Tag Archives: Ed Beach

“BANG A FEW NOTES”: HOWARD KADISON REMEMBERS DONALD LAMBERT (5.5.20)

A long post follows, with many new stories.

My awareness of the amazing musician Donald Lambert began in 1970, when I heard this music coming out of my FM radio speaker when Ed Beach (WRVR-FM of sainted memory) offered a program of Lambert’s then few recordings:

I loved then and still love the beautiful carpet of the verse.  But I was uplifted by the rollicking tempo and swing of the chorus.  And not only by the pianist, but by the drummer, cavorting along — not overbearing, but personal and free, saying “Yeah!” to Lambert at every turn, but not too often.

The magic possible in cyberspace has made it possible for me to talk with Howard Kadison, the nimble drummer on that recording and — no cliche, a witness to history, because he knew and played with people we revere.  First, he and Audrey VanDyke, another gracious scholar, made available to me the text of an entire periodical devoted to the Lamb, which I have posted here eight months ago.  It’s an afternoon’s dive, I assure you: I’ve also presented the two fuzzy videos of Lambert, solo, at Newport, July 1, 1960, that are known on YouTube.

But Howard and I finally had a chance to talk at length, and I can offer you the very pleasing and sometimes surprising results.  Howard doesn’t have a high profile in the jazz world, and I suspect he is content with that.  But he played drums with Danny Barker, Connie Jones, George Finola, and many others whose names he recalls with pleasure.  However, he was most famous to me as the drumming sidekick — the delightful accompanist — to stride piano legend Donald Lambert.  The session they created for Rudi Blesh (pictured above) always lifts my spirits.  As did my conversation with the man himself.

On May 5, Howard graciously talked to me about “Lamb” and his experiences being Lambert’s drummer of choice — both at Frank Wallace’s High Tavern in West Orange, New Jersey, and in the recording studio.  Sit back and enjoy his beautiful narrative.  He was there, and he loved Lambert.

HOWARD KADISON REMEMBERS DONALD LAMBERT

 I always fooled around with the drums.  I was really drum-crazy — I used to have a telephone book with brushes, and I’d play with the radio when I was fourteen, fifteen, twelve years old.  I always liked music and if I heard a song I could always remember it.  I had come from a divorced home and was dividing my time between Chicago and Miami when my parents split up.  And when I was in Miami I heard a radio station, WMBM, “The Rockin’ MB,” Miami Beach, and I didn’t know what kind of music it was, but it was jazz.  I had no idea about jazz.  And I listened to it and just fooled around with it.  Then I went on to college, and in my junior year, I really decided that I wanted to play drums.  Whenever there was music in Miami, I would go to whatever event it was.  I always had a peripheral interest.

In 1959, I went to New York, and was very serious about it, and started taking lessons.  When I was in college, I was an econ major, so it was quite a change.  I studied with Jim Chapin initially, and for a long while with George Gaber.  I had an endless series of day jobs, and one of them had me working in the mailroom of ABC.  George Gaber was a staff percussionist, and he was a brilliant teacher who eventually ran the percussion program at Indiana University.  But before he left New York I studied with him for a couple of years.  The way I met him was he was practicing one day — he came in and was warming up — and I watched him.  I was delivering mail, and he just started talking to me.  He asked me if I was a drummer, because I was watching him so intently.  I told him I was trying to be, and he took me under his wing.

While I was there, I ran into a banjoist and guitar player who became one of my mentors, Danny Barker.  Danny was playing at a place called the Cinderella, which was on West Third Street in the Village.  He kept in touch with me, and he started giving me little gigs that would come up.  And there were a bunch of guys playing around at that time.  There was a wonderful piano player named Don Coates, and Ed Polcer, and Kenny Davern and Dick Wellstood.  They were all older than I, but I got to know them a little bit.  I started working, just gradually.  And then Don Coates, who was from Jersey, brought me out to hear Don Lambert play.  I just thought it was the most wonderful music.  I forget exactly how it happened, but this was shortly after Lambert had gone to Newport in July 1960.

Danny Barker told me that Don came up on the bandstand at Newport, at what they called the Old-Timers concert in the early afternoon, and there were a lot of good stride players there, and he got up and, to use Danny’s words, “this old man killed everybody. He got up there and played and scared the crap out of everybody in the place.”  And Danny never used language like that. “He left those people there shaking like a leaf.”

So I met Lambert through Don Coates, and Lambert said, “If you ever want to come in and bring a snare drum, there’s not much room back here, but you can bang a few notes with me.”  That’s a direct quote.  So I took the Hudson Tubes to Newark, and then got on a bus, and finally found myself in West Orange, New Jersey, I think it was, and would walk from the bus to Wallace’s High Tavern, which was where Lambert was playing.  I brought a snare drum, and played some brushes.

I should explain.  He played behind a long oval bar on a platform which was just enough room for a baby grand piano.  Guys would come sit in with him occasionally, but there wasn’t a whole lot of room to play with.  Anyway, I played a couple of tunes, and as I was leaving, Frank Wallace came up to me — he was the owner of the  place — and he said, “Would you like to come in once and a while and play?  Lambert enjoyed your playing.”  You know, Lambert didn’t talk to me; he did.  And I said yes: I didn’t know he was offering me a gig, I thought he was just talking to me to come in and play once in a while.  I did it a couple more times, and then he said, “What would be involved to get a set of drums back here?”  I said, “Well, there’s not much room.”  There was just room for a snare drum to fit in one little place.  I used sit near a display of alcohol on one side and Lambert on the other, and in the middle there was a cash register where he would ring up the sales.  He had me sitting next to the cash register, and when he’d ring up a sale, if I wasn’t careful and didn’t duck, the drawer would hit me in the head, which I’m sure explains a lot of my behavior these days.

Anyway, he figured out a way of getting a bass drum in there, and he moved some things under the bar.  I think there was a connection to a sink or something, he kind of juggled some stuff and I was able to get a small bass drum in there, a hi-hat, and one cymbal.  It was pretty cramped in there, but I was able to do it.  And I started playing on a regular basis, about three nights a week, and it was eight bucks a night plus a sandwich, one of those heated sandwiches where they use an electric bulb and they put them in those cases.  I was working days, and Frank would drive me to the train station after the gig, and I’d take the train home, back to New York City.  But I would go there by bus, from Port Authority bus station, through the Hudson Tubes, and then a pretty long walk.  I’d have to leave the drums there.  That went on for a while.

There was one very critical thing that happened that was helpful.  The set-up didn’t allow me to see Lambert while he was playing.  We would play almost with our backs to one another, or at right angles.  So I had to listen very intently to everything he was going to do, because he didn’t do a lot of talking when he played.  He’d go from one tune to another, and I’ve often thought in retrospect that this experience of really listening was very important, because it required a very specific kind of focus to know what he was going to do.  He’d play an introduction, then he’d play the time, and that was it.

That went on a couple of years, and then there was a project that came up.  It was a guy named Rudi Blesh was going to record Lambert.  That didn’t involve me at all.  I think it was going to be a solo album with Lambert.  I don’t know how the conversation began, but they said that they wanted to add a drummer.  Blesh wanted to use some other players, and Lambert wanted to use me.  Danny Barker, who was at Newport when Lambert played, heard about the project — I’m not quite sure of tthe mechanics involved — but Danny, I learned later, recommended me and said that if I’d been playing with the guy, I’d probably be the one you’d want to get.  When they asked me if I wanted to do it, I was terrified, because I’d never done anything like that before.  Ultimately, I was the one who made the recording, and that was primarily because of Danny.  Frank Wallace, the owner of the bar, had kept in touch with Danny after Lambert played, and evidently Danny told Frank that Lambert should use me.  A lot of tap-dancing, a bunch of up-and-back stuff.  I didn’t know anything about it.  I was just a kid playing drums, and that’s it.

