Tag Archives: Doug Ramsey

“BIRD, JO JONES, AND THAT CYMBAL”: DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, THANKS TO GENE RAMEY, DOUG RAMSEY, DAN MORGENSTERN

After the film WHIPLASH became popular, people visited JAZZ LIVES to investigate the mythic story of drummer Jo Jones hurling a cymbal across the room at a youthful Charlie Parker at a jam session to stop him in mid-solo.

In 2011, I’d written a post debating the validity of that story.  Would Jo, known as volatile, have treated his cymbals so disrespectfully?  Here is my post, which I now disavow as emotionally valid but factually inaccurate.

I thank Dan Morgenstern yet again, whose comments directed me to Doug Ramsey’s book, JAZZ MATTERS (University of Arkansas Press, 1989) where he had the good sense and good fortune to ask the august string bassist Gene Ramey, who was there, what happened.

The chapter is called “Bass Hit / Gene Ramey,” and Ramsey tells us that Ramey was drinking a grape Nehi, to me a sure sign of authenticity, while telling the tale of meeting the fourteen-year old Parker in 1934, then moving on to the jam session at the Reno Club in 1936.

“Nobody remembers what the tune was.  It would be amazing for anybody to remember.  There were dozens of tunes they used to jam. . . . Bird was doing pretty well until he attempted something that took him out of the correct chord sequence, and he couldn’t get back in.  He kept getting lost, and Jo Jones kept hitting the ball of his cymbal like a gong, Major Bowes style — remember on his amateur hour on the radio Bowes hit the gong if somebody wasn’t making it.  Jo kept hitting that cymbal, but he couldn’t get Bird off the stand.  So finally he took the cymbal off and dropped it on the  floor.  When it hit, it skidded a little.  I read one story where Jo was supposed to have thrown the cymbal all the way across the floor.  But he just dropped it at Bird’s feet, and that stopped him. . . . it was comical but still pitiful to see the reaction on Bird’s face.  He was dumbfounded. He came over and I said, ‘Well, Bird, you almost straightened it out.  I remember you made that turn back, but somewhere down in there you got off on the wrong thing.’  We kidded him about it, and he kept telling me, ‘Oh, man, I’ll be back. Don’t worry, I’m comin’ back'” (116-17).

And rather than offer familiar video evidence of Jo Jones and Charlie Parker, here (in two parts) is a 1961 film of Buck Clayton’s All Stars with Gene Ramey, Sir Charles Thompson, Buddy Tate, Oliver Jackson, Dicky Wells, Earle Warren, Emmett Berry, and Jimmy Witherspoon — Gene in his natural habitat.  Part One:

Part Two:

As a tip of the hat to Mr. Ramsey, and a token of gratitude, I suggest you visit his estimable jazz blog, Rifftides.

May your happiness increase!

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A NEW BIX PROJECT

Few jazz musicians stir up as much longing and yearning as Bix Beiderbecke. This isn’t an aesthetic judgment on his achievement as measured against anyone else’s, but I sense that he is so powerfully missed by so many people. Although his recorded legacy is not by any means the most brief, those who love his music both revel in its beauties and wish with all their hearts that there would be more. Nearly seventy-five years after his final appearance in a recording studio, it seems unlikely that more will surface — although more unusual events have happened.

So those who revere him and his music have turned to Alternate Universes — tributes that do more than offer beautifully recorded or more leisurely versions of Okeh, Victor, Gennett, Harmony, Columbia sessions — but attempts to recreate something unheard.  (The parallel experiment, and a beautiful one, has always been Bent Persson’s ongoing Studies in Louis, spread over many records and CDs, and always rewarding.)

Nearly fifteen years ago, the very imaginative trumpeter Randy Sandke and friends recorded a CD for the Nagel-Heyer label of music associated with Louis and Bix: here is Doug Ramsey’s 2000 review of that disc.  A few years later, Dick Hyman took a small group in to the studio for Arbors Records (with Tom Pletcher inventing new beauties) to consider what would have happened if Bix played Gershwin.  (A wonderful Stomp Off session paired Bent and Tom for, among other imaginative fancies, a Bix-meets-Louis romp on MAD.)

Now, a decade later, Julio Schwarz Andrade came up with this new imaginative venture and recruited the musicians, and Paul Adams of Lake Records is eager to record the results, so a CD will become reality with some support from you. It’s a continuation of Paul’s work over a number of years called Vintage Recording Projects — where he assembles wonderful idiomatic musicians, records them with a minimum of fuss (no baffles or headphones, just people playing in a suitable room) with delightful results. Here is what the most recent session looked and sounded like — heroically gratifying!

