in 1972-5, again in 1975-the early Eighties, and once in 2013. In the summer of 1972, I learned from reading the listings in THE NEW YORKER that Sunday-afternoon jazz sessions were being held at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage — sic transit gloria mundi) on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street.  I and several friends made pilgrimages there.  The Mustache was a huge hall with sawdust on the floor, creaking long tables and wobbly chairs.  But for a nominal admission charge and the purchase of food and drink of dubious quality, we could sit as close to the bandstand as possible and (often) illicitly record the music.  The house band — Balaban and Cats — harking back to Red’s heritage in show business with the Chicago movie theatre chain created by Balaban and Katz — was usually a sextet, with Red playing string bass and singing, occasionally guitar or banjo, rarely tuba.  He called the tunes in consultation with the guest star, chose tempos, and led the session.  The Cats I remember were Marquis Foster, Buzzy Drootin, Dick Wellstood, Bobby Pratt, Chuck Folds, Red Richards, Sal Pace, Kenny Davern, Joe Muranyi, Dick Rath, Herb Gardner, Ed Polcer, Doc Cheatham, and I am sure there were others.  The guest stars, stopping in from Olympus or Valhalla, were Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Buddy Tate, Jo Jones, Dicky Wells, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Bob Wilber — enough stiumlation for a lifetime.  I was a college student with limited funds, so I didn’t see every session: missing Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, Lou McGarity, and others.  But I did see Eddie Condon in the audience, which would make the Sunday sessions memorable even if no music had been played.  And his daughter Liza was there now and again, photographing the musicians.

A few years later, I saw Red occasionally as a member of Mike Burgevin’s little band at Brew’s, playing alongside Vic Dickenson and other luminaries.  Eventually, Red and Ed Polcer created the “last” Eddie Condon’s, on 54th Street, and I went there when I could — the house band, as I recall it, included Ed, Vic, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, John Bunch, Connie, Kay, Ronnie Cole, and another galaxy of visitors, including Helen Humes, Al Hall, Jimmy Rowles, Brooks Kerr, Marty Grosz, Bob Sparkman, Ruby Braff, Joe Bushkin, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones.  At Condon’s one could also see Billy Butterfield, Dan Barrett, Soprano Summit, Zoot and Al — a midtown oasis, now gone.

Finally, I got to meet Red once again, after a lapse of decades, at the October 2012 house party created by Joel Schiavone and Jeff Barnhart. I introduced myself as someone who had good reason to be grateful to him for those Sunday sessions, and we chatted a bit.

Thanks to CineDevine, we have two samples of Red, late in his career, gently entertaining the room, with assistance from Jim Fryer, Jeff Barnhart, and others.  In a Waller-Razaf mood:

and something pretty from Rodgers and Hart:

A musician I respect, someone around in those New York years, had this to say about Red: “Not only did he love the music, but thousands upon thousands of dollars went through his hands and into the hands of musicians.  What he did with Condon’s # 3 is part of New York City jazz history.  He was a kind man who came from a very interesting family.  He wasn’t Ray Brown or Bob Haggart, but he kept jazz alive.”

Without Red Balaban, I doubt that I — and many others — would have heard as much memorable music as we did in those New York years.  So we owe him a great deal.  And he will be missed.  Another view of Red can be found here.

Pianist Bob Greene also left us late in 2013.

Bob devoted his life to celebrating Jelly Roll Morton and his music. He wasn’t the only pianist who has done so, but his emulation was fervent. I saw him summon up the Master at Alice Tully Hall in 1974 with a lovely little band (Pee Wee Erwin, Ephie Resnick, Herb Hall, Alan Cary, Milt Hinton, Tommy Benford).  They couldn’t quite turn that austere space into a Storyville bordello or the Jungle Inn (it would have required an architectural reconstruction taking years) but the music floated and rocked.  Across the distance of the decades, I think of Bob as a brilliant actor, committed with all his heart and energy to one role and to the perfection of that role — not a bad life-goal.

Bob was respected by his peers.  Mike Lipskin said, “Bob was a fine performer of Jelly Roll Morton compositions, and devoted much of his life to keeping the memory of this giant early jazz pioneer alive. I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert many years ago.”  And a man we just lost, Bobby Gordon, told me, “I have fond memories of Bob for 40 years. He was always enthusiastic about music. I recorded with him 40 years ago and most recently for Jazzology. It was wonderful to record with him again, and a joy to be with such a remarkable talent. I will miss him……..a dear friend.”

Here’s a beautiful expansive piece by Hank O’Neal, a very lively evocation of Bob:

The first time I saw Bob Greene, he was playing a poor electric piano with a fairly loose ensemble, on the back of a flat bed truck. The band on the truck was trying, unsuccessfully, to recreate the feeling generated by old time bands on wagons in New Orleans. It is a long way from New Orleans to Manassas, Virginia, and 1967 was a half a century removed from those heady days in the Crescent City. I don’t remember the enterprise stirring up much support for the first Manassas Jazz Festival, but Bob was on board because his old friend, Edmund “Doc” Souchon was also there, and Doc had probably asked him to come along. I know it happened because I have a snapshot to prove it. In another snapshot from the same day he’s playing cornet.

You had to look pretty hard to find out anything about Bob. He’s not well-known today, rarely mentioned in any of the standard jazz reference books, and you have to dig pretty deep to come up with any information at all, but the bits and pieces are there if you look for them. And the story and the music he’s made along the way are both wonderful.

Bob’s first love was Benny Goodman, Jess Stacy and the swing guys who were all over the place when he was a teenager. He could still, when asked, do the best imitation of Stacy I’ve ever heard, but at some point he heard Jelly Roll Morton, and was hooked. Until his death in 2013, he remained one of the foremost exponent of Jelly’s music in the land. There are other guys who could play more notes, play King Porter Stomp louder or Fingerbuster faster, but when it came to really delivering the goods, with just the right mix of technique, exuberance and sentiment, nobody else even came close.

There are other guys who play Morton’s compositions well, in the style, often with more sheer technique, but, for the most part, this is just a portion, usually a small portion, of their repertory. The music of Jelly Roll Morton and some of his circa 1900 contemporaries, made up about 90 percent of Bob’s playbook, and the telephone doesn’t ring very often these days, or any other days for the past few decades, for someone to play a recital of Morton’s music. Which was just fine for Bob. He never had any intention of being a full time musician. The world was just full of too many other things to try.

Bob made his first recordings in 1950 with Conrad Janis (Circle) and in 1951 with Sidney DeParis (Blue Note) and recorded intermittently for the next sixty years, whenever it was convenient. His performance schedule was about the same. He played in and around New York City in the 1950s and Washington D.C. in the 1960s because he was writing some pretty fancy stuff for assorted notables to read on radio or in political speeches. Goodness knows what else he may have been up to. When he wrote a book about the OSS exploits of his cousin, Paul Blum, he had no difficulty gaining access to the highest levels of the intelligence community. But back to the music.

After Bob climbed down off the back of the truck during the ill-fated parade in Manassas, I discovered he could also play a real piano and when he played Morton it was special. As I’ve suggested, he made up in spirit and authenticity what he may lacked in a formidable technique. Not that he made mistakes, he didn’t, but to this particular pianist, passion was the point, not technique. He had all he needed to get his point across. Much in the same as Thelonoius Monk. Other people played Just A Gigolo better than Monk, but nobody played it with more quirky feeling.

