Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

BLOWINGLY, 1951

As part of my continuing quest to make the world more aware of Oran Thaddeus Page — known to those who know as Lips or Hot Lips, here is SWEET SUE, recorded at a session organized by Rudi Blesh in New York City on February 10, 1951, with Lips, Tyree Glenn, trombone; Burnie [or “Burney”?] Peacock, clarinet, alto saxophone; Paul Quinichette, tenor saxophone; Kenny Kersey and Dan Burley, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Walter Page, string bass; Sonny Greer, drums.  Some of the shorter tracks from what was eventually issued as JAMMIN’ AT RUDI’S came out on Circle 78s; the most recent official CD issue is on the Jazzology label (JCD 262) with five tracks from this 1951 date, and a good deal of it — circuitously — has found its way to YouTube.  (Blesh had sponsored an earlier, more “traditional” session with Conrad Janis, Bob Wilber, Ralph Sutton, Eubie Blake, and others, so this was JAMMIN’ No. 2.)  Thanks to Jon-Erik Kellso for reminding me to revisit this session, a few weeks ago.

I’ve always been fascinated by this session because it successfully replicates the feel of an actual jam session — in good sound — with musicians who didn’t usually work together.  Some of them did play gigs as members of Hot Lips Page’s little band of the time, but others seem assembled as former Swing Era stars who were no longer working with big bands: Page (Basie); Greer (Ellington); Barker and Glenn (Calloway); Kersey (Kirk and others), Peacock (Calloway, Basie).  I suspect that these musicians, for Blesh, were perilously “modern,” and I admire him for venturing into unusual territory.  Peacock, for me, was the least-known of the bunch: here is a Wikipedia entry with some possibly verifiable facts.

But there is a wonderful looseness, a let’s-start-this-and-see-if-we-can-get-out-of-it-safely feel to this performance, that speaks to familiar repertoire and no charts in sight.  I suspect Blesh might have even encouraged this as “authentic” and frowned on head-arrangement riffs and backgrounds, something Lips and the others created masterfully as a matter of course.  What else do we hear?  A nicely unhurried tempo, the tender expressiveness of Lips’ lead in the first chorus (a sweet conversational approach), Greer rattling and commenting all through; the sounds Lips got with his plunger — an emphasis on pure sound — before Quinichette dances in, Lester-airy; the powerful motion of Walter Page’s bass in duet with Danny Barker’s single-string solo.  Then the contrast between Lips, apparently at full power, alternating with Greer, before Tyree peaceably returns us to the melody.  How beautifully individualistic his sound is!  A more familiar Barker chordal solo (again, with impressionistic support from Walter Page and Sonny) before Lips returns, as if to say, “You thought I was piling it on before?  Hear THIS!”  Pure drama, and it — like the Jerry Newman recordings and a MUSKRAT RAMBLE recorded in Philadelphia (issued on a Jerry Valburn recording years ago) — shows Lips’ intuitive understanding of dynamics, and even more, the dramatic construction of a large-scale solo.

Never mind that the YouTube picture makes Walter Page the leader of the session and that the cover picture is of his own orchestra, decades ago.  We live in strange times.

And here is more tangible evidence of Mr. Page’s gracious spirit, if you didn’t hear it coming through those notes — a thank-you note to (I am assuming) some Swedish friends:

This emerged on eBay a week ago, and the lucky owner ventured much more money for it than I was willing to spend (the imaginary grandchildren tell me they need sneakers) but you can see it here for free.  I know it’s authentic because of the way Lips made his capital L (he went to school when “penmanship” was still part of your report card) and, for better or worse, “Lip’s” as part of his signature.  I’ve also seen an autograph where Lips — enthusiastically, I assume, signed VERY BLOWINGLY above his name.

SWEET SUE, to me, equals VERY BLOWINGLY by all.  And it didn’t cost $103.56.

May your happiness increase!

SOME ENCHANTED EVENING (Part Two): JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, EHUD ASHERIE, MARION FELDER at LUCA’S JAZZ CORNER (March 23, 2017)

More delicious music from a completely satisfying evening session at Luca’s Jazz Corner (inside the Cavatappo Grill and Wine Bar at 1712 First Avenue, New York City) performed by Jon-Erik Kellso, Evan Arntzen, Ehud Asherie, Marion Felder. Here is the first part, with four extended selections.

And four more.