I’ll let Julio explain:

The premise is, of course, that there are many tunes that we know Bix played and was fond of, but never had the chance to record. So this is our humble attempt to right that historical / circumstantial wrong, and to recreate what could have been. The musicians are: Andy Schumm, cornet; Mauro Porro, reeds; Kristoffer Kompen, trombone; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone; David Boeddinghaus, piano; Josh Duffee, percussion.  The list of tunes hasn’t been finalized yet, but the following are being considered (in no particular order): STARDUST / SKYLARK / WOLVERINE BLUES / WASHBOARD BLUES / SWANEE / I’D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN / LAZY RIVER / IT MUST BE TRUE / PANAMA / ANGRY / HIAWATHA’S LULLABY / NO-ONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT among others.

Now, projects like this don’t take shape without support, so we are asking people to help out. Here is the link to contribute some . . . money.  A £30 donation gets your name in the booklet. Anything more than that gets you a place in heaven and eternal salvation as well. And all contributions will win gratitude from the organizers, the band, and future listeners.

The session will take place right after this year’s Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, and I look forward to the results.

May your happiness increase!

UAN RASEY WILL BE MISSED

I had never known anything about the late trumpeter Uan Rasey beyond noticing his unusual name in discographies — until my friend Marc Caparone told me about taking a lesson with Uan, what a remarkable person he was, how he emphasized something larger than “technique,” which was the making of beautiful sounds.  Through Doug Ramsey’s RIFFTIDES, I learned this morning that Uan had died, age 90.  You can read more about this unique man and musician here —

http://www.artsjournal.com/rifftides/2011/09/uan-rasey-rip.html

But I want everyone to read one short paragraph about Uan Rasey — proof of how special a man he was.  It’s a story told by Uan’s grandson:

When he was 89 years old, he learned that his seven-year-old granddaughter Taylor had no way home from school because her mother had been delayed. Rather than let her wait, possibly for a long time, he called Access Paratransit. Blind and in his wheelchair, he got into the Access van and traveled three miles to the school. When he got there, he wheeled himself into the school, found Taylor and took her home in the van. Then, when they got to the house he fixed her a meal, and when Taylor’s mom got home, she found the two of them partying, having a great time.

Uan Rasey was a beautiful sound in human form, and we could do him honor by remembering that story and trying to live our lives that way.

RETTA CHRISTIE SINGS! (Volume Two)

Retta Christie continues to delight. 

Some contemporary singers approach their material through an ironic, cool pose.  Retta faces her songs directly.  Without being sentimental, she conveys their emotional force, letting lyrics and melody pass through her, opening herself to emotions.  She doesn’t overact; she doesn’t linger on syllables for “dramatic effect,” but you hear her heart. 

But don’t take my word for it — here’s a review by Maxwell Chandler (February 15, 2010) that echoes my sentiments: http://www.jazzpolice.com/content/view/8850/79/.

Retta’s first CD continues to give me much pleasure.  Simple rather than fussy, it is a trio — Retta on vocals and discreet brushes-on-snare drum backing; David Evans on tenor and clarinet; the splendid Dave Frishberg on piano.  The trio’s approach is easy, relaxed without being sleepy.  And they animate a wide variety of material, from Thirties pops and ballads to a few country classics.  I was amazed and amused to find myself playing RIDIN’ DOWN THE CANYON as my getting-to-work theme song.  Evans is a potent, light-toned player (I thought of Al Cohn) and Frishberg remains my favorite piano accompanist — tender, apt, and humorous.  The music I heard reminded me, in equal measure, of the Mel Powell – Bobby Donaldson – Paul Quinichette Vanguard session; the Cohn – Jimmy Rowles duet, with Retta adding to the ambiance rather than intruding. 

The second volume of this group’s brave yet casual exploration is just as satisfying, and that’s saying a good deal.  Retta’s swinging candor is worth the price of the disc — so that when she sings I GET THE BLUES WHEN IT RAINS, I think that she actually does — no fooling, no pretense.  She is no amateur, someone who just decided on whim,  “Gee, it would be fun to sing!” but she conveys the freshness of someone enthusiastic rather than someone who has studied hard at seeming enthusiastic.  I have no particular love for the conventions of “country” music, but I find Retta’s approach to her material charming.  I could listen to Evans and Frishberg all day — or until the cows come home, whichever is later.  

Retta has a touch of quiet audacity — the courage to approach FOOLIN’ MYSELF and A SAILBOAT IN THE MOONLIGHT on their own terms, so that the listener never thinks, “Oh, no, not another Little Billie.”  I found myself truly listening to the lyrics anew, hearing the song as if I hadn’t had Holiday’s records burned into my consciousness.  