(At this point the Editor interrupted and reminded Howard that there was a story extant of Lambert telling Blesh, “That’s my drummer,” referring to Howard.)

Yes.  That was one of the most thrilling things that had happened to me.  If I’d quit playing drums after that, I could have been happy.  I could have died happy.  I was astounded by all of it.  I didn’t know what the hell to do.  I just sat down, and Lambert said, “Hey, man!  Just do what you do with me at the bar.  That’s it!”

Sometimes I’d go out at night after the gig and shoot pool with Lambert, if I didn’t have to work the next day at my day job, hang with him in Newark, and sometimes he would talk about music.

I learned a lot on the job.  He’d make comments.  If he wanted me to do a specific thing, he’d turn around and say, “Now, don’t do something until you hear me sound like I’m ready to have you play.”  Then he’d wait and turn around and say, “And then, put me in the alley!”  That was one of his favorite phrases, “Put me in the alley!”  He didn’t talk a whole lot, but he spoke volumes, the way he played things.  If you just listened carefully, you didn’t have to watch him.  If I were going to speak about people who guided me, it would be Danny Barker and Don Lambert.

One of the rules that I learned, that I thought was extremely important, is that you have to focus, to remember whom you’re accompanying.  And that’s important.  You’ve got to find a way to connect with the soloist.  I never thought of drumming as soloing, I always thought of it as being an accompanist.  And that was something I took away from two extraordinarily different experiences, completely dissimilar in every respect, as far as music.  But the philosophical approach to every gig is the same: you’ve got to listen, be part of the solo, and help the soloist.  And that’s, I believe, of critical importance.  That’s all you can do!

There was a thing that Danny Barker used to say.  He would tell me, “Hey, man, if you’re a drummer, most of the time you’re going to be playing for other people, you’re not going to playing drum solos.  So it’s nice to do all kinds of monkeyshines” (and I quote) “but your real job is to be an accompanist.  So you gotta learn how to back people up,” and he always talked about that.  He was a wonderful guitarist, and playing time with him was marvelous.  You’d get such a groove, and, hey, if you could get that going, why would you want to do anything else?   So the trick is to be good at accompanying people.  I was lucky, because I got to play with him, and I did an album with him.  And that was a great pleasure.

You could learn on every gig.  You might learn how to develop your chops with a teacher, but in the final analysis, you’re doing it so that you can play with people.  So, to me, the trick is to just stay in the background and play for somebody else.  That’s it.

I’ll tell you a story, and I don’t know the details.  It’s something that Don Coates told me.  At one point, Lambert was working as a janitor or a clean-up guy at the Adams Theatre in Newark.  Jack Teagarden was there with a big band.  There was evidently a piano backstage.  Lambert was fooling around with it, and Teagarden happened to hear what he was doing.  There was a song that Lambert played, a song he had written himself, and Lambert gave Teagarden the music, and, according to what Coates told me, Teagarden used it as a kind of opening theme for his big band.  The story is fuzzy and not very precise, and there’s no way to verify it, because Coates has passed away, but there was some connection between Lambert and Teagarden.  (At this point, the Editor interrupted to tell the story of Lambert being at Jack’s 1940 HRS session, documented in a photograph.)

I’d call him “Lamb,” because that’s what he always did.  And I’d call him “Don” sometimes.  The other thing you might be interested in, one of the sterling times I had with Lambert, is that Frank Wallace called me one day and said, “We’re going to go visit Eubie Blake at his house in Brooklyn.  Would you like to come along?”  I was tongue-tied, but I said, “Sure.”  And I just sat there and listened to them talk, and didn’t say a word the whole time.  It was great, listening to them talk, up and back.  And they both played.

He had interesting things he would say.  His mother was his piano teacher, and she used to tell him he should learn every tune in every key, and he did.  Every tune he played, he could play in all twelve keys.  He was technically a very fine player.  I’ve heard stories about when he was in New York in the Thirties and early Forties, and then he left and kind of buried himself in Jersey.  He was always very humble.  He told me once that he thought he was one of the better piano players in the state of New Jersey.  That’s a direct quote.  Lambert was a lot of fun.  He had a good sense of humor.  He was generous, and he was helpful.  He’d come over sometime and say, “Remember what you just did, because that was OK.”  And that was nice.  I mean, I just played with the guy and had fun.  I was a kid and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.  I was very lucky, and he was very kind.

Lambert didn’t live a lot longer after the record date.  He had a stroke at one point, and he was still playing, and playing well.  But he wasn’t feeling well, and he didn’t always take care of himself as well as he should.  He was in a place in Newark called Martland Medical Center, I think the name of it is, and I visited him there once, and after that he passed away.  I went to his funeral, as a matter of fact.  A very bad time, a difficult time.  I loved him very much.  He was a good guy.

I want to close — in a mist of gratitude to Howard and Audrey and the Lamb — with three ways to celebrate Donald Lambert, and none of them is a photograph of a headstone, because well-loved people are never relegated to such forms.

Second, a marvel.  At the site called Wolfgang’s Concert Vault, the Voice of America tape of the “Old-Timers'” afternoon concert at the Newport Jazz Festival, arranged by Rudi Blesh, including Lambert, Eubie Blake, Willie “the Lion” Smith, the Danny Barker Trio with Bernard Addison and Al Hall — some 93 minutes — can be downloaded here in high-quality sound for $5.

And finally, another marvel.  Videos exist of that afternoon: two solos by Lambert, several each by Barker, Eubie, and the Lion — but this one, I don’t think, has been widely circulated or ever circulated.  I caution finicky viewers that the image is blurry — perhaps this was a film copy from a television broadcast, or it is the nineteenth copy of a videotape (I do not have the original).  But here are Eubie Blake and Donald Lambert essaying CHARLESTON.  Eubie takes over early and Lambert is in the most subsidiary role . . . but we see what he looked like at the piano, and that is a treasure.

Bless Donald Lambert.  Bless Howard Kadison, too.

May your happiness increase!

HARROW, TURGENEV, POMERANTZ: “ABOUT LOVE”

Some people make themselves comfortable on the moving train, the better to admire the scenery outside their little window. Others are driving the train, decorating the cars, planting trees and painting clouds outside the same window for us to admire.  With her red sneakers securely laced, Nancy Harrow continues to be one of the most remarkable examples of the second kind of people. Her latest creation is ABOUT LOVE, inspired by Turgenev’s “First Love,” for which she’s written music and lyrics, with script and direction by Will Pomerantz.  

I first encountered Nancy as a voice coming through the radio speaker (thanks to Ed Beach, with Nat Hentoff and Buck Clayton standing invisibly in back of him) in 1970, and was intrigued.  Decades later, when Daryl Sherman and Dan Morgenstern spoke of her with pleased awe, I had the opportunity to hear her sing and to meet her — one of those magical instances where the voice turns out to have a person attached to it.  I learned quickly that Nancy was not only a much-admired singer, but lyricist, composer, and playwright as well.  Although I have seen her sit still, her biography makes it seem that I was fooled by an optical illusion.