The first time I really heard Bob was when I was asked to round up the gear to record a band to be led by the then legendary, now largely forgotten drummer, Zutty Singleton. The gear came from Squirrel Ashcraft, the recorder, microphones, even the take-up reels. It was February 12, 1967, I remember the date with great affection because it was the very first commercially released record I ever worked on. It was also my first encounter with Zutty, still a marvelous drummer, and the only person I ever heard in person who could almost simulate a melody on the drums.

Bob Greene was a strong presence among many exceptional players that day and the highlight of the recording, to me at least, was a duo, just Zutty and Bob, on Cake Walking Babies From Home. I don’t know if Jelly ever played the tune, but if he did, he would have played it like Bob played it that day, and maybe Zutty would have been around to make sure. This was Johnson McRee’s first record for his Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and except for a solo outing by Don Ewell, perhaps the best record he ever produced.

In the 1970s, I asked Bob to record for Chiaroscuro on many occasions, but he always declined. There was always a semi-legitimate excuse. He was the only person I asked to record in those years who didn’t jump at the chance, including Bob’s first idol, Jess Stacy. In the late 1970’s Bob assembled his World of Jelly Roll Morton band, made a fine record for RCA, played Carnegie Hall a few years and toured successfully with the group. But most of the time he was in between New Orleans, Paris, Tokyo and New York, rarely in any place for very long. He slowed down long enough to record all the Jelly Roll Morton tracks for Louis Malle’s fine film, Pretty Baby and he enthralled audiences with his Jelly Roll show at numerous Floating Jazz Festivals. I recorded one of these shows in the late 1980s. Maybe I’ll listen to it one day and see if it should be released.

In 1994 we produced an event for Cunard on Queen Elizabeth 2, a 12-day survey of the music of New Orleans, and Bob was on board, as both Jelly Roll Morton and as the pianist with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The New Yorker’s noted critic, Whitney Balliett, was also on board, in disguise as Baby Dodds, tastefully accompanying Bob on a snare and cymbal. Romantic that he was, Bob fell in love with the ship and was heartbroken when he learned that much of the furniture in the ship’s Theater Bar, where he held forth nightly with Whitney, was to be taken off QE2 when it reached New York, and given to the Salvation Army. He decided he had to have a table and four leather chairs and set about finding a way to work it out.

When we docked, I left via the crew gangway, and saw Bob at the other end of the pier in heated conversation with a man in a Salvation Army uniform. Longshoreman were hauling the furniture and putting it inside a truck. I later learned that Bob got his furniture. The deal was for a table and four leather chairs, in the best condition possible, delivered to his home on 92nd Street. In exchange, Bob promised to assemble a band, including Whitney, to play for a Salvation Army Christmas party. A decade or so later Bob moved out to the end of Long island and that old Theater Bar furniture moved with him, a few miles closer to Southampton. This is the kind of thing that appealed to Bob.

If Bob had worked at a career in music half as hard as he worked at getting that furniture, who knows what might have happened? But perhaps nothing would have happened, which is the case with most people who try to have a career in jazz, and he wouldn’t have had nearly as good a time as he had for the past 91 years. He was one of a handful of pianists I’d go out of my way to hear because he always made me happy. He had the same effect on others.

In November 2006 he toured Japan and a lot of other people went out of their way to hear him. After that he began working on a project to present a Jelly Roll Morton show at Jazz At Lincoln Center but it didn’t work out. A year or so after that he asked what I thought of getting him together with Joshua Bell for some duets. I thought it sound like a good idea, that Bell could do a lot worse. That didn’t work out either but an awful lot did and the music that resulted with simply wonderful.

Bob and friends:

MAMIE’S BLUES (2006):

I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY (2010):

TIGER RAG (2011):

Thinking about these men, all I can say is this.

Not everyone is a Star, but everyone counts.  And fortunate are those who can follow their life’s calling and share their passions with us.

May your happiness increase!

A FEW NOTES FOR TOMMY THUNEN

At the most recent (November 2013) San Diego Jazz Fest, a friend introduced a smiling woman to me with these words, “Michael, this is Vonne.  Her father was Tommy Thunen.”  I was very excited, and told Vonne so, for I knew her father’s name for years: as the second or third trumpet player on many Red Nichols recordings.  She was happy that I was so excited, and she promised to send more about her father.
The children of jazz heroes — a rare breed — fascinate me. Many of the musicians I admire were childless, or their relations with their children were less than ideal — so my occasional attempts to speak with these survivors have not always been successful.  Nephews and nieces, grandchildren and cousins have surfaced but little substantial has come of these brief contacts.  (A notable exception has been the interchanges I’ve had, documented in JAZZ LIVES, with the very generous son of Leo McConville, a trumpeter who probably sat alongside Thunen many times in the late Twenties and middle Thirties.)
But Vonne clearly remembers her father with affection:
My dad, Tommy Thunen, played with Red Nichols, Paul Whiteman, and later Russ Morgan. As you probably know, Russ Morgan played at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley for a number of years. My dad played with Abe Lyman’s Orchestra in the 30’s I believe. He also played on two radio programs in New York. One was called “Waltz Time” on Friday nights and the other was “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” on Sundays. I believe it was one of the major radio stations in New York. 
In later years he was living in San Fernando Valley and played with a band led by Rosy McHargue at a place called The Cobblestone, and he also played with Rosy in Las Vegas. Musicians have told me that he had a “sweet” sound. He also played cornet and alto sax. One of his first “gigs” was at age 13 when he played at an Armistice parade at the end of the first World War.
My own investigation into Tommy’s recorded work as documented in the “jazz” records to be found in Tom Lord’s discography shows him to be a New York regular who traveled in fast company: not only with Nichols, but the Irving Mills recording groups that used men out of the Ben Pollack Orchestra, starting in 1929.
Tommy played alongside Gene Krupa, Jimmy McPartland, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Larry Binyon, Ray Bauduc, Bud Freeman, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Mannie Klein, Dave Tough, Red McKenzie, Pee Wee Russell, Fud Livingston, Glenn Miller, Irving Brodsky, Joe Tarto, Mickey Bloom, Rube Bloom, Babe Russin, Adrian Rollini, Tommy Dorsey, Tony Parenti, Annette Hanshaw, Eddie Miller, and other New York Reliables — all of this in 1929-30. He surfaces again on some hot recordings by the Abe Lyman band in 1933, and then not again until working with Rosy McHargue in 1957, and — fittingly — he is the sole trumpet, out in the open, on his final recordings with Jack Teagarden in Jack’s Sextet that same year: the soundtrack from a television program, a July appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, and a promotional record of the Marlboro cigarette jingle in September — alongside Jerry Fuller, Don Ewell, Stan Puls, and Monte Mountjoy.
I can’t offer JAZZ LIVES readers tangible evidence of Tommy’s sweet sound, but here are two records where he is said to be playing.  Is that him on the bridge of I’VE GOTTA HAVE YOU?  (The pleasure of hearing Red McKenzie — and tenor saxophone soloing by Pee Wee Russell — makes up for all uncertainties.)
Other recordings on YouTube might have Tommy in the personnel: a search will turn up some lovely music from Annette Hanshaw, among others.
But now for the photographs!
Here’s bandleader Abe Lyman, inscribed to Vonne:
Abe Lyman
“Jean Wakefield and her Mischief Makers”:
Jean Wakefield & Her Mischief Makers
All I know about mischievous Jean is she and the Makers are listed in the radio section of the Berkeley, California, Daily Gazette for Saturday, November 7, 1931, broadcasting over KLX at 7 PM. (Airchecks, anyone?)  To me, the most important part of that photograph is the inscription on the left.
Here’s a band appearing at a nightspot with its own kind of transient fame, Fatty Arbuckle’s Cobblestone Cafe:
Cobblestone Cafe (Fatty Arbuckle's) (1)
and some needed identification:
Cobblestone Cafe Name List
I haven’t found any reference to the Cobblestone Cafe, although I don’t have a biography of Arbuckle at hand.  He was dead in mid-1933 and this photograph is from some decades later.  Aside from Tommy, the most famous musician, pianist Arthur Schutt, who lived until 1965, is hidden from view.  Clarinetist Gene Bolen, however, recorded from the late Fifties onwards, so I await informed speculations about a more precise dating.
Rosy McHargue (1)
Rosy McHargue and his Dixieland Band, dated 1953:
Rosy McHargue Name List (1)
I hope we will find out more about the life and music of Tommy Thunen, not only from his daughter.
I think of him as a professional musician who is now characterized, if at all, as a “jazz musician,” then a “studio musician,” perhaps a “Dixieland jazz player.”
But the music we hold dear is not simply a matter of famous soloists and stars, the people about whom biographies are written, but of reliable professionals whose names aren’t famous, indispensable craftspeople nevertheless. These quiet men and women might appear predictably bourgeois, not exciting.  But any communal art form — be it jazz, the symphony, or the theatre — needs people one can count on to be on time, well-prepared, clean, sober, expert.  After the fact, people tell tales of the brilliant musician who is also unpredictable — but such artists are at best hard on everyone’s nervous system. But we are more intrigued by Jack Purvis or Charlie Parker than Mannie Klein or Hilton Jefferson.
How many beautiful players were there who did their work superbly but never got interviewed, whose names were known only to fellow musicians and discographers . . . who made the whole enterprise of music go on as it did?
I’d like to see books called THE JAZZ PROFESSIONALS — consider among thousands Harold Baker, Buster Bailey, Murray McEachern, Helen Humes and Nick Fatool — people who didn’t lead bands or win Metronome polls, but who were the very foundation of what we take for granted.
And Tommy Thunen, about whom we now know a little more, thanks to his daughter.
May your happiness increase!

