Tag Archives: Don Stiernberg


Listening to a new CD, my desires are simple.  Swing, lovely sonorities, collective empathy, improvisation that sounds easy and natural but is really expert, good recorded sound, respect for melody, an avoidance of cliche, variety in repertoire, approach, tempos.

I’m really easy to please.  It should sound like music.  And STRAIGHT AHEAD, by the Don Stiernberg Quartet (the leader on mandolin, Andy Brown, guitar, Jim Cox, drums, Phil Gratteau, drums) gets all the checkmarks and more.  I was in the middle of the second track when I started writing this post, which says something about the pleasure these four players create.

The only thing missing — a matter of economics, I am sure — are liner notes, so I hope that my words will fill the gap.  The press-release cliche might be, “Four Chicagoland veterans of the swing scene get together for a session, hitting all the marks from Ray Noble to Jacob do Bandolin and late Django, with affectionate glances at the Great American Songbook.”  I am satirizing the language of the emails that come to me introducing a variety of artists, but the substance is true.

Perhaps the place my press release would have as a headline would be NOT FAKE, NOT SHOWY.  Not tremolo-laden Come Back To Sorrento, not burn-the-fretboard-look-how-fast-I-can-play, but music.  I can’t overemphasize that: not overproduced product, but the real sound of people playing together with affection for the art, and affection for the listeners.

I also want to point to a freshness in the group’s melodic inventions.  A dozen times through my first listening, I was dreading the expected quote or cliche — the Wedding March, LOVE IN BLOOM, I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT — and these blessed fellows had their own sweet ideas, instead.  How very refreshing!  And while I was admiring the ease and pace of Don’s inventive lead, I kept on getting distracted by Andy — rhythm and solo; Phil and Jim’s great pulse and subtle sonic variety . . . hear Jim’s arco on ANOUMAN — that’s the way it’s supposed to sound, and Phil’s varied brush sweeps are a delight.

All I can say is that when I finished my first playing, all I wanted to do was hear it again.  And I’m now on my fourth go-round.  It’s not “Easy Listening” (does anyone remember that record-store category, which, translated, meant Inoffensive Aural Pillow?) but it certainly is easy to listen to.  And for me, there was no faux-astonishment: “Isn’t it wonderful he plays just fine jazz on a mandolin?”  It all sounds good: Don and the instrument are one: the quartet is a soulful sweet entity.

You can hear more here — and you can purchase a download or a disc.  The music is also available at Amazon and iTunes.  However you find it, it’s really worth finding.

May your happiness increase!


I offer this as a remembrance of clarinetist Frank Chace, one of the most elusive of men.  He and I had perhaps ten phone conversations and a dozen conversations-by-mail at the end of the last century, continuing into 2003 or so. At first, I think Frank was flattered by my interest, intrigued by someone so curious, so intent, but soon he retreated back in to the shadows.  I can remember the odd feeling of telephoning him on an early Sunday evening and hearing the phone ring on.  I picture him waiting for it to stop ringing.

But he did respond to my hero-worshiping curiosity in whimsical ways.  A cassette he had mentioned, a concert recording of himself with Marty Grosz and Dan Shapera — something he thought he had lost but surfaced unexpectedly — came to me in an envelope, with a few words handwritten on a scrap of paper torn from the back of an envelope.

Earlier, I’d asked him for a picture (don’t all fans do this?) and he’d sent a newspaper clipping with a dim photograph of him as one tiny figure in a band. Then this — his expired bus pass, with Frank staring in to the camera in that fixed pose we all assume for drivers’ license photographs.

I treasure it as an artifact even more because of the whimsy behind it. I’d rather have this than a studio portrait of Frank wearing a striped vest and a straw boater.  I carry it in my wallet, which will certainly confuse someone who goes through my belongings posthumously. (“When was Michael riding buses in Chicago? That’s such a bad picture — it looks nothing like him.”)

Frank’s elusiveness, his desire to be left alone, had something to do with his learned disdain of the modern world, with the political landscape, with the ungrammatical announcer on Monday Night Football, with the bad jazz he heard on the radio.  But it was also a state of mind he treasured. He was happy when I told him that a working title for my biographical piece would be THE J.D. SALINGER OF THE CLARINET.  (But, like Salinger, although he wanted to be left alone, I do not think he wanted to be forgotten.)

But every now and then the vault door opens for a moment and something precious can be glimpsed before the door closes again.  Frank’s friend, protector, and executor, the jazz scholar Terence E. Martin (“Terry” to friends) shot some 8mm film of Frank — and friends Bob Neighbor, trumpet; Mike Walbridge, tuba; Don Stiernberg, banjo; and Rich Fidoli, saxophone — at a gig that may have been Mike’s retirement-home gig, the date and place unknown at the moment.  But here is a minute of Frank in action among friends:

I find this more than remarkable — impassioned and perfectly controlled, brave and searching.  Terry tells me that there are other minutes of Frank, but for now I savor this brief intense sighting. It is like nothing else I know. There is the sound — and even more, his physical presence . . . especially the half-embrace he gives himself and the clarinet at the end, a rare moment of pleasure he allowed himself. And us, for all time.

May your happiness increase!