A pause for music:

Nancy says this about the play: Turgenev’s story is so human— each character is so true to life that it lives today even though it takes place 150 years ago. That he captures the adolescent boy’s feelings completely is least surprising because it is his own youth he is describing, but he is equally perceptive about the heroine’s powers and her frailties and the father’s strengths and vulnerabilities. The whole story is masterful in its compression— in such a brief time it covers every aspect of life from youth to death and we recognize it in our own experiences and are moved. It is of its own time and place so accurately, yet it is universal and recognizable in 2020, a portrait of the essence of human relationships touching on a wide range of emotions— joy and sorrow, humor and humiliation, cruelty and empathy. Turgenev loved his characters.

I am honored to have Nancy not only as a friend but as an inspiration, and she has told me little enticing stories about the progress of this “play with music” since spring 2019.  But this year, when I asked her what translation of Turgenev she recommended for me to read — I have trouble not being a diligent student who worries about passing the final — she encouraged me to play hooky, “maybe you don’t want to spoil the surprises when you see it.”

I encourage you to join me for ABOUT LOVE.  It seems that the only way one could spoil the surprise is by staying home.

ABOUT LOVE plays a limited four-week engagement, February 25 through March 22 at The Sheen Center (18 Bleecker Street at the corner of Elizabeth Street, NYC) in the Black Box Theater. The official opening is Wednesday, March 4 at 7:30 PM. Shows are Tuesday – Thursday at 7:30 PM, Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 and 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. Preview tickets (through March 3) are $25. After opening, all evening performances are $39 – $59. Rush tickets will be available at the box office an hour before any performance for $25.

May your happiness increase!

SWEET LESSONS IN MELODIC EMBELLISHMENT (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This music says YES, no hesitation.

May your happiness increase!

NANCY HARROW, ENCHANTER

A mature artist requires a mature audience, which is my way of saying that some artists I now revere I was not ready for when I first encountered them.  One such person is Nancy Harrow.  If you already love and admire Nancy and her art, you may pass GO and visit here.  Without delay, I might add.  (Details below.)

I first heard this singer-composer-enchanter on radio in the early Seventies (Ed Beach played tracks from her first album, WILD WOMEN DON’T HAVE THE BLUES) and she surfaced intermittently in my consciousness: her Finesse recording with John Lewis, and more recently, her early sessions for Atlantic, YOU NEVER KNOW.  Something had happened: my ears and heart were ready to appreciate her magic.

Here is Nancy, speaking for nineteen seconds, ostensibly introducing her musicians at a 1995-6 gig, which was recorded — we are grateful for such marvels.  In the first few seconds, she states what I feel might be an artistic credo, a statement of purpose: lovely, wise, and unvarnished.  Listen.

I have half a dozen dear friends, wonderfully rewarding singers, people I go to hear whenever I can.  They know I love them.  I heard Louis, Lee Wiley, Maxine Sullivan, and Jimmy Rushing sing in person.  And I have spent the past half-century and more listening rapt to recordings of everyone from Leo Watson to Cleo Brown.

But there’s something about Nancy Harrow that transfixes me, her very personal combination of beauty, candor, and courage.  Her voice has the delicately intensity of a perfectly focused light beam, with a small purr or rasp on the ends of phrases.  She can be tough — hear her YOU’RE NOT WHAT YOU SAID YOU ARE (sung by a cricket, disappointed and reproachful, to a dung beetle who has tried to pass himself off as more glamorous) or sweetly tender (the song EFFIE that follows), but she shapes herself to fit the song, rather than insisting that the song shape itself to her.

I think of candor when I hear her, which is to say that she is never faking anything, not a note.  Certain very accomplished musicians, for instance, say to us without words, “Now I’m becoming Ben Webster!” and we approve, because even an attempt to sound like Webster is a warming phenomenon, but we know it is an impersonation.

Finally, I bow to her courage: the courage to gently move a note or a phrase to express a personality, to make an utterance more true to the song than the notes on the music page would indicate.

If you’d like to know more about Nancy before plunging in to her music, here is her delightfully candid autobiographical sketch.  (The link also takes you to her website, which is a trove.)

But the music.  Hear, for instance, what she does with a song worn paper-thin by familiarity and repetition:

In a playful yet poignant duet with the late Dick Katz, Nancy makes us hear the song as we never have — her touching variations, her emotive phrasing that gets us away from the expected up-and-down of notes and rhythms.  Have we ever heard PENNIES before?  We’ve believed that we have, but it sounds new and real here.

Nancy has also written song cycles based on Willa Cather’s A LOST LADY, Hawthorne’s THE MARBLE FAUN, the stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “children’s books” THE ADVENTURES OF MAYA THE BEE, THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN.  Here is one of the songs composed for LOST LADY, which she recorded on her most recent CD, THE SONG IS ALL, in 2016:

That song — with its tough, hilarious lyrics (which make me think of Frishberg but with even greater impact) should convince anyone of Nancy’s continued power and assurance, backed by (among others) Alphonso Horne, Robert Edwards, and Owen Broder.

Here is what I take as another credo, (I believe the song was written in collaboration with John Lewis) from the 2016 CD:

Here’s the pairing I promised above, which Nancy introduces herself:

and the songs, backed by Sir Roland Hanna and Paul West:

Maybe it’s my particular place in the cosmos, but EFFIE makes my eyes wet.  Nancy Harrow can do that to you.  “Telling what I know, and spreading rhythm around.”

Yes.

I write this post to announce something beyond rare: this Sunday, November 12, 2017, at 3:00 PM, Nancy will sing songs from her LOST LADY album, based on the Cather novel.  She’ll be accompanied by Alphonso Horne, trumpet; Dave Linard, keyboards and harmonica; John Snow, string bass.  The recital will happen at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, New York, New York.  Tickets are $25 each.  It’s a small room, seating 70 people, and on Tuesday morning that half of the seats were already sold. Registration is required before the concert, and the $25 is then payable at the door or over the phone at 212.298.6900, extension 230 (leave a message with Ms. Katie Fricas, Events / Circulation Assistant).  Here is a link to the event page on the Library’s website, which includes instructions for registering online, another option.  It sounds complicated, but I did it, and it is worth doing.

A postscript for JAZZ LIVES’ cognoscenti: I won’t be bringing video equipment, so Nancy Harrow’s enchantments must be experienced first-hand.

May your happiness increase!

LESTER YOUNG’S JOY (“Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records: Mosaic MD-8 263)

Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.”  Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us.  Give us some despair, and we turn the pages.  It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.  Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.

Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.

And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.

The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief.  And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to.  Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.

Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester.  Intent, but not at ease.  Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.

Lester-Young-standing-changing-reed

But there is the music, lest we forget.  It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.

A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Recordsits cover depicted below.  Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.

LESTER BASIE Mosaic

Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?

Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon.  (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.)  So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy.  He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone?  Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt.  (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)

Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him.  The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues.  The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance.  And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID.  The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts.  But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.

Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs.  Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.”  Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible?  Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity.  And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.

But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making.  If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.

I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional.  We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car.  To do so would be at best disrespectful.

I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work.  Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined.  The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.

The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.

Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst!  Michael!  Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.

When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did.  It still does, a living embodiment of joy.

And the joy is still profound.  I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week.  I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaten we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.

But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm.  He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on.  He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic.  Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.

And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential.  Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle.  Dickie Wells.  The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet.  The Aladdins.  TI-PI-TIN.  I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole.  A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.

The joy is not only Lester.  There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.