AT THE VERY PEAK: MUSIC FROM THE STRIDE SUMMITS (DICK HYMAN, MIKE LIPSKIN, STEPHANIE TRICK, CLINT BAKER, PAUL MEHLING: Lesher Arts Center, August 24, 2013)

Stride piano, beautifully performed, is amazing.  For one, there is the simple athleticism required.  Try keeping your left hand moving (on a table) at a typical Waller tempo for three minutes without letting the tempo drop or accelerate. And movement in itself isn’t enough; the keyboard is more than a snare-drum head.
But it’s not simply a matter of pounding out single notes and chords (widely-spaced) in the left hand.  The best stride players understand that the form has within it the potential to become mechanical, so they create rhythmic tension between bass and treble; they vary dynamics; they add shade and light through chord voicings.
It’s rather like writing a sonnet: that iambic pentameter, those fourteen lines, that set rhyme scheme can be a prison or its apparent limitations can inspire the most dazzling creativity.
And stride duets are even more intense, more precarious: when they come off splendidly, it is beyond remarkable art and precision.
We are fortunate that even after the great stride triumvirate — Waller, James P., and the Lion — left us, there were many successors (think of Wellstood, Ewell, Sutton in the recent past) and there is a wonderfully creative gang of striders, here and globally, who continue to delight.
The form stretches across the generations.  In the Stride Summits held in Walnut Creek and San Francisco at the end of August 2013, concerts invented and sustained by Mike Lipskin, we had Stephanie Trick and Dick Hyman, separated by six decades . . . with Mike, Clint Baker, and Paul Mehling, nestled happily in the chronological middle.
Mike Lipskin — known to most as someone who learned from the Lion, from Eubie Blake, and many other elders, a fine pianist, singer, composer, and wit  — is also a diligent musical thinker, so his concerts don’t degenerate into Fast and Loud.  These three concerts were beautifully planned and the music was varied throughout.
The Beloved and I saw all three concerts (August 24-25) and enjoyed every note.  I was able to bring my camera to the Lesher Arts Center and although I recorded them from one side of the stage, then the other, “waiting in the wings” has never been such a pleasure.
Here is a handful of keys (and, yes, that is the first song) from these happy stride nights that didn’t take place uptown in Harlem some time in 1936 — but in our century.
Fats’s early showpiece, HANDFUL OF KEYS, by Dick and Mike:
Eubie Blake’s TROUBLESOME IVORIES, by Stephanie, who tames the keyboard with grace:
Rocking the house in a different way with BOOGIE WOOGIE STOMP by Stephanie and friends (who couldn’t stop themselves from joining in):
Serene and mystical — the early Gershwin theme, LULLABY, by Dick:
Pastoral ruminations in 3 / 4, with Fats’ JITTERBUG WALTZ, by Dick:
A tribute to James P. Johnson, the worthy patriarch, with OLD-FASHIONED LOVE / KEEP OFF THE GRASS, by Stephanie and Mike:
Pete Johnson’s DEATH RAY BOOGIE (inspired by early science fiction, films, or comic books, I wonder?), by Stephanie:
And something truly “ancient,” Cole Porter’s IT’S ALL RIGHT WITH ME, by Mike and Dick:
It was all right — and more — with three audiences, I assure you.
Did you miss these concerts?  You might have, since they were sold out very quickly.
But there’s good news.  “Mark it down,” as Billie said on MISS BROWN TO YOU.
There will be another Stride Summit at the positively gorgeous Filoli on August 10, 2014.  It is not too early to plan for this ecstatic happening.
P.S.  Dinah Lee also sang beautifully at the three concerts.  Sadly, the technical limitations of my camera prevented her from being shown off as she should be.  But there will be videos of Dinah to come!
May your happiness increase!

CELEBRATING THE WORLDS DOUG DOBELL CREATED

dobells_s_01

I didn’t get to the UK until 2005, so I missed a great era in Anglo-American relations . . . not Roosevelt and Churchill, but the opportunity to go record-shopping at Dobells, 77 Charing Cross Road.  I knew about it, however, through the “77” record label — with issues featuring Dick Wellstood, Don Ewell, Pete Brown, Bernard Addison, Sonny Greer, and more.

A new gallery exhibition, lovingly assembled, celebrates that great place and time — and the music that Dobells nurtured.  The exhibition runs from April 10 – May 18, 2013 at CHELSEA space.

CHELSEA space presents a rare opportunity to view previously unseen material from the Museum of London and British Record Shop Archive collections, concerning one of the world’s greatest record shops.