Walter Donaldson’s IT’S BEEN SO LONG:

FAST AS A BASTARD (Dick Wellstood and Kenny Davern’s variation on Ellington’s JUBILEE STOMP):

BALLIN’ THE JACK (with verse):

ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

You and I know all about “Mercury in retrograde,” the land of expired parking meters, disastrous gravity in the kitchen, and other reminders of how fragile we really are.  Obviously the Swing Planets were all affectionately on their proper orbits that night, as you’ve heard.  More to come.

May your happiness increase!

SOME ENCHANTED EVENING (Part One): JON-ERIK KELLSO, EVAN ARNTZEN, EHUD ASHERIE, MARION FELDER at LUCA’S JAZZ CORNER (March 23, 2017)

Something quietly miraculous took place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (Cavatappo Grill, 1712 First Avenue) the evening of March 23, 2017.  In several decades of listening intently to live creative improvised music, I’ve noticed that performances ebb and flow over the course of an evening.  It’s perfectly natural, and it is one of the ways we know we’re not listening to robots.  The first performance might be the best, or the band might hit its peak in the closing numbers. I can’t predict, and I suspect the musicians can’t either.  

But when Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Marion Felder, drums, began to play at Luca’s Jazz Corner — an evening’s concert of ten leisurely extended selections — I could not have known that this would be one of those magical nights that started at a high level of creativity, expertise, and joy . . . and stayed there.  Here are the first four performances, in the order that they were created, and the rest will follow.

Burton Lane and Frank Loesser’s 1939 THE LADY’S IN LOVE WITH YOU, much beloved by Eddie Condon, friends, and descendants:

Ellington’s BLACK BEAUTY:

William H. Tyers’ PANAMA:

Lillian Hardin Armstrong’s TWO DEUCES, dedicated to and played by Louis and Earl Hines:

Let the congregation say WOW!  And there’s more to come.

May your happiness increase!

“BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY: BIG BAND JAZZ ARRANGING IN THE SWING ERA,” by JOHN WRIGGLE (University of Illinois Press)

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One way to answer the questions “Who was Chappie Willet, why haven’t I heard of him, and why does he deserve a book?” can be found here:

That was recorded in 1937 and is notable — to some — for solos by a young Dizzy Gillespie and others as members of Teddy Hill’s NBC Orchestra.  But if there were no solos to concentrate on, keen listeners would notice the depth and complexity of Willet’s composition and arrangement, full of surprises.

An extended BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY, performed by Gene Krupa:

We are trained by the “star system” in jazz to listen for soloists, to disregard the orchestral textures of a performance for the brief passages where Our Person improvises.  More erudite listeners will recognize the “charts” created by Mary Lou Williams, Bill Challis, Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Ellington and/or Strayhorn — distinctive expressions of the writer, as recognizable as an individual soloist. John Wriggle’s superb book — a rewarding study of one brilliant arranger, his music, the world in which he operated, and the implications of Wriggle’s research — does a good deal to begin resetting the balance.

Francis “Chappie” Willet (1907-76) was a great arrangers and composer: we have heard his work for Hill, Krupa, Goodman, Armstrong, Lunceford, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and Norvo.  Yet he is almost unknown and the wonderful settings he created are taken for granted.  Consider his arrangement of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE for Louis Armstrong, heard here in a 1938 performance.  But here I ask the reader / listener to consider only the first fifteen seconds of this performance.  I know it’s nearly impossible to consider anything but Louis, but try:

In two pages (123-24), Wriggle provides a transcription of what is happening in that opening, and then analyzes it.  The reader need not be a musicologist to follow and enjoy this book because Wriggle writes so clearly.

The experience of reading this book — well-organized and exquisitely documented but with beautiful control (some writers, unlike Wriggle, think every dust mote is equally important and thus overwhelm a reader) — is concentric.

Were it simply a biography of Willet, it would be a thin, perhaps limited study. But Wriggle is fascinated by context — “the economic, political, and professional landscape of popular music arrangers working during the Swing Era,” so we learn about the intersection of race and visibility; how arrangers learned their trade and the various rates of pay; Willet’s “Broadway Music Clinic,” music for nightclubs, Broadway shows and theatrical revues; the various clubs and venues themselves. Wriggle examines — I oversimplify here — how Swing Era arranging worked, with close analysis of excerpts from various scores and recordings, and how each arranger had a particularly recognizable identity.  He looks closely at the fluid relationships between jazz and the Western classical canon.

The book’s scope is refreshingly broad; at one point, Wriggle analyzes Willet’s elaborately dramatic score for the Lunceford version of YESTERDAYS; a few pages later, we learning all there is to know about a new dance, THE HICKY RICKY — novelty numbers, ballads, and jazz exotica are all considered with particular enthusiasm and research.