I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here.  I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music.  And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this.  And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.

Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels.  I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.

For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs.  There are 173 tracks.  The cost is $136.00 plus shipping.  There are only 5000 sets being produced.  They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one.  (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)

Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us.  We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds.  And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.

May your happiness increase!

“THE SOURCE OF ALL OUR JOY”: REMEMBERING MILT HINTON

MILT

Milton John Hinton (1910-2000).

“The Judge.”  Universally beloved.  Here, with Herb Ellis, guitar; Larry Novak, piano; Butch Miles, drums:

I have The Judge in my mind as a sweetly heroic presence because he is on so many of the recordings that have shaped my consciousness.  I also have two photographic portraits of him (which he autographed for me in 1981) in my apartment, next to the door.  When I come in or go out, he is there to welcome me home or to wish me safe passage on the day’s journey.

He’s also powerfully in my thoughts because I went to the house in which he and Mona Hinton lived for decades — 173-05 113rd Avenue, Jamaica, New York — last Saturday (June 13) for an estate sale.  More about that later.

First, a reminiscence of Milt from a friend, Stu Zimny, whom I’ve known since high school, 1969.  We were comrades in eccentricity, united in our shared secret love of Milt, of Jo Jones, of Ed Beach, S.J. Perelman — playing records at each others’ houses, going to concerts and clubs.  Swing spies.  Jazz acolytes.

Danny Barker, Stu Zimny, Milt Hinton 1995

Danny Barker, Stu Zimny, Milt Hinton 1995

From Stu:

It was in the late-70’s sometime when I first met Milt Hinton.

It was a strange time in the music’s history. Although rock music had firmly enveloped the attention of most of my generation, my own musical trajectory was towards the the jazz of the 1930’s.  I had heard the incandescence of Louis Armstrong and his many disciples and was converted quickly. There was a power to this music unique in my experience. It is more common now in the internet age but we, myself and the author of this sacred blog in particular, formed a distinct minority, a sort of rear-guard action devoted to preserving this music.  Yet at that time there were still significant numbers of players of that “swing generation” alive and at least semi-active and one could see them play intermittently in certain mostly short-lived clubs in Manhattan and the occasional concert.  Although the general sentiment was that we had arrived a few decades too late.

I had heard that Milt was teaching a jazz seminar at Hunter College, I had taken up study of the double-bass shortly before, had lucked upon and acquired an excellent “axe,” and Milt was a legendary figure to bassists in particular.

In a fortuitous stroke of luck I encountered Milt on the subway on the ride to Hunter. (Milt was a frequent rider of the NYC subway system since he did not drive a car. The story goes that he had been driving a vehicle in Chicago decades before, as a gofer of some sort for the Al Capone organization, and a bad accident occurred which had traumatized him for life against driving a motorized vehicle.) I drove him to a fair number of gigs during the next few years for the mere opportunity to hang out and absorb what I might. Capone’s loss was my gain.

On the “A” train I gathered up my courage and struck up a conversation with him, the ultimate outcome of which was that if I wanted some tutoring I could drop by his home in Queens.  He did not need to make the offer twice. Especially since his attendance at Hunter was spotty due to his being on the road quite a bit.

Milt never really offered me “lessons” as such.  Although he did hand me a manuscript of scale patterns and suggested I work on them “for the next thirty years” and gave me a whole lot of physical advice about dealing with the bass. I would bring him bass music, usually some classical etude or duet, and we would play through it together. He was always up for the challenge. The mere fact that he would be willing to play with me and treat me like a colleague was a huge confidence boost.

Of course it was not only me who benefited from his largesse. Many bassists (and other instrumentalists) would drop by, most often just to hang out with an elder, “The Dean of Jazz Bassists.” Milt and Mona were extremely gracious and generous in opening their home to musicians. And feeding us, and making us feel like family, and part of a lineage that required support and protection.

Throughout the next decade or so I would drop by, often in a vain attempt to help him organize the pile of the concert tapes and recordings collecting in his basement.

In 1989 I departed the east for directions west. When I came back for visits if Milt was in town he was always open for a rendezvous “between sets.”

I recall seeing him at the 1995 Monterey Jazz Festival and in San Diego at some sort of convocation. On the latter occasion, with minimal rehearsal, he was offered some pretty complex charts and played through them with ease. This was not an old guy resting on past accomplishments, he was fully alive to the music, to all music.

Sometimes players like Clark Terry and Major Holley would drop by. The basement couch was famous for having been used for sleep by Ben Webster during a period when he lived with the Hintons or at least paid an extended visit: I never knew which. Sometimes it is better not to ask too many questions.

The last time I saw Milt was around 1997 after I had returned east and lived in the Boston area. By that time he had stopped playing for physical reasons.  I heard of his passing via an NPR broadcast in 2000 at age 90.

Milt has been a major influence in my life, musically and moreover in modeling what it means to be an elder and the tribal obligation and joy of passing on knowledge and skills and musical tradition.

He was cross-cultural in the warmest and most charming and sincere ways; he insisted on wearing a yarmulka when attending the Jewish wedding of a mutual friend of ours.

Despite the hardships he had experienced growing up in the south, the depredations of growing up as a Black person in that era, he never harbored personal resentment about any of it that I could tell towards any individual.  He had an immense sense of dignity and a conscious sense of his own worth and that of his colleagues as men and artists; race was a secondary consideration.  He would say that “music has no color”.  This was also what motivated his legendary photographic documentation.  History was important, preserving it is important, this music is important. And if one was sincere in wanting to learn, he was available.

I am a better person for having known Milt Hinton, tribal chief, The Judge!

We cannot live through the dead, but we can invite them to live through us.

I love him always and forever.

It would be an impudence to follow that with my own tales of Milt.

I will say only that the phrase I’ve taken as my title was spoken by Ruby Braff from the stage of The New School in New York City, at a “Jazz Ramble” concert produced by Hank O’Neal on April 8, 1973 — featuring Ruby, Sam Margolis, Benny Aronov, and Milt.  Ruby spoke the truth.  Thanks to Tom Hustad, whose BORN TO PLAY — the Ruby Braff discography — for helping me be exact in my recollection.

MILT autograph 1983

Fast forward to June 13, 2015.

I had been seriously ambivalent about going to this estate sale.  As I told more than one friend, I didn’t know whether I would be frozen at the door, or, once in, would burst into tears.  Happily, neither took place.  My spiritual guide and comic comrade on line (as opposed to “online”) was Scott Robinson, and we made the time spent waiting in the sun telling tales of Milt. (Later, I met Phil Stern, and we, too, talked of music, joy, and sorrow, of empires rising and falling.)

Here, thanks to Phil, is the promotional video created by the company running the sale:

By the time I was able to enter the house, sometime around 10:00, I discerned that much of the more glossy contents had already been sold.  (I would have bought a chair covered in plastic from this shrine without thinking twice.)  And I sensed that the house had — apparently — been unoccupied since Mona’s death in 2008.  It was not quiet indoors: people shouted and argued.  I was in the land of secular commerce rather than dear worship.  I do not know how many people going in knew who Milt was; before and after my time indoors, I explained what I could of his majesty to a number of people outside who simply had seen ESTATE SALE and stopped by.

I have a limited tolerance for loud voices in small spaces, so I did not look through the hundreds of records in the basement (in cardboard boxes on and in front of the couch on which Ben Webster had slept).  But I bought about ten of Milt’s lps — going back to the early Fifties, mostly records I’d not heard or heard of on which he played.  His collection — even when I got there — was broad, with children’s records and comedy as well.  And he collected his friends’ records also.