Dobells (1946-1992) was a significant meeting place for fans of jazz, folk and blues. This exhibition explores Dobells position as a retail environment, information network, cultural landmark and social hub through archive artefacts, ephemera, photographs (many by the celebrated jazz-blues photographer Val Wilmer), and graphics.

dobells_s_02

Doug Dobell began selling collectable and imported jazz records in 1946 at his family’s rare books shop at 77 Charing Cross Road. In 1957 he started up the 77 record label and was instrumental in developing, recording and marketing jazz, blues, folk and world music in the UK. At a later point 75 Charing Cross Road next door to the original store, was used to house Dobells Folk Record shop section.

Prominent US musicians could be found dropping into Dobells including Muddy Waters, BB King, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Red Allen and members of the Ellington band. A young Bob Dylan recorded in the small basement studio there in 1963 and Janis Joplin would visit with a bottle of Southern Comfort as a gift for the staff of the store.

RECORDS

Dobells stocked American blues 78s, 45s and LPs and many British music fans got their first ever taste of Mamie Smith, Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy there. The imported US records purchased at the record shop inspired such pioneers of British jazz and blues as Alexis Korner, Cyril Davies and Chris Barber (amongst many others). All the bands of the British Blues explosion: The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream and Fleetwood Mac shopped there. Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, Mac McGann, Bert Jansch, The Vipers Skiffle Group, Lonnie Donegan and other folk musicians raided the shop’s racks of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston records. David Bowie was also a regular customer during the early 1960s.

Dobells provided a network for British Jazz musicians including Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Johnny Dankworth, Vic Lewis, Harry Beckett, Ian Carr, Mike Westbrook and many others who would meet there to check out the new imports in the listening booths and chat about the latest sounds. Such was the standing of Dobells, that it found its way into literature with New immigrants to London from former colonies and war torn nations would also visit as Dobells as it was the only shop in London to stock African, Irish, Yiddish and music from other parts of the world.

This exhibition recalls an era when a specialist record shop helped shape the nation’s underground cultural scene.  The exhibition takes place to coincide with Record Store Day UK, which occurs on Saturday 20th April 2013.  Exhibition curated by Donald Smith with Leon Parker.  For more information, email info@chelseaspace.org or telephone 020 7514 6983.  Admission is free and the exhibition is open Tue – Fri: 11:00 – 5:00, Sat: 10:00 – 4:00.  CHELSEA space is located at 16, John Islip Street, London SW1P 4JU – behind the Tate Gallery.

Those of us who spent happy hours (and dollars or pounds or the prevailing currency) in specialist record shops — where one could converse or debate with an educated, impassioned salesperson about the course of Bud Powell’s career — will find this exhibition powerfully evocative.  The generation that has no idea of what came before invisible digital sound should be gently escorted there . . . for a greater historical awareness.

Here’s a postscript and a photograph from my UK friend Robin Aitken, someone who knows:

This exhibition is only a precursor for a more long term project which is in the preparation stage at present. This will be a book on Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop edited by myself and Brian Peerless who worked part time in Dobell’s from 1962 until its final closure in 1992. It is intended that the book will be in the same format as Nat Hentoff’s wonderful “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya” with sections on the history of the shop, the staff, the customers, the stories , the music and of course the musicians. We are assiduously collecting material and welcome any contributions from anyone who has visited the shop over the years. In 1972 a contingent of staff and customers, myself included, made to trip to New York for the First Newport Jazz Festival there. There were ten of us on that trip – sadly only four of us survive. The Dobell’s exhibition has prompted me to finally put down my memories and those of my surviving companions of a wonderful 2 weeks in the Big Apple. I took several photographs which I hope to include in the article and I have attached one of my favourites. This was taken outside Jim & Andy’s at West 55th Street in late June 1972 just before Jim closed for the month of July. It shows from left to right the drummer Richie Goldberg, John Kendall, Manager of Dobell’s Second-hand Shop, Ray Bolden, Manager of the Blues and Folk Shop, Scoville Brown who played with Louis in 1932 and nearly everyone else thereafter – some great records with Buck Clayton on HRS in 1946, and Doug Dobell himself, the owner of Dobell’s Jazz, Blues and Folk Record shops.

(Notice the record bag Richie Goldberg is holding — the thing in itself!)

File0029

May your happiness increase.

“A LOST JAZZ TREASURE”: TURK MURPHY’S SAN FRANCISCO JAZZ BAND / LIVE 1973

A child of the East Coast, I didn’t grow up listening to Turk Murphy — and I retained a New Yorker’s mild disdain for “that style” because the sounds that first made their way into my heart were more Commodore and Teddy Wilson, more Basie and Hackett.

But on my most recent California stay, I bought a copy of the Columbia NEW ORLEANS SHUFFLE (with trumpeter Birch Smith and the most exalted Don Ewell) and my disdain began to drop away.  Emboldened, I also acquired a “new” Turk Murphy CD — unissued live material from 1973 — which had the dual imprimatur of Leon Oakley and John Gill (whose notes are delightful).

The band had a powerful front line — Turk, Leon, and the magnificent Bob Helm — supported by Pete Clute, piano; Bill Carroll, tuba; Carl Lunsford, banjo on NEW ORLEANS STOMP / SEE SEE RIDER / DUSTY RAG / SILVER DOLLAR / SUGAR FOOT STRUT / KANSAS CITY MAN BLUES / BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME / TOM CAT BLUES / WOLVERINE BLUES / CHIMES BLUES / DOCTOR JAZZ / THE PEARLS / THE TORCH / NEW ORLEANS JOYS / TEXAS MOANER / WILLIE THE WEEPER / RAGGED BUT RIGHT / SIDEWALK BLUES / DIPPERMOUTH BLUES / BAY CITY.

Obviously the repertoire owes a good deal to Oliver and Morton, but the overall effect is what I think of as mid-Twenties Chicago, with Leon’s powerful attack being matched by Helm’s sinuous, graceful lines.  Turk’s trombone is reliably gutty, marking out the bottom.  And there are little subtleties: the way the horns support the tuba melody on SEE SEE RIDER; the prancing motion of DUSTY RAG, the easy romp of SUGAR FOOT STRUT.  The rhythm section on KANSAS CITY MAN BLUES has every note, every nuance in place.  Although the band charges into DOCTOR JAZZ (with the verse), the performances are varied in tempo and dynamics — this isn’t a band playing at the top of its range on every song.  All the strains and breaks in WOLVERINE BLUES, NEW ORLEANS JOYS, and THE PEARLS are beautifully in place, with not a hint of the museum around them.  And THE TORCH is a peerless piece of Americana.

For those who are wary of “unissued” “live” recordings, the sound on this one is first-rate — recorded close to the band with all six instruments nicely balanced, not drowned out by audience enthusiasm — and it’s a generous seventy-two minutes.

To purchase this CD (MMRC-CD-48) contact the Merry Makers Record Company at their toll-free number, 1-866-563-4433, or click here.

May your happiness increase.

A HALF-HOUR WITH JACK TEAGARDEN IN TOKYO, 1959

Just astonishing.