This second session is openly a tribute to Retta’s great friend and musical mentor Jim Goodwin, a memorable cornetist, pianist, and life-force.  I would urge you to listen closely to her version of OLD FOLKS — a song she recorded specifically as a loving tribute to Goodwin, who died in 2009.  If you can listen to it without being moved by its peaceful sadness, by the love in eery turn of phrase, you are made of stern stuff.  

Retta also brings back I ONLY WANT A BUDDY, NOT A SWEETHEART (a song I know from the Dick Robertson Decca with Bobby Hackett) and she introduced me to ‘NEATH THE PURPLE ON THE HILLS, which has its own irresistible swaying motion, complete with “Yoo hoo”s at the right place.  I am very fond of the two instrumental tracks — ONLY A ROSE and SWEET AND SLOW — which showcase the two Davids, eloquently.  Doug Ramsey’s gently erudite liner notes are just right.  Like him, I am waiting for Volumes Three and Four and more.  Till that day, you should investigate One and Two.  Retta’s musical honesty is something I cherish.  Visit www.rettachristie.com. for more information.

AL COHN LIVES ON

The critical eye will find many flaws in the video clip below.  It takes place at a jazz festival (not in itself a bad thing) and the cast of characters is stellar: Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Tate, Harry Edison, Woody Herman, Urbie Green, Jake Hanna , and Al Cohn.  But the end result is not all it might be: several musicians seem bored, detached.  Tate, during his better-than-average late-period solo, even glances around him for a second to mutely ask, “Aren’t any of you jazz all-stars going to play a riff or a background behind me?  Do I have to do all of this myself?”  Herman, pursued to his death by the IRS, looks exhausted and frail.  The composition, IN A MELLOTONE, Ellington’s line on the 1917 ballad ROSE ROOM, is mis-identified by the translator / subtitler: it’s not BERNIE’S TUNE.

But then there’s Al Cohn, who makes up for it all when he enters, around seven minutes into the performance.  In the Forties, Cohn was identified not only as a Woody Herman’s alumnus, but as one of the Caucasian Lestorians — tenor players who memorized all of Lester’s performances and offered them forth in their own way.  Many of them apparently emulated Lester’s delicacy.  Here, Al’s playing has energy and sinew.  He’s onstage to say something important.  He doesn’t shout.  But his solo has an easy majestic urgency all its own , even though one thinks of Ben, Bird, Herschel, preaching about mellow tones.  All of this takes place in ninety seconds.  And when the group of somewhat jaded jazz titans hears what Al has to say, they wake up and launch a suitable riff.

That’s one aspect of Al Cohn — inspiring by his fervent example.

But even posthumously, Al is an inspiration.

That’s not an empty phrase, and it’s not limited to tenor saxophone players or to listeners with good music libraries (I am thinking of the Xanadu recording HEAVY LOVE, an imperishable duet of Al and Jimmy Rowles.)  Next to me as I write this post is the Fall 2008 issue of THE NOTE, the journal of the Al Cohn Memorial Collection at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.  (The collection’s website is www.esu.edu/alcohncollection, and their email address is alcohncollection@esu.edu.)

Their mission isn’t purely archival: they want to “stimulate, enrich, and support research, teaching, learning, and appreciation of all forms of jazz.”  One of the ways they have done this — for twenty years now — is by making the collection’s resources available “and useful to students, researchers, educators, musicians, historians, journalists and jazz enthusiasts of all kinds.”  Commendably, they preserve what they have already collected “for future generations.”  The collection includes records, books, photographs, oral histories, sheet music, art,memorabilia, and ephemera.  Although their definition of jazz is broad and inclusive, the collection focuses on Al Cohn and his many friends, chief among them Zoot Sims.  Other collections draw on the life and music of bassist Eddie Safranski, the rare acquisitions of the jazz scholar Coover Gazdar, and research materials about the history of jazz in the Pocono Mountains.

(As an aside, I sent the collection — some years back — a copy of a private tape where the noble participants were Al, Zoot, and Bucky Pizzarelli.  I have some candid jazz photographs that I’ve been saving for them, too.)

I started this second half by mentioning THE NOTE.  It’s no sentimental valentine to days-gone-by, nor is it a dry academic wafer.  Professionally done, it’s a pleasure to read.  The front cover of the current issue is a beautiful color photograph of David Leibman; the back cover a 1985 shot of Hank Jones by the always-surprising jazz photographer Herb Snitzer.  In this middle, rather like a jazz fan’s chaste version of a Playboy centerfold, is a two=page candid shot of Al and Jimmy Rowles in concert in Kansas City.  In the middle — a long hilarious screed of a column by Phil Woods, who writes as vigorously as he plays.  There are also brief comments from Bob Bush, the collection’s co-ordinator, “Thinking of Al” by Doug Ramsey, and an interview with Manny Albam done by Flo Cohn, Al’s wife, memories of jazz in Disney’s “Magic Village” by Jack SImpson, photos, letters, and hilarious anecdotes.