Sitting by themselves on top of a pile of books — two 78s.  One, a 1932 Brunswick, Connee Boswell performing HUMMIN’ TO MYSELF and THE NIGHT WHEN LOVE WAS BORN — which touched me and made me think of Milt as a young man rapt in the beauty of Connee’s voice and her wonderful accompaniment of the time (Berigan, the Dorsey Brothers, Dick McDonough, Artie Bernstein, Venuti, Stan King).

The other deserves its own picture.  It has been well-played, but that is a triumph rather than a criticism.

MILT 78Although Milt and Billie Holiday were not regularly recording together, their history on record is a long one — 1936 to 1959 — and I am sure he was proud of the music they made together.  I imagine Milt in 1939 bringing home this new release, which he would have been thrilled to possess and hear — perhaps showing his name on the label to his new bride. (Incidentally, the Brunswick people invented a new guitarist — Dave Barber — instead of properly identifying Milt’s dear comrade in the Cab Calloway band, Danny Barker.  The other side, WHAT SHALL I SAY? has the same error.)

Such a beloved artifact made all the clangor of commerce worthwhile, although I still think sadly of the rubble of mugs in the kitchen, the piles of posters, aging books and records.  Where did they go?  I hope that the rarer items had already gone to a place where they would be treasured.

Stu learned lessons about playing the bass from Milt that he couldn’t have learned any other way, and I celebrate his experience.  But I think we both learned much — even though we might not have understood it at the time — from these men who were, without proclaiming it, great spiritual parents.  We learn from the open-hearted behavior of the greatest teachers.

They treated us with gentleness and respect, an amused kindness, saying by their openness that we were welcome in their world.  No one ever said, “Kid, I’m busy now.  Go away.”

Our real parents might have taken our devotion for granted, or been very busy trying to make us become what they thought we should be, but many of these Elders were happy to know we existed — without trying to get us to buy anything from them.  They accepted our love, and I feel they welcomed it and returned it. In their music and their behavior, they taught by example: the value of beauty, of simplicity; how to say in a few notes something that would take the hearer years to fully grasp.  How to make our actions mean something.

We were able to see and hear and speak with the noblest artists on the planet, and it is an honor to celebrate one of them, The Judge, whose quiet modest majesty will never fade.

May your happiness increase!  

A TRIBUTE TO ED BEACH by DAN FORTE

Here’s a lovely first-hand tribute to the man who taught us so much about jazz — Ed Beach of New York’s now-departed WRVR-FM.

This is a guest column on the JAZZ COLLECTOR website (http://www.jazzcollector.com) by Dan Forté, who got closer to Ed Beach than any of us — we who were primarily close to our speakers — ever did.

Photograph courtesy of Marc and Evelyn Bernheim/Rapho Guillumette

Even if you never heard Ed’s JUST JAZZ, or JAZZ IN DRIVE TIME, or BEACH READS THROUGH A KEYHOLE, you will find this piece moving and generous.  And those of us who dream of hearing those programs again — even though CDs and downloads have hinted that Ed’s collection has been supplanted by the twenty-first century cornucopia — will learn how this is possible.

Read Dan’s piece here:

http://jazzcollector.com/guest-columns/guest-column-a-tribute-to-ed-beach/

And if you didn’t read about Ed on JAZZ LIVES, here’s my January 2010 remembrance:

https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/what-ed-beach-gave-us/

JUST PERFECT, THANK YOU

As a long-time jazz listener, I find myself mentally editing and revising many recordings (silently, without moving my lips).  “Tempo’s too fast for that song, “”That side would have been even better if the tempo had stayed steady,” or “Why couldn’t he have taken just one more chorus?”  Since the musicians can’t hear my silent amending and since the recordings remain their essential character, I think I am permitted this fussy but harmless pastime.  Fruitless, of course, but amusing exercises in alternate-universe construction that serious readers of fiction know well: every close reader is by definition an unpaid and unheard editor.  

But there are some jazz recordings no one could improve on.  Here are two flawless sides.     

This music was issued on a non-commercial V-Disc (“V” stands for Victory) recorded during the Second World War especially for the men and women in the armed forces.  The musicians gave their services for free; the sessions were supervised by (among others) George T. Simon; the discs were 12″ rather than the usual 10″, allowing for blessedly longer performances.  And many sessions took place after midnight, when the musicians had finished their gigs, lending them a certain looseness; as well, the recording companies gave up their usual restrictions, so that musicians under contract to one label were free to cross over from the land of, say, Victor, into Decca. 

This October 1943 session was led by Teddy Wilson (itself a near-guarantee of success); it is a quartet taken from his working sextet, which would have also included Benny Morton (trombone) and Johnny Williams or Al Hall (bass).  Perhaps those men were tired after a night’s work; perhaps they didn’t want to record without getting paid.  But as much as I revere Morton and Williams or Hall, the men who remained made irreplaceable music. 

What follows is a series of impressionistic notes on the music: keen listeners will hear much more as they immerse themselves in the music, as I’ve been doing for thirty-five years. 

The four voices are powerful ones — Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, and Joe Thomas — but this quartet is not a display of clashing ego.  Of the four, Thomas is least known, but his work here is deeply moving. 

After the little end-of-tune flourish that brings on Wilson’s (scripted) introduction, his harmonically-deep, crystalline lines and embellishments float over Sidney’s steady brush tread (forceful but not loud.  I think of the padding of a large animal in slippers).  Wilson’s second chorus is pushed forward by a Catlett accent early on; the two men dance above and around the chords and rhythm. 

In the third chorus, Hall joins them: as much as I admire the Goodman Trio, how unfortunate that this group never was asked to record — Hall’s tonal variations are beyond notating, in their own world. 

Thomas’s entry, clipped but mobile, provokes Catlett into tap-dance figures.  No one’s ever matched Joe’s tone, velvet with strength beneath it, the slight quavers and variations making it a human voice.  The annunciatory figure midway through his chorus is a trademark, those repeated notes looking backwards to 1927 Louis and forward to a yet-unrecorded Ruby Braff.  (Thomas was Frank Newton’s favorite trumpet player, a fact I can’t over-emphasize.)  He seems to stay close to the melody, but the little slurs and hesitations, the dancing emphases of particular notes are masterful, the result of a lifetime spent quietly embellishing the written music, making it entirely personal. 

And then Sidney comes on.  The sound of his brushwork is slightly muffled and muddied by the 78 surface, but his figures are joyous, especially his double-timing, the closing cymbal splashes.  Try to listen to his solo and remain absolutely still: hard, if not impossible! 

Then the ensemble plays (with everyone facing in the same direction, not breathing hard) a variation on the melody — something taken for granted well before the official birth of bop — with a jammed bridge in the middle.  Notice how Catlett and Wilson ornament and encourage the line that the two horns share.  And the side concludes with a little jam session finish (Sidney urging everyone on) with Thomas recalling the “Shoot the likker to me, John boy,” that was already a familiar convention perhaps eight years before. 

Incidentally, the swing players had discovered HOW HIGH THE MOON as early as 1940: Roy Eldridge and Benny Carter, guest stars on a Fred Rich Vocalion session in that year, improvise on it.

As delightful as I find HOW HIGH THE MOON, the masterpiece –subtler, sorrowing — is RUSSIAN LULLABY.  Berlin’s melody was already familiar, and I wonder what thoughts of the Russian Front might have been going through the heads of these four players, what political or global subtext. 