Jack with Max Kaminsky, cornet; Jerry Fuller, clarinet; Don Ewell, piano; Lee Ivory, bass (a serviceman filling in for Stan Puls, who had had an emergency appendectomy); Ronnie Greb, drums … a Japanese jazz band and a 45-piace string  orchestra.  Recorded for JOKR-TV, Tokyo, early January 1959.

The theme, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, leads into THAT’S A PLENTY, and an appearance by a Japanese small band.  Then comes music even more remarkable: Jack accompanied by a local symphony orchestra on STARS FELL ON ALABAMA, DIANE, PEG O’MY HEART, a slow BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA.  Then the Japanese band appears and the program closes with the SAINTS.

What’s astonishing about this — particularly the segment with the symphony, which is as lovely as anything you could want — is the simple beauty of Jack’s pure, deep, melodic playing.  The myth surrounding Jack (parallel to the one draped around his friend Louis) is that after the Twenties he was a shadow of his earlier self, repeating the same solos night after night.  I would urge anyone who has even entertained this idea (I confess I have) to listen very closely to Jack’s earnest, understated ballads here.  And although he looks tired, he is in beautiful form.  Trombonists will admire his rich tone, his easy mastery, how he makes it seem so simple.

I think of what Bobby Hackett told Max Jones: “The Good Lord told [Jack], ‘Now you go on down there and show them how to do it,'”as if Teagarden was a celestial figure — true enough.

Thanks to Steve Williams  — whose YouTube channel, vitajazz is full of hot jazz and other surprises.

May your happiness increase.

THE SOUNDS OF NEW ORLEANS (on DISC)

Three recent CDs from the George H. Buck family of labels are unusual sound-pictures of the riches of New Orleans jazz.

GEOFF BULL IN NEW ORLEANS (GHB BCD 203) is a CD reissue of trumpeter Bull’s first American session (October 1977, first issued December 1999).  Although Bull says that his first influences were George Lewis and Bunk Johnson, the music he made at Preservation Hall on this recording is far from what we would expect: light, floating, subtle.

A good deal of this is due to his beautiful playing, at times reminiscent of Bunk at his most lyrical (think of the American Music trios with Don Ewell); Bull can also sound like Marty Marsala or Henry “Red” Allen, but he is his own man, with a relaxed conception.  Making this session even more memorable is clarinetist Raymond Burke, free to roam in the front line alongside Bull.  Bassist James Prevost is a melodic swinger, and the rhythm section is completed by two strong individualists: Sing Miller, piano and vocal*; Cie Frazier, drums.

Rather than choose a program of Preservation Hall favorites, Bull and friends opted for pretty tunes not often played: PECULIAR / DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME? / A PORTER’S LOVE SONG TO A CHAMBERMAID / ONE FOR THE ROAD (a leisurely blues) / I’M NOBODY’S BABY / ALL ALONE / NEVERTHELESS / TUCK ME TO SLEEP IN MY OLD ‘TUCKY HOME* /JEEP’S BLUES / ZERO (I NEVER KNEW WHAT A GAL COULD DO) / THE NIGHT WHEN LOVE WAS BORN* / LET JESUS FIX IT FOR YOU* / HONEY – WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM*.The results are sweet thoughtful jazz, conversational music that musicians play for their own pleasure.

My own Geoff Bull tale is musically rewarding: I hadn’t heard him play before encountering him (unbeknownst to me) in an after-hours jam session during the 2010 Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival.  Here’s his performance (with Michael McQuaid’s Late Hour Boys) of MAMA INEZ — Geoff’s rangy, relaxed lyricism is a standout:

Two volumes of rare, previously unheard material from producer Joe Mares’ archives (he was the younger brother of trumpeter Paul) are fascinating, and not only for their rarity (GHB BCD 522 and 530, available separately).  Almost all of the material is in excellent fidelity, and this selection from Mares’ collection — which, when transferred to CD, filed twenty-seven discs — comes from concerts and local clubs as well as radio broadcasts between 1948 and 1953.  Students of New Orleans jazz will be thrilled by new material from their heroes, captured live; others will simply find the music energetic, varied, and refreshing.

Volume One begins with the hilarious HADACOL RAMBLE — with an ensemble vocal chorus — that is somewhere between folk-song, medicine show, down-home comedy, and vaudeville routine advertising the miraculous benefits of Hadacol, a New Orleans patent medicine apparently far more efficacious than Geritol or Serutan.

Other delights on this disc include appearances by Johnny Wiggs, Irving Fazola, Bujie Centobie, Raymond Burke, and Dr. Edmond Souchon.  The repertoire is often familiar, but the musicians play INDIANA (for instance) as if it had not been worn out by decades of bandstand tedium.  The songs are HADACOL RAMBLE / HADACOL RAMBLE (vocal) / I’M GOIN’ HOME / BASIN STREET BLUES / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES / TIN ROOF BLUES / THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE / DIPPERMOUTH BLUES / AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL / SAVOY BLUES / THAT’S A PLENTY / HIGH SOCIETY / BASIN STREET BLUES / MUSKRAT RAMBLE / BILL BAILEY — and the collective personnel is Sharkey Bonano, Tony Dalmado, George Hartman, Johnny Wiggs, Pinky Vidalcovich, Irving Fazola, Harry Shields, Raymond Burke, Bujie Centobie, Julian Laine, Emile Christian, Jack Delaney, Roy Zimmerman, Bill Zalik, Burt Peck, Stanley Mendelsohn, Frank Federico, Edmond Souchon, Sherwood Mangiapane, Chink Martin, Arnold Loyocano, Johnny Castaing, Fred King, Roger Johnson, Monk Hazel, Abbie Brunies — a fine mix of veterans and less-familiar players — but everyone solos with fine brio and no one gets lost in the ensemble.

The second volume is equally good — with most of the same players remaining.  (This selection adds Tony Almerico, Tony Costa, and Lester Bouchon.) Three standouts are the fine Stacy-inspired pianist Jeff Riddick (heard on seven selections), inspired work from drummer Ray Bauduc (on five), and Jack Teagarden — whose performance of BASIN STREET BLUES is especially inspired and happy, contrary to my initial expectations.

The songs are CLARINET MARMALADE / ALICE BLUE GOWN / THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE /PECULIAR / THE LAND OF DREAMS / INDIANA / SHE’S CRYING FOR ME /MISSOURI TWO BEAT / BASIN STREET BLUES / WHO’S SORRY NOW? / TIN ROOF BLUES / MARIE / HIGH SOCIETY / I’M A DING DONG DADDY / I’M GOIN’ HOME.

If you find yourself tired of routine performances of the “classic” repertoire, these three discs will be a refreshing corrective.

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. 

DA CAPO AL FINE: JAMES DAPOGNY AND FRIENDS (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 17, 2011)

That dark-haired fellow at the keyboard in the videos that follow is James E. Dapogny, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus and professor emeritus of music (theory) at the University of Michigan School of Music, where he taught from 1966 to 2006.  Professor Dapogny has done extensive scholarly work on Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson.  Professor Dapogny’s study of Johnson’s work, in particular, came to fruition in the large-scale reconstruction of DE ORGANIZER and THE DREAMY KID, two Johnson operas (the first with a libretto by Langston Hughes) once thought to be lost.