I can hear my readers murmuring, “How can I get a copy of THE NOTE for myself?”  Well, the journal is available free to those who ask to be placed on the mailing list.  But enterprises of this sort require some support — so a little contribution (if you don’t have a large one at hand) would be appreciated.  Email or send your best wishes and checks to

ACMJC – Kemp Library

East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania

200 Prospect Street

East Stroudsburg, PA 18301-2999

And if your basement is crammed with rare tapes, acetates, photos, or charts, call Bob Bush at 570-422-3828.      

DICK, DOUG, BIX, DICK (AND JOE SULLIVAN)

Jazz-lovers owe Dick Sudhalter a great deal for his hot, lyrical playing, his elegantly-written research, and his long-time devotion to artistic causes we hold dear.  Whether as an jazz historian, biographer of Bix and of Hoagy, a member of the Classic Jazz Quartet a/k/a/ The Bourgeois Scum, as a radio broadcaster (WBAI, “Bix and Beyond”), or as a bandleader, he has left his mark.  This list is far from comprehensive: Dick is someone whose generosities have touched us all. 

As you should know, after a stroke he suffered in 2003, he is quite ill with Multiple Systems Atrophy.  The picture of him at the top of this page is from a 2006 benefit held in his honor.  His medical care costs a great deal.  This post is to publicize the latest effort to raise more — but a Hot Jazz Treat is involved.   

That Treat is a two-disc set of rare recordings made during Bix Beiderbecke’s short lifetime by musicians vividly influenced by his playing — one disc of American performances, one of European ones.  Many of the recordings were unfamiliar to me.  Some have never been on CD, some are previously unknown, unissued takes.  Visit http://bixography.com/BixInfluenceFinal.html for details.  All proceeds from the sale of this set — reasonably priced and well-documented — go to defray Dick’s medical costs.   

Doug Ramsey is a well-regarded jazz writer and critic of long standing, someone whose enthusiasms are always expressed in thoughtful words.  I found out about this set on Doug’s blog, “Rifftides,” (http://www.artsjournal.com/rifftides, where jazz is central but far from the only subject he and his expert writers touch upon. 

There, under the heading of “Correspondence: About Wellstood,” on August 8, Doug posted letters from Toronto broadcaster Ted O’Reilly and Dave Frishberg on the subject of Dick Wellstood . . . and told of young Dick encountering his hero, Joe Sullivan, after searching earnestly.  I won’t spoil the story but will add two Wellstood anecdotes of my own.  (Sudhalter and Wellstood were one-half of the aforementioned CJQ, a memorably eccentric group, whose music has been collected on a Jazzology CD set.) 

I didn’t get to see Wellstood enough in New York City, even though he played often at Hanratty’s, but one Sunday afternoon gig in 1972 sticks in my mind.  Bassist and singer Red Balaban led sessions at Your Father’s Mustache (on the site of the old Nick’s), where peanut shells and sawdust crunched beneath our feet.  One Sunday, the band was a pre-Soprano Summit gathering: Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern on clarinets and sopranos, with Dick Rath on trombone, Wellstood, Balaban, and drummer Buzzy Drootin.  Before the first set began, Dick Rath, modest and genial, saw Vic Dickenson heading into the hall, trombone case in hand, and said something like, “I’m going to step down now!” and gave the place in the middle of the two horns to Vic, staying to revel in the music as a spectator. 

Through the afternoon, Wellstood made that badly-tuned piano sing out — whether he was embellishing a medium-tempo melody or in full stride.  One set ended with a fast “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and in the middle of his second chorus, Wellstood did the key-changing trick that Tatum liked on “Tea for Two,” but his harmonies were wilder and weirder, memorably so.  I didn’t know how he returned to the familiar parade of sevenths in time, but he did.  To begin another set, Wellstood and Davern began with an intentionally droopy, whining rendition of “Somewhere My Love” as if for a tea dance on a particularly timid cruise.  Drootin, someone I’d never thought of as a satirist, added intentionally dull snare-drum rolls.  Jazz loves to poke fun at dance-band conventions, and this was a hilarious live example.  Wellstood died in 1987, far too young, and we miss him. 

Whether satiric or exploratory, impassioned or funky, jazz lifts our souls, and its players have earned our thanks and more.  I hope you’ll investigate the Bix-influenced CD set as a way of giving something back to Richard M. Sudhalter, hot cornetist and stylish writer, who’s given us so much.