Often LULLABY is taken briskly, but this version is true to its title.  After Wilson’s introduction, Joe essays the melody: if he had recorded nothing else than this statement, I’d hail his unique trumpet voice: his tone, his vibrato, his use of space, his pacing.  Hall sings quietly behind him — but that soaring, melancholy bridge is a creation that is both of the trumpet and transcending it.  I hear the passion of an aria in those eight bars, with little self-dramatization.   

Wilson, following him, is serious, his lines restating and reshaping.  (Some listeners find Wilson’s arpeggios and runs so distracting that they miss out on his melodic invention: he was a superb composer-at-the-keyboard, and his solo lines, transcribed for a horn, would seem even more stunning.  Not accidentally, he learned a great deal about melodic embellishment and solo construction from his stint in Louis Armstrong’s 1933 band.) 

Keeping Wilson’s mood, Catlett plays very quietly, although you know he’s there.  Hall’s approach is more forceful and Catlett follows suit. 

Then . . . a drum solo?  At this tempo?  Most drummers would have found it hard to be as relaxed, as restrained.  He quietly paddles along in between the horns’ staccato reduction of the melody, making it clear that he is a serious servant of the rhythm, the time, devoted to the sound of the band — until he moves to double-time figures and two cymbal accents.  Music like this is deceptively simple: a casual listener might think it is easy to play in this manner, but how wrong that mild condescension would be!  Wilson and Catlett join forces for a momentary interlude before the horns return — Joe, sorrowing deep inside himself, Hall soaring. 

How marvelous that we have these two sides! 

Thanks to vdiscdaddy for posting them on YouTube; his channel is full of music worth hearing that has been hidden from us.  Thanks of a larger sort to Wilson, Thomas, Hall, and Catlett — brilliant creators who knew how to bring their individual selves together to create something brilliant, immortal.  And I don’t use the word “immortal” casually.

P.S.  I first heard these sides thanks to the late Ed Beach, and then savored them on an Italian bootleg lp on the Ariston label, THE V-DISC.  In 1990, they came out on CD — with an incomplete alternate take of RUSSIAN LULLABY — on the Vintage Jazz Classics label (TEDDY WILSON: CENTRAL AVENUE BLUES, VJC 1013-2), a production that brought together, although not face to face, John Fell, Doug Pomeroy, and Lloyd Rauch.  I don’t think a copy of that CD would be easy to find today, though.

ED BEACH: WHERE HE CAME FROM

Thanks to Carl Woideck for sharing this —

Edward Beach

January 4, 2010

Edward A. Beach, a Eugene resident who worked for 25 years in New York theater and radio, died December 25th. He was 85.

Beach was born January 16th, 1923, in Winnipeg, Canada, to Peter and Matilda Beach, and moved to Portland Oregon in 1950.

Educated at Grant High School, Lewis and Clark College, and as a graduate assistant in Cornell University’s Theatre Department, for most of the 1950s he worked in theatre as a professional actor. In 1957 he joined New York City’s WNYC; then from 1961 through 1976 produced and hosted a daily jazz show on that city’s WRVR-FM. By the mid-`60s he was recognized as “The Dean of Jazz Air Personalities,” winning awards for excellence in broadcasting from Jazz Interactions, Inc., and the Council of Churches of the City of New York. The distinguished composer-conductor-jazz historian Gunther Schuller, in his “Early Jazz” history’s Preface, thanked “Ed Beach and station WRVR in New York for providing endless hours of superb listening, for his indefatigable enthusiasm, incorruptible taste, and unpretentious, accurate comments.” The tape recordings of the program, Just Jazz with Ed Beach, are in the Library of Congress collections.

He returned to the Portland area with his family in 1977, and moved to Eugene in 1999.

He is survived by a son, Mark Peter, and grandsons Kamon Alexander, Jack Kamon, and Alex Kamon of Eugene.

Disposition was by cremation. A private family celebration of life will be scheduled. In lieu of flowers, donations in his name to The Child Center, 3995 Marcola Road, Springfield, OR 97477, 541-726-1465, are appreciated.

WHAT ED BEACH GAVE US

I’ve just learned that Ed Beach is dead.  He was 86 and had lived in Oregon (his home state) for a long time.  No service is planned, so people who recall him, love him, and love what he did will have to perform their own affectionate memorials in their heads.

Fittingly, for a man who spent his life as a voice coming through the speaker, there is no picture of Beach on Google Images.  But that voice — cavernous, drawling, amused, dragging out certain syllables — is here in my memory, and when people like myself who grew up listening to Beach speak of him, one of them will bring forth his cherished phrases and start laughing.

What I know of his biography is limited.  Oregon-born, he was a capable West Coast jazz pianist who admired Tatum and the early bop players.  How he got into radio I don’t know, but my first awareness of him began in 1969, when I saw in the New York Times that there was a two-hour program called (rather flatly) JUST JAZZ on the then reigning non-commercial New York jazz station, WRVR-FM, 106.7, broadcasting from the Riverside Church. 

That in itself was interesting: it was on two hours every weekday and for four hours on Saturday night.  In this age of digitized music and internet streaming, those hours may not seem like a great deal, but it was a boon even then.  And what caught my attention was the listing of a two-hour show on Lee Wiley, someone I’d read about but hadn’t heard.  (I’d read George Frazier’s love-besotted liner note reprinted in EDDIE CONDON’S TREASURY OF JAZZ.  More about that book and that piece sometime.)  So I found a new box of reel-to-reel tape and sat in front of the speaker while Ed Beach played Lee Wiley’s recordings and spoke in between them. 

I didn’t know at the time that I had uniwttingly encountered one of the great spiritual masters, someone who (along with the musicians themselves and Whitney Balliett) would teach me all that I needed to know about jazz.

Beach’s show began with his chosen theme — Wes Montgomery’s BLUES IN F — played softly as connecting-music in between the performances he wanted to share with us.  Then, that deep voice, introducing himself and the show, and offering a very brief sketch of the artist who was the show’s subject . . . and into the music.  He didn’t overwhelm with minutiae; he didn’t teach or preach.  (Yes, I am comparing him with the Phil Schaap of today, but defenders of Phil need not leap to his defense.  This is about Ed Beach.) 

Beach wasn’t terribly interested in full personnels, in the best sound quality, in the original label of issue, presenting alternate takes in sequence, arranging an artist’s career chronologically. 

Rather, his was an eclectic, human approach — as if you had been invited to a listening session with someone who had a large collection, was eager to share his beloved treasures, moving from track to track as delight and whim took him.  So his approach was personal, apparently casual — as one selection reminded him of another, not just for their apparent similarity, but for the juxtapositions and the range of an artist’s work he could show in two hours.  Someone like Lee, whose recorded career was compact (this was in 1969, before all those versions of LET’S CALL IT A DAY surfaced) could be covered well in two hours.  Other artists, with longer careers, got multi-part shows: four hours on Louis in the Thirties.  Beach’s range was wide: I remember shows on Rollins and on Johnny Dunn.  And — given his format — he didn’t replay his favorite recordings.  Ed Hall today, Hank Mobley tomorrow, and so on. 

In hearing and recording and rehearing those shows I was not only learning about performances and performers I hadn’t heard of (because much classic jazz was out of print and my budget was limited) but about a loving reverence for the music, a point of view that could shine the light on the ODJB and on Clifford Brown, without condescending to either.  He mixed reverence for the music and irreverence for things outside it (he was powerfully funny in an understated way).  He tried to teach us all what to listen to and how to listen to it.