Rare photographs add a great deal to the experience, and the collaboration of Wriggle and the University of Illinois Press is a happy one: the book is carefully presented and well-edited.  I found no misprints or errors, rare in this century. The paper edition (a manageable 320 pages) is $30.

Reading this book over the past few months, whether I proceeded chronologically or opened it at random, I was always enlightened, ever bored: a great tribute to Wriggle from an impatient and often irritable reader.  His background explains a good deal: he is a trombonist, composer, arranger, and scholar, who has transcribed period jazz repertoire for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and served as music editor for Oscar-winning Hollywood film scores.

As a writer and scholar, he is thoughtful without being pedantic or theoretical, without a confining ideological bias.  To get a sense of his and the book’s virtues, I offer excerpts from his interview (from the publisher’s blog) about this work.

As an aspiring composer-arranger, I first took notice of Willet’s music in the mid-1990s, when I was co-hosting a pre-stereo themed jazz program on college radio station WKCR. I heard the 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band session he arranged, including a version of “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.” The combination of musical adventurousness and balanced logic in those arrangements is beautiful, and I was an immediate fan. In 1999, I composed and presented a series of “Variations on Blue Rhythm Fantasy” for a new music ensemble I was leading. But as I tried to find more about Willet through standard jazz history sources, it was always a dead end. When I applied to the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program in 2003, I decided I would see if I could make a thesis project of it. A telephone book cold call led me to a musician named Chico Hicks, who had performed with Willet during 1933-34, and the pieces finally began to fall into place.

The more I was able to discover in newspapers and archives, the more I realized what a fascinating figure Willet was. His career reflects so many aspects of the music industry during that period that it made perfect sense to build a book around him. He was really tied into the Swing Era stage entertainment scene, which is something that jazz historians have attempted to ignore for decades as too “commercial.” Willet was also involved in music publishing, home recording, talent booking, and a music school—all the stuff that professional musicians still to do today in order to eke out a living.

Similar to music performers working in recording studios during the 1920s and ‘30s, swing big band arrangers were able to cross lines of racial segregation simply because no one could see them. As long as they weren’t appearing in mixed company on the public stage, it didn’t bother the establishment so much for white bandleaders to hire black arrangers, or vice versa. Whether or not these shrouded work opportunities actually helped to break down inequality is an interesting question—and one that was debated in the African American press at the time. On the one hand, arrangers could be considered pioneers of integration; on the other hand, these less-publicized instances of black writers working for white bands could also be interpreted as another form of exploitation. Some black bandleaders even worried that black arrangers were providing unfair advantage to their white competitors, as concerns regarding music and jazz authenticity were often tied to race. The popular success that white bandleaders enjoyed while playing the music of black arrangers like Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, or Chappie Willet certainly highlighted issues of racism and segregation that America was struggling with leading up to the civil rights era. Willet himself was embraced as a “race man” in the African American press: a role model for economic success in an entertainment industry that was just beginning to consider strategies for integration.

This book attempts to provide a window into the broader world of professional arranging in jazz and popular music: What were these musicians trying to do with their music? How were they trained? Where did they work? How much were they paid? And looking in more detail, I also hope to highlight the artistry involved. Audiences of arranged music are being provided more sonic information than just the song lyrics or featured solos. And a good arranger can transmit a lot of information very effectively.

BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY is a wonderfully enlightening experience.  It is readable but dense with information — an old-fashioned book not especially suited for reading on one’s phone — a splendidly-documented exploration of an artist and his musical world that will both answer and raise many questions.  I hope John Wriggle will write many more books equally wise and appealing.

May your happiness increase!

MISTER LIPSKIN PAYS A VISIT BELOWSTAIRS (Dec. 18, 2016): MIKE LIPSKIN, JON-ERIK KELLSO, JIM FRYER, EVAN ARNTZEN, JOHN GILL, BRIAN NALEPKA, JAY LEPLEY (a/k/a TERRY WALDO’S GOTHAM CITY BAND at FAT CAT)

Pianist / vocalist / scholar / composer Terry Waldo leads his Gotham City Band several Sunday afternoons every month (from about 5:45 to 8) at Fat Cat, 75 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York City.

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Fat Cat is an unusual jazz club, even considering that it is roughly parallel to two other basement shrines, Smalls and Mezzrow: Greenwich Village’s answer to the long-gone Swing Street.  A large sprawling room, it is filled with the furniture one would expect from a college student union: ping pong tables, pool tables, and the like.  One may play these games for $6 / hour and many young people do.  The bar also offers homemade pomegranate soda for $3, a remarkable boon.  Another distinctive feature of this establishment is the singular adhesiveness of their low couches: once I sit down, I drop below sea level, and know I will arise only at the end of the last set after embarrassing flailing.)