But the dark-haired fellow is also Jim Dapogny, a stomping pianist whose solo and ensemble playing are instantly identifiable — he is his own man whether tenderly exploring a ballad or stomping the blues.  And he is a peerless ensemble pianist — like Basie or Ellington, James P. or Fats, he knows just what to play to push the group without overpowering it.  (I hear the barrelhouse pianists of the Twenties and Thirties — think of the blues pianists and Frank Melrose, then add on the traceries of Hines and Stacy, the force of Sullivan, a deep-rooted stride with surprising harmonies.)

But Jim is also a delightful arranger and occasional composer.  The arrangements you’ll hear on the performances below are so splendid: you can hear them subliminally (horns humming behind a solo, playing a melodic line sweetly) or you can admire them out in the open.  But a Dapogny performance is never just a string of solos: he thinks orchestrally as a bandleader as well as a pianist.  You’ll also hear a sly exchange between Jim and Marty Grosz about the arrangements — not to be taken entirely seriously:  “I know every thing I know from Marty’s records,” says Jim.  “That explains it,” retorts Marty.

Both the man and the music are gratifying, full of surprises.  I never took a class with the Professor, but I’ve learned a great deal in his informal onstage seminars at Jazz at Chautauqua (to say nothing of his recordings — another post in itself).

This set was called TUNES FOR JOE in honor of the late Jazz at Chautauqua commander-in-chief Joe Boughton, who favored lovely and sometimes obscure repertoire in favor of a themeless blues, SATIN DOLL, or SWEET GEORGIA BROWN, which would make him horrified — he actually left the room when these things happened.

In this set, the players are Jim Dapogny, piano and arranger; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Scott Robinson, Dan Block, reeds; Marty Grosz, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass; Pete Siers, drums.

The set begins with BREEZIN’ ALONG WITH THE BREEZE, familiar but not often played.  Hear Jim’s comping behind Scott’s solo, Pete’s splashing cymbal behind Jon-Erik.  And the whole performance has a lovely shape and balance between the written passages — played with great swing — and the solos that explode out of them:

COUNTRY BOY (not COUNTRY BOY BLUES by Willard Robison), a paean to rural life, beautifully pastoral from its first notes.  What a pretty song!  (Composer credits, please, Professor D?)  And I hereby christen the trumpet player formerly known as “Jon-Erik” as “Bunny Kellso.”  Dapogny’s coda is worth waiting for, too — this band knows how to take its time:

THAT THING — courtesy of Roy Eldridge, a close relative of the Henderson band’s D NATURAL BLUES, brings what Jim calls “malice,” or what Dicky Wells called “fuzz” to the Chautauqua bandstand — so well.  The piano interlude is both climbing and musing, and the brass solos suggest Mister Cootie and Mister Vic — great accomplishments.  Hear the rock this band gets in the last ensemble chorus!:

Finally, a nod to Old Chicago — with a dance that’s easy to do / let me introduce it to you — SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE.  Memories of Tesch and Condon, of Frank Chace and Don Ewell, too.  If this is “Dixieland,” give me more, especially the overall texture of the band and the reed “conversation,” Kellso’s lead, Barrett’s commentaries.  Pete Siers plays that hi-hat behind a leaping Kellso in the best Catlett / Tough manner — blessings on his head:

Wonderful music — solos and ensembles that look back lovingly to the past but imbue it with energy and individualism.  Jazz, not nostalgia — very much alive, even if the repertoire is apparently “historical.”

Why the Italian title?  “At the end, go back to the head,” more or less — instructions to the player or singer to return to the opening when the piece is “over” once.  For me, those instructions have a special meaning.  These are the final video performances I will be posting from the 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua: I know I’ll be returning to these and others for edification, spiritual uplift, and great fun.  What a swell-egant party it was!  And special thanks to pianist Jim and Professor James for yet another rocking seminar in lovely improvisation.

It might sound too close to THE GODFATHER, but I think of Jim as CAPO, too — in the old Italian sense of “head,” or “chief.”  He is someone special.

GO, LITTLE BOOK! — “WAY DOWN THAT LONESOME ROAD: LONNIE JOHNSON IN TORONTO 1965-1970” by MARK MILLER

Mark Miller is the most consistently satisfying jazz writer today.

His books are full of new information, but it’s never oppressive heapings-up of research.  He is occasionally part of the text in subtle ways but never the subject.  His affection and interest in his subjects is palpable.  In an age of self-indulgent sprawling prose, he is superbly concise.

I have read books by Mark on people who are slightly outside my realm of interest — Valaida Snow and Herbie Nichols.  And I had a problem with each of these books, but not what you might expect.  I really wanted to stop everything else I was doing and read the book in one sitting.  Watching me ration myself with a new Miller book must be hilarious, like watching someone put the bag of potato chips on the highest shelf and then hunt down the stepladder.  None of his books has ever seemed too long.

And his new biography seems more subtle, more graceful, than its predecessors.  It’s a portrait of the blues / jazz guitarist / singer / composer Lonnie Johnson and the last five years of his life in Toronto.

I confess that my awareness of Lonnie Johnson was limited.  I knew and admired him primarily as an extra added attraction with Louis, with Ellington, for his wonderful soloing on the 1940 Decca CHICAGO JAZZ sessions with Johnny Dodds (hear him on NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES).  I had admired his guitar playing and singing, but once had had a copy of his Canadian CD, STOMPIN’ AT THE PENNY (with Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers) and had let it go to a guitarist friend without undue regret.  So I didn’t approach this book already in love with its subject.  I did, however, anticipate superb reading ahead.  If anything, I underestimated what Miller can create.

First of all, in an era of hugely comprehensive biographies (pick your tomes as you will) one soon realizes that not every figure requires such coverage, nor is there necessarily always the requisite evidence to support six hundred pages.  Jazz biographers sometimes act as if they know no one will ever write a biography of Kid X again, so they cram their pages every available piece of data, including lists of gigs and travel details.

As a scholar, I admire the thoroughness, the diligence, and the scope of such information-gathering, and I know that the resulting book will be useful to future generations.  As a reader, I find the fact-avalanche daunting: I imagine a parade of appendices so that I could continue reading about the main drama.  And sometimes the lives of jazz musicians are only interesting because we are in love with the music that they make.  As a result, many of the most weighty jazz biographies — although I come to them with anticipation — feel heavy in my hands before their subject is 35.

Mark Miller writes books that look and feel like volumes of poetry, as if you could put such a book in a jacket pocket, smaller than an iPad.  (This book, by the way, is beautifully done by the Mercury Press and I found no misprints — something remarkable — and there are precious photographs I’d never even imagined.)  WAY DOWN THAT LONESOME ROAD is just over 150 pages of text, which would be several decent-sized chapters for one of our more expansive writers.  To be candid, this review is longer than many of Miller’s chapters.

It isn’t that Miller’s story is limited or short on interest.  In fact, even if you knew nothing of Johnson, a number of intriguing issues arise here: the drama of the last five years of the life of a performing artist; an African-American artist in a country he wasn’t born in; the politics of gigging, publicity, getting recognition, making money; what happens to a “former” star, and more.

Yet this isn’t a sad sad story.