Now, when we can buy the complete recordings of X — going for hours, with unissued material, arranged in sequence — a Beach show might seem a fragmentary overview.  And I remember the mixed feelings I had, perhaps thirty-five years ago, when my collection (in its narrow intense way) began to expand past what he had played — or, even given new discoveries — what he had known.  I had that odd sense of a student discovering something that his much-admired professor hadn’t had access to . . . mingled emotions for sure. 

(Beach also had a program, for some brief time, BEACH READS, where he did just that — in that resonant voice, purling his way in hilarious deadpan through S.J. Perelman.  I can hear those cadences now.  And he was just as articulate off the air.  I remember having a small dialogue with him through the mail.  Powerfully under the spell of Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES, I had written something negative to him about Red Nichols, accusing Nichols of being in it for the money.  Forty years later, I remember Beach’s sharp response: “Jazz musicians don’t play for cookies and carrots.”

All things, even Golden Eras that no one recognizes at the time, come to an end.  JUST JAZZ started to be aired at odd hours.  I set my alarm clock to get up at 7 AM on a Saturday morning to tape a two-hour Sidney Catlett show.  Pure jazz, without commercials, was not a paying proposition.  WRVR changed its programming schedule, putting Ed “in drive time,” airing brief jazz-related commercials (one of them was for the Master Jazz Recordings label — MJR of sainted memory) and then the station was sold.  I heard him again only on my deteriorating tapes and then only in my imagination.       

I hope that others who had the precious experience will share their memories of Ed — and perhaps this post will make its way to his family, so that they will know even more of how “Uncle Gabchin” or “Sam Seashore,” of the firm of “Wonder, Blunder, and Thunder,” some favorite self-mocking personae — how much Ed Beach was loved.  And remains so. 

Few people gave us so much, with so little fanfare, so generously.

SOUNDS GOOD TO ME

radio2Over the past forty years, I’ve spent many rewarding hours in front of the radio, listening to jazz.  My mother loved WPAT, a New Jersey easy listening station where the programmers had good taste and a real affection for Bobby Hackett.  Later, John S. Wilson played an hour of jazz once a week on WQXR.  Then, WRVR, with Ed Beach, Max Cole, and other luminaries; WBGO (thankfully still going strong with their jazz programming and “Jazz From the Archives,” often hosted by Dan Morgenstern).  There’s WKCR — with Phil Schaap, of course, but also Sid Gribetz, Ben Young, and others. Rich Conaty, of “The Big Broadcast” on WFUV and Jonathan Schwartz on WNYC still offer up the good noise.  Once in a while, I could even hear Humphrey Lyttelton on BBC shortwave.  And I am sure I have left someone out.

Thanks to Dave Weiner at Hofstra, who hosted his own “Swing Years,” I took my own leap into college radio, circa 1982.  I invented an hour-long show, “Rarities,” where I could play Thirties blue-label Deccas; consider the career of Lou McGarity, and amuse myself for a splendidly small audience.

Perhaps ten years ago, tuning around the bottom end of the FM dial, where the non-commercial radio stations huddle together for shelter, I heard an assortment of jazz records being played — no announcements, no explanation, and apparently no order.  I would turn to this station when I was ready to go to sleep, but (in that state of fuzzy half-awareness, so oddly precious) I noticed that some of their randomness seemed planned.  They would be offering the same groupings of music at the same time each night — for instance, an Arbors CD featuring Dan Barrett and Becky Kilgore.  Then the light bulb — admittedly one of low wattage — went on.  They had organized everything alphabetically by title: “I Thought About You,” “I Wished On The Moon,” “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me.”  Now, whenever I turn to the “Songs” listing on my iPod, I think of that anonymous radio station.

However, jazz on the radio is hardly proliferating now.  But some people have discovered that they can get around the costly necessities of a “real” radio station by means of the internet.  The OKOM people were perhaps the first to do this.

Now, I’ve learned that “PURE JAZZ RADIO” is coming on January 1, 2009.  Rich Keith, who also lives on this island, has let me know that his project will be to play jazz classics 24/7 with time for Frank Sinatra on Sundays.  Visit his site http://www.purejazzradio.com for more information. 

Some days I look at the pile of CDs next to the computer that have to be listened to so that I can review them, and those I’ve just bought, and think the heretical thought, “Is it possible you have too much music here?”  But even in those moments, a new jazz radio station devoted to jazz (!) is an enterprise worth investigating.  Good luck, Rich!

I CONFESS! A JAZZ CRIMINAL TELLS ALL

If the phonograph record had never been invented, jazz might have remained a local art form heard only on a visit to New Orleans.  Charlie Parker might well be only a remote name, an unheard legend to listeners born after 1955. 

Phonograph records are objects that make music accessible and permanent, and I grew up surrounded by them.  My father, a motion picture projectionist, was also expected to be an unpaid disc jockey, someone who would fill the theatre with music between shows by spinning records from the projection booth.  I remember his story of the first explosion of rock ‘n’ roll.  During an intermission, he reached for a record whose title meant nothing to him, put it on with the volume turned off in the booth, and turned back to his book.  Then the theatre manger called him in a near-frenzy, “Take that God-damned record off!  The kids are dancing on the seats and ripping up the theatre!” 

It was the famous (or infamous) record here.   

As 78 rpm records gave way to microgroove, my father would occasionally bring an outmoded record home rather than see it thrown away.  He was intrigued by technology, and we had a Revere reel-to-reel tape recorder, which I learned how to use early on. 

Later, around 1968, he brought home something new, a portable cassette recorder and a few blank tapes. 

By this time, I had become converted to jazz, which I thought of as my music.  It as a secret pleasure: I thought of myself as a subversive, listening to Louis while everyone around me was deeply absorbed by rock.  In my suburban hermitage, I recorded jazz radio shows — John S. Wilson’s “World of Jazz,” Ed Beach’s “Just Jazz,” and made them my soundtrack.  Records were not easy to get and I couldn’t afford all that I wanted, so the idea of tape-recording a precious performance and listening to it over and over shaped my first experiences of the music.  I lived for the moment when everything seemed cosmically aligned: Beach would be playing two hours of rare Jo Jones records on WRVR-FM; I would be home at the right time with a reel of blank tape; I could listen to it while the show was being broadcast; I would tape it to hear it again.  It would become mine.  In my memory, I can see those tape boxes, each one holding a precious hour or two of Buck Clayton, of 1940 Ellington, or Lee Wiley.    

I grew up on Long Island, an environment defined by the distance from one shopping mall to the next, and I recognize its inherent provincialism.  But for someone like myself, entranced by jazz, being born there rather than in Cape Breton was great good fortune.  In The New Yorker, I could read the names of musicians I had heard on radio or records.  They were playing live in New York City, an hour away by train and subway or car.          

I do not remember the details of the first live jazz I heard in Manhattan.  Was it in Town Hall or the Half Note?  But I prepared for this precious experience by bringing my cassette recorder with me.  It seemed logical rather than perverse to be a jazz anthropologist, a swing explorer.  Vasco DaGama of Dixieland, if you will.  I could poke my nose beyond my comfortable suburban environment, venture into the uncharted City, capture a performance live and return home with the reward.  Not gold or pepper or notes on the marriage rituals in New Guinea, but a homemade recording, however flawed, of the music I had heard last night.  A prize — to revisit, to study, to treasure.