On this Sunday, Terry’s band was particularly noble: Jay Lepley, drums; John Gill, banjo; Brian Nalepka, string bass; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and soprano; Jim Fryer, trombone; Jon-Erik Kellso, cornet instead of his usual horn.  Terry had been leading the group in his usual cheerful egalitarian fashion.  Then I saw a distinctly recognizable fellow — musician and friend — appear to my left.  It was the Sage of several states (California and Arizona), friend and protege of Willie the Lion Smith . . . Mister Michael Lipskin, known to himself and us as Mike.  He asked Terry if he could play a few . . . and he did, shifting the repertoire to two numbers rarely called in such ensembles (by Ray Noble and by Ellington) with splendid results.  And here they are:

THE VERY THOUGHT OF  YOU (at a very Thirties rhythm-ballad tempo, entirely charming):

I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT:

The latter title may be slightly ironic given the intense belowstairs darkness of Fat Cat, but the music shines brightly.

May your happiness increase!

NAOMI AND HER HANDSOME DEVILS: “THE DEVILS’ MUSIC”

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This is an irresistible CD.  The first time I put it in the player, after about a half-chorus, I leaned forward and raised the volume.  When I had heard Naomi sing ISN’T IT ROMANTIC? for the first time, I played it again.  And then again.  And several times over.  And (I know this might seem monotonous) I played the disc again from the start.  That should serve as the JAZZ LIVES Seal of Approval, shouldn’t it?  (Note: the apostrophe in the title is also a hilarious gift to us.)

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If you visit YouTube and type in “Naomi Uyama,” you will find many videos showing her as a championship swing dancer.  But I first encountered Naomi as a singer, and a fine one — singing a chorus from a Boswell Sisters recording alongside Tamar Korn and Mimi Terris — on a cold night in 2009 outside Banjo Jim’s.  Naomi and her expert friends resurfaced with their first CD, which I reviewed here with great pleasure in August 2014.

Here are several tracks from that CD — to show you that Naomi and her Devils know and knew how to do it.  Lil Johnson’s TAKE IT EASY, GREASY:

Something more polite, the Basie GEORGIANNA:

I know I’m getting carried away here — a wonderfully sweet / swinging performance of IF I COULD BE WITH YOU:

The band on THE DEVILS’ MUSIC is of course, Naomi Uyama, vocals; Jake Sanders, guitar; Jonathan Doyle, tenor sax / clarinet; Jeremy Noller, drums;
Matt Musselman, trombone; Jared Engel, string bass; Dalton Ridenhour, piano;
Mike Davis, trumpet, and the sessions took place in Chicago in August 2016.

Naomi and the Devils write, “Our hope was to show the growth we’ve had as a unit since our debut album was released 2 years prior. Our focus: having original arrangements of swinging tunes – some well loved by the dance community and other hidden gems. We also added to our line-up, and over half the songs on this album feature Mike Davis on trumpet, expanding our hot horn harmonies and giving us a new sound. Lastly Naomi wrote the band’s first original composition, track 1 “Little Girl Blues,” putting something out there that you can’t hear from any other swing band. With a vintage ear and expertise from recording engineer Alex Hall we’ve mixed and mastered the whole shebang and can’t wait for the world to hear it. We hope you enjoy “The Devils’ Music”.

Now, some comments from me.  Naomi, as I hope you’ve already heard, is not just someone who sings: she is a singer, with a voice that’s attractive in itself, which she uses to great effect, depending on the material.  She can handle complicated lyrics at a fast tempo; she swings; she has a sure sense of dynamics. She doesn’t copy old records; she doesn’t overdramatize; she understands the songs; she can be rueful, tender, brassy, and she’s always lively.  Her phrasing is playful, and she’s no swing robot — by which I mean she’s loose, not repeating a set of gestures.  And a witty lyricist on LITTLE GIRL BLUES.

I also think that it is so much harder to sing ISN’T IT ROMANTIC than a swing number, and on this delicate love song Naomi captivates me.  The same for IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN, even when Gerlach’s lyrics defy logic.  Her I’M LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY made my living room rock, and I nearly hurt my neck bobbing my head to SHOO SHOO BABY.  Having heard Louis, Bing, and Billie make imperishable versions of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, I’ve come to dread contemporary versions, but hers is special, with a hilarious scat break.