Many jazz chronicles intentionally thrive on victimization: poor Bix, poor Bird, and more.  Miller clearly loves Lonnie Johnson (and saw him perform — once — at an epiphanic moment in 1970) and grieves for him, but this book is not an elegy for someone brutalized, nor an indictment of an ungrateful society.

None of the above.  Rather, in vignette-sized chapters of a few pages (each taking as long as a 78 side if you are a quick reader), Miller delineates the shape of Lonnie’s last years — how the “roamin’ rambler” arrived in his final city, Toronto.  Miller sketches in Johnson’s early and middle career for the first forty pages of the book.  In this section, Miller neatly balances his sense of the man — a mix of seriousness and mischief, of modesty and pride — his travels (Miller is particularly good on his feel for the overlapping worlds of jazz, blues, vaudeville, and recordings) and the music he produced, on and off records.

Louis Armstrong, Eddie Lang, and Bessie Smith make appearances here, although Miller is not someone obsessed with chronicling every note recorded.  But when he does write about the music, he hears a great deal and reveals it to us.

It’s when Lonnie Johnson arrives in Toronto that the pace slows down in a very gratifying way.  For not only has Miller followed Lonnie’s trail through the newspapers and the jazz magazines of the time (the book is dedicated to the late John Norris, much-missed; Patrick Scott, a champion of Lonnie’s who could be vitriolic, also appears) but he has spoken to people who knew Lonnie, who sewed up a pair of his ripped trousers, who ate ice cream with him, who saw him perform, who loved him, who saw him sit on the floor and play with a pair of kittens.

Young blues guitarists and old colleagues (including Louis Armstrong) come in and out of the text; this book includes both Don Ewell and Lady Iris Mountbatten, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Jim Galloway.  I marvel at Miller’s gift for weaving reminiscence and data, impressionistic illustration and quotations, into an entrancing whole.  Many jazz books feel like the sweet necrology: their subject is dead, and all the people recalling the subject are dead, too.  Not so here: the book is full of sharply-realized affectionate stories told by very alive people.

It is one of those books that even when a reader is fascinated by what is happening on page 64, that same reader is also aware of the writer’s larger design.  In fact, several times, I felt strongly that Miller is demonstrating the subtle interweaving of strands of fact and feeling in the way a great modern novelist would do — except that he is playing fair with the information, inventing nothing but simply presenting what he’s  learned in fulfilling ways.

In addition to the mix of reminiscence and fact, there is also a good deal of subtly understated social history.  It is not the heavy-handed “historical context” that I find so irritating elsewhere.  Imagine a biography of Hot Mama Susie Saucepan that arrives at 1933 — at which point the writer feels compelled to explain all about the Depression, Repeal, the New Deal, who was on the radio, what was the popular car, film, hair style.  I am no cultural historian, but when books offer these nuggets of freeze-dried history, I skip forward — often after putting the book down for a brief irate interval.

Miller doesn’t do this, but he has a fine sensitive awareness for the flavor of the different neighborhoods, communities, and populations of Toronto — often as manifested in the different blues and jazz clubs that appear and die (including one Lonnie invented for himself).  One senses that Miller, who refuses to make the narrative all about himself, is writing from personal observation and experience.  (And when, by the way, Miller is part of the text — as an eighteen-year old blues fan at a 1970 concert where Lonnie sings two songs — it is a breathtaking experience.)

Although Lonnie Johnson didn’t leave a substantial narrative record — no jazz institute recorded an oral history; no young filmmaker created a documentary — he lives on in Miller’s book, a man and musician as complex as any of us: “He was a gentle soul, a charmer and a ladies’ man.  He could be too trusting, an easy mark, but he was also rather sly, feigning innocence and playing for sympathy when it served his purpose.  He looked out for himself first and foremost, but he could be generous towards others.  He was regarded with respect, great affection, and, occasionally, exasperation.”  So Miller synthesizes the reactions of the people who knew his subject.

And one gets a vivid portrait of Johnson in his brief spoken excerpts: the cheerful man who meets John McHugh (club owner) and Jim McHarg (musician) in Toronto and wants to know what “the chick situation” is; the aging man who is worried that he will be looked on as a relic, who asks musicologist Charles Keil before he will grant an interview, “Are you another one of those guys who wants to put crutches under my ass?”  But Johnson comes across as neither cynical nor predatory.  We are reminded by incident rather than any authorial sermonizing that there is no barrier between Johnson and his music.  He tells an interviewer, “I love to sing.  Some singers love payday.  They sing for payday.  I don’t.  I sing for you, for the people out there, for myself.”  The book is full of memorable little sentences that linger in the mind like the pungent notes of Johnson’s guitar.

My favorite is “Charlie, the canary sings,” but you’ll have to read the book to delight in that story.

Ultimately, Lonnie Johnson comes fully alive in these pages because of Miller’s love and skill.  A lesser writer would not have melded the very disparate elements with such grace; truly, it could have become a formulaic story of the Last Years of An Aging African-American Jazzman.  Miller is the literary equivalent of a Jimmy Rowles or a Joe Thomas: every word is in place.  His writing surprises us with its lilt, and the result seems beautifully inevitable.

The book is available through a variety of online sources: you might begin at here.

A PILGRIMAGE TO DECCA (August 2011)

There are some spiritual places on this planet.  Yours may be deep in the redwood forest, or on your yoga mat.  Mine is a wondrous record store in El Cerrito, California.  DOWN HOME MUSIC is at — or perhaps floats above —

10431 San Pablo Avenue.  The phone number is (510) 525-2129; the website is http://www.downhomemusic.com.  My good friend, trumpet player Tally Baker, took me there last week.  I spent seventy-five dollars and four cents, had the time of my record-collecting life, have no regrets, and want to go back again.  Here’s what I bought: some of it sentimental gap-filling (records to replace those lost in natural disasters), some of it “Oh my goodness, I’ve never seen a copy of that!,” some of it “Can you believe they have a copy of this record?”  And — to quote King Oliver — I MUST HAVE IT.  I found out that Down Home Music has live sessions, and is the beloved brainchild of Chris Strachwitz, who founded Arhoolie Records.  Long may he and the store and the music flourish.

The results of the pilgrimage, in no particular order.

MEL POWELL SEPTET (Vanguard): Powell, Buck Clayton, Henderson Chambers, Ed Hall, Steve Jordan, Walter Page, Jimmy Crawford.  Some of the music on this 10″ lp has been reissued on that hodgepodge series of Vanguard CDs — I fear they are now out of print — but they left out an extended I MUST HAVE THAT MAN that is as lovely and sad and groovy as anything I can think of.

WOLVERINE JAZZ (Decca): Bud Freeman, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Max Kaminsky, Dave Bowman, Eddie Condon, Pete Peterson, Morey Feld.  This session doesn’t have Dave Tough, but it does have SUSIE (OF THE ISLANDS).  And I started laughing when I remembered that Eddie advanced the idea that the album should be called SONS OF BIXES.

DON EWELL (Windin’ Ball): Ewell, solo.  Through this blog, I have met Birch Smith, who is responsible for this session.  Blessings on Ewell’s head and on Birch’s, too.  And on his DIPPER MOUTH BLUES, Don mutters (at the appropriate juncture), “Oh, crawl that thing!”  Indeed.