Of course the idea wasn’t new.  Jazz enthusiasts had been capturing the music in its native habitat since the Thirties, perhaps earlier.  I had read about airshots, “on location” acetates, and live recordings, essential parts of jazz’s mythology.  That these recordings had often been made secretly by amateurs happily breaking the rules was even better.  Their illicit behavior was evidence of deep devotion to the art.  They wanted to keep what they had heard once from vanishing forever.  Even though I didn’t think about the implications of what I wanted to do, I now think there was a touch of late-Sixties political rebellion implicit in it.  Why should the recording companies control the music, and why should I be deprived of doing so?  When I had seen Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars in 1967, I had been too naive to bring my Instamatic camera to take twelve snapshots.  Now Louis was dead, and I had only an autograph and my memory of what he had looked like, what he had played. 

I was not sufficiently prideful or self-deluded to think of myself as the Long Island reincarnation of Jerry Newman at Minton’s or Dean Benedetti in search of Bird.  But perhaps I could capture a memorable chorus or ensemble, even in low-fidelity.  Would it become valuable over time?  What did that matter?  It would be precious now.          

This may strike some readers as more peculiar than collecting stamps or baseball cards.  Some jazz-lovers may be satisfied to hear a beautiful performance once, never again.  But this art is so splendidly evanescent that the thought of it going away is nearly painful.  It cries out to be preserved.  In terms of jazz’s brief chronological history, I am a late-comer.  Many of the great players were dead by the late Sixties; many of their portraits greeted me when I turned to the obituary page of The New York Times: I saved those clippings until the sheaf got too depressing.  It felt as if all the creators were leaving town, and this may have goaded me into illicit tape-recording as a way of snaring what moments I could before it was too late. 

I would never see PeeWee Russell or Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins or Rex Stewart . . . but when Benny Morton or Jimmy Rushing played a gig, I would not let their sounds escape me.   

Thus my life of crime began.  Being a criminal is difficult, let me tell you.         

Many club-owners did not care about a couple of college kids with their cassette recorder, sitting as close to the bandstand as possible, as long as the kids bought beer or hamburgers at regular intervals, but some establishments were very serious about such infractions.  I nearly got thrown out of the Village Vanguard a few years ago when the waiter noticed something glittering in my lap – a minidisc recorder, its display a bright phosphorescent blue.  He said that I could stop recording right now or I would have to leave, in tones that suggested New York’s finest were pounding down Seventh Avenue South in hot pursuit of Another Jazz Miscreant.        

And it was even worse in larger places, with notices hanging everywhere that The Taking Of Photographs and The Use Of Recording Devices Is Prohibited By Law.  But I had seen that the ushers were not athletic enough to arrest everyone with a tiny Kodak (flashbulbs went off at many performances) so I thought that I might get away with my criminalities.  I became sly, sidling into a concert hall with a blue plastic shoulder bag, trying to look nonchalant, always a failed enterprise.  The bag held a newspaper or magazine – a thin subterfuge – covering my cassette recorder, a $60 Shure microphone, and extra batteries.  Illegal and delicious.  I evaded what I thought were the peering eyes of the usher, usually someone who wanted only to give me a program and seat me in the right place, then scuttle away.  In the semi-darkness, while people talked, rattled their programs, unwrapped their cough drops, I would connect the microphone to the recorder and drop the heavy wire down through the sleeve of my jacket so that the microphone could be hidden in my lap.  I knew that my applause –the sound of two hands clapping — would be deafening on the tape, so I learned to look enthusiastic while pretending to clap. 

Emboldened by success, I brought a tape recorder to nearly every jazz performance I could.  Sometimes those tapes, heard the next day, were mediocre: routine music, badly recorded, turns out to be not worth the effort.  Occasionally, there were what college radio stations call “technical difficulties” and I had recorded nothing.  In those cases, crime certainly did not pay.  But I captured hours and hours of jazz that gave me pleasure.  Even the roll call of the players delights me now: just to think of pianists, I come up with Earl Hines, Eubie Blake, Dick Wellstood, Art Hodes, Joe Bushkin, Dave McKenna, Jimmy Andrews, Count Basie, Mark Shane, Teddy Wilson, Dick Hyman, Bill Evans, Jimmy Rowles, Ralph Sutton, Dill Jones, Hank Jones, Claude Hopkins, Chuck Folds, Don Friedman, Red Richards, Ellis Larkins, and two dozen others. 

Concert halls were usually terrible places for surreptitious recording because they were often terrible places to hear music.  The sound technicians at Carnegie Hall, for instance, where many of the Newport-New York concerts were held, apparently took perverse pleasure in making the piano sound as much unlike itself as possible.  The eye saw Teddy Wilson seated at a Steinway: the ear heard metal striking metal.  And you can imagine the acoustics at the top of Radio City Music Hall.  At the first of the 1972 jam sessions, Stu Zimny and I were seated in what seemed the upper reaches of the earth, next to a pair of Texas women who whooped happily when Gene Krupa hit his splash cymbal or when Roy Eldridge went for a high note.  Before the concert and during it, they most cordially offered us whiskey from bottles they had hidden in their pocketbooks; not to be outdone in gallantry, I offered them chocolate.  Both of us stuck to the stimulants we knew best.  But I cannot complain.  When I hear those tapes again, their exuberant hollering is part of the experience of the music, of having been there.      

Small clubs were easier to record in, and there was a better chance to be forgiven my wickedness, especially if I had spoken to the musicians beforehand and gotten their permission.  Since I looked at my jazz heroes with reverence, this approach often worked.  Kenny Davern, who had a powerful prejudice against playing into a microphone, showed me how to set mine so that it would record effectively.  Ruby Braff got so used to me and my friends that he dubbed us “Tapes,” as in, “Hey, Tapes!” when he saw us.  

One Sunday in 1972, Bobby Hackett, a gracious man, looked down at my brand-new Teac reel-to-reel recorder, perhaps forty pounds, that I had lugged into Your Father’s Mustache in hopes of recording him.  I was sweating already, and his noticing the machine made me even more moist, from anxiety.  What if he growled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  But all he said was, mildly, “What brand is that?”  And when I told him, he smiled and said, “I have one like it at home,” and went about the business of getting ready for the gig.     

But my criminality wasn’t always well-received.  The trumpeter Joe Thomas fretted about our taping him at an outdoor concert in Battery Park.  He was insistent that that “the union man” would find us out and that he would get in trouble.  I don’t remember how we soothed his fears (did we hide the recorder in a flowerbed?) but it took a good deal of placating before he let us go ahead. 

Some musicians were unwilling to be taped, and, in retrospect, I can’t blame them.  Perhaps someone unscrupulous had taken advantage in the past.  The pianist Cyril Haynes refused to play a note until I put my recorder away.  

I can see in my mind’s eye the brilliantly eccentric trombonist Dicky Wells, at the back of the bandstand clogged with other musicians, shaking his head from side to side in vehement “No-no-no!” and waving his arm and outstretched index finger in energetic arcs.  I remember a session featuring cornetist Wild Bill Davison, where I set up my microphone right under the bell of his horn.  He asked, gruffly, “Are you planning to record me with that?”  “Yes, Mr. Davison,” I politely replied.  “Well, that will cost you one Scotch now and one for each set you record,” he said in what seems now to have been a well-rehearsed speech.  I considered my budget for a moment and put the recorder back in the bag.  