That band!  I’ve met and admired six of the players in person (to me, their names are an assurance of swing).  I bow to them.  I’ve not met Jeremy Noller, but he is another Worthy — a rocking Worthy at that. Catch his tom-tom work on ROSE OF THE RIO GRANDE.  And although the Devils sit so comfortably in a Basie / Lunceford / small-group Ellington groove, there’s a delicious c. 1929 A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND, completely convincing.  (The band likes to riff, with about half of the tracks arranged by Naomi or Jake: nice uncluttered charts, expertly rehearsed but never stiff.)  Naomi lays out on PERDIDO (a good thing, considering the thin lyrics), BLUES WITH A BEAT (a Forties-sounding romp), DELTA BOUND (a pleasure at any tempo), and a grooving THESE FOOLISH THINGS.

This is a long expression of praise, but you will notice I haven’t listed all the delightful moments on the CD; were I to do so, the post would be three times longer.

You can download the CD here ($13) or see how to buy a physical disc on the same page . . . AND . . . you can hear all the tracks on the disc.  “If that don’t get it, well,  forget it right now,” to quote Jack Teagarden, more or less, on the 1947 SAY IT SIMPLE.  For more first-hand information, here is the band’s Facebook page, and here is Naomi’s page.

It’s all quite devilishly wonderful.

May your happiness increase!

A FEW PAGES FROM ROBERT BIERMAN, formerly of IRVINGTON, NEW YORK

Another eBay prowl (taking a long respite from grading student essays) with glorious results.

The seller is offering an amazing collection of autographs, some dating back to 1938.  Since a few items were inscribed to “Bob” or “Robert” Bierman, it was easy to trace these precious artifacts back to the man of the same name, a Krupa aficionado, now deceased (I believe his dates are 1922-2009) who lived for some time on Staten Island.

The jazz percussion scholar Bruce Klauber tells me: Bob passed several years ago. He had things you wouldn’t believe and was kind enough to share several audios with me. Anything he was connected with was rare and authentic.

My friend David Weiner recalls Bierman as quiet, reticent, with wonderful photographs and autographs.

I never met Mr. Bierman in my brief collectors’ period, but in 1938 he must have been a very energetic sixteen-year old who went to hear hot jazz and big bands, asking the drummers and sidemen for their autographs.  The collection is notable for the signatures of people not otherwise documented — as you will see.

Incidentally, the seller has listed the items as “Buy It Now,” which means that indeed the race is to the swift.

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Three heroes from what I presume is Art Hodes’ Forties band that recorded for his own JAZZ RECORD label: Rod Cless, Georg[e] Bruni[e]s, Danny Alvin.

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Bunny and his Orchestra.

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Basieites, circa 1940: Walter Page, Joe Jones, Buck Clayton, Tab Smith, Freddie Greene, and James Rushing.  The story is that John Hammond convinced Jo and Freddie to change the spelling of their names . . . perhaps to be more distinctive and memorable to the public?  I don’t know if this is verifiable.

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Gene!  But where and when?

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Wettling, promoting Ludwig drums — when he was with Paul Whiteman.

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And some advice to the young drummer.

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Teddy Wilson.  It’s so reassuring to see that there was actually letterhead for the School for Pianists.

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Some wonderful players from the Bob Crosby band: Jess Stacy, Eddie Miller, Bob Haggart, Matty Matlock, Hank D’Amico, Nappy Lamare.

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Liz Tilton, Ray Bauduc.

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Gil Rodin from Ben Pollack and Crosby.

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Earle Warren of Basie fame.

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Al Donahue, and another Bunny signature.

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To me, a page with the signatures of Hank Wayland, and George Rose — plus a caricature — is worth many thousand letters with a secretary’s “Bing” or “Benny” at the bottom.

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You want famous?  Here’s famous: Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti.

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and Mary Lou Williams.

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Peggy Lee.

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Some fairly obscure Benny Goodman sidemen — Buff Estes, Toots Mondello, Arnold “Covey” — and the leader-turned-sideman Fletcher Henderson.

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Gentlemen from the reed section of Fats Waller’s big band: Jackie Fields and Bob Carroll.

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Fats’ “Honeybear,” Gene Sedric.

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A letter from Art Hodes!  (“Bob, there’s a letter for you!”)

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Finally, the Hawk. 1943.

It makes me think, “What will happen to our precious stuff [see George Carlin] when we are dead?  eBay certainly is better than the dumpster, although these pages remind me that everything is in flux, and we are not our possessions. Beautiful to see, though, and to know that such things exist.  You, too, can have a piece of paper that Rod Cless touched — no small thing.

May your happiness increase!