PETE KELLY AT HOME (RCA Victor): Dick Cathcart, Abe Lincoln, Matty Matlock, Jack Chaney, Ray Sherman, Jud DeNaut, George Van Eps, Nick Fatool.  Who knew?  This has (among other surprises) LA CUCARACHA, and it features Mister Lincoln, one of my heroes.

THE FABULOUS FINNS: SYLVESTER AHOLA (Qaulity): Ahola with the Rhythm Maniacs, Night Club Kings, Ambrose, The Rhythmic Eight, Plihip Lewis, Arcadians, Ray Starita, Georgians, Piccadilly Players.  Plus an interview done with Ahola at his home — in Finnish.  Could you resist?  I couldn’t.

BOB MIELKE’S BEARCATS (Arhoolie): Mielke, P.T. Stanton, Bill Napier, Dick Oxtot, Pete Allen, Don Merchant, Bill Erickson, Burt Bales.  Tally had played me some of this music.  It rocked then; it rocks now.

DICK OXTOT’S GOLDEN AGE JAZZ BAND (Arhoolie): Jim Goodwin, Meilke, Bob Helm, Ray Skjelbred, Bill Bardin, Napier.  Goodwin and Skjelbred.  Who could pass this up?

CHICAGO HIGH LIFE (Euphonic): Ray Skjelbred, Clarence Jackson.  Ditto.

ON THE WATERFRONT WITH BURT BALES (Cavalier): Bales, solo.  Yeah, man.

PUTNEY DANDRIDGE (Rarities): Volumes 1 and 2, with Roy, Chu, Teddy, Red, Buster, Ben, Bobby Stark, Cozy Cole, John Kirby, Slick Jones.  Mr. Dandridge is an acquired taste, but the bands swing gently and ferociously.

Blessings all around!

P.S.  Jazz 78s and 45s too, and a turntable to play them on — so that I could assure myself that the never-seen Peg LaCentra with Jerry Sears on Bluebird was, in fact, dull.  Invaluable experience — like the old days — to be able to check out a disc before plunging two or three dollars on it.

BUNK and WIGGS

 Names to conjure with — the classic monickers of two New Orleans brass giants, Willie “Bunk” Johnson (1879 or 1889-1949) and John Wigginton Hyman (1899-1977).  Bunk is widely-known; Wiggs should be.   

Two new compact discs present these men in very congenial settings. 

Let’s take “Johnny Wiggs” first.  Wiggs is yet another living proof that there are second and third acts in American lives: he recorded in 1927 and then not again for two decades (in the meantime, he had a successful career as a teacher and home-builder); he continued playing until his death.  Wiggs also fascinates me because of his deep lyrical strain: his early influence was Joe Oliver, but he fell under the spell of Bix Beiderbecke and (to my ears) he often sounds the way I imagine an elder Bix would have sounded: melancholy, introspective, singing softly to himself.

Wiggs has often been represented on record as the lead horn in a traditional New Orleans ensemble, and these settings haven’t always done him justice, because the energetic bandsmen have sometimes created a raucous good-time environment.  Best of all are his chamber sessions with only clarinetist Raymond Burke (another poetic soul), guitar (often Dr. Edmond Souchon), and bass — recorded on the Paramount label in the Fifties and I think impossible to find. 

But the Wiggs sessions collected on a new CD show his deep feeling and wide range.  Some of this music was issued on an lp — also called CONGO SQUARE — but this CD issue adds previously unissued material.  Here’s one of the original 78s:

 The music on the CD covers the years 1948-73, and was primarily recorded in New Orleans — one particularly exuberant small group includes Wiggs, clarinetist Bujie Centobie, tenorist Eddie Miller (their limpid sounds intertwining), and the Stacy-Bix pianist Armand Hug.  But to me the most interesting combination was suggested by the ever-inventive Hank O’Neal, who set up a date for Wiggs to record four of his own compositions . . . in New York, with a “New York” quartet of Dill Jones (from Wales), Cliff Leeman (from New England), and Maxine Sullivan (from Baltimore).  The results are special, making me wish that Wiggs had been transported out of his native element more often.  He’s worth discovering or rediscovering.

Bunk Johnson is a different case entirely: someone who has his own mythology, a figure with such a clearly defined identity that there were pro-and-anti Bunk forces at work.  I first heard Bunk on his earliest recordings, and was unimpressed: he seemed a rudimentary player doing his best but not always being able to break free from the near-amateur musicians surrounding him. 

It was only later when I heard his “Last Testament” recordings for Columbia in 1947 that I could hear what he was doing and revel in his beautiful melodic simplicity, the emotional directness of his lines, the delicacy of his embellishments. 

But it was clear to me (although some disagree) that Bunk was a more sophisticated musician than the contexts he was often placed in.  Put next to the vehemently competitive Sidney Bechet in Boston, he often held his own but sometimes sounded as if he had been dropped into the Golden Gloves. 

In front of a sympathetic, swinging band, he blossomed and relaxed.  He had just that setting in the recordings now issued on an American Music CD — a 1947 concert with cornetist Doc Evans’s rocking little band and the perfect support of pianist Don Ewell.

Ewell hasn’t been celebrated enough — certainly not sufficiently in his lifetime.  But he was an elegantly swinging pianist, his subtle approach encompassing Jelly Roll Morton’s ruffles and flourishes and the later swing of Hines, Stacy, Fats, and James P. Johnson.  It says a good deal about Ewell that he seemed to be the favorite pianist of both Jack Teagarden and Frank Chace.  And Bunk Johnson.  A year before this concert, Bunk, Ewell, and drummer Alphonso Steele had recorded as a trio in New York for American Music — playing pop tunes and old favorites: WHEN THE MOON COMES OVER THE MOUNTAIN, I’LL TAKE YOU HOME AGAIN KATHLEEN, IN THE GLOAMING, OH, YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL, JA-DA, YOU’VE GOT TO SEE MAMA EVERY NIGHT, POOR BUTTERFLY, and WHERE THE RIVER SHANNON FLOWS. 

At the Minneapolis concert, there are vibrant full-band versions of traditional standards such as HIGH SOCIETY, THE SHEIK OF ARABY, and SISTER KATE, but there are also wonderful examples of the Bunk-Ewell partnership.  (One elaborately wayward performance after hours, where Bunk is trying to teach Ewell the harmonies to HEARTACHES, both of them having imbibed more than they should, has been preserved in the Jazzology book on Bunk: SONG OF THE WANDERER, by Barry Martyn and Mike Hazeldine, as is their IN THE GLOAMING.)

But this concert presents what is, to me, the clearest representation of what Bunk could do — out of the recording studio, having a wonderful time, inspiring and being inspired by a first-rate group. 

 And now for some compelling musical evidence (music also available from the George H. Buck family of labels):

Bunk, Ewell, and Alphonso Steele in New York City, 1946:

Wiggs with the legendary guitarist Snoozer Quinn in 1948:

To order the Bunk / Ewell / Evans CD, click here:

 http://www.jazzology.com/item_detail.php?id=AMCD-129

To order the Wiggs CD, click here:

http://www.jazzology.com/item_detail.php?id=BCD-507

REMEMBER TO CLICK HERE TO REPAY THE MUSICIANS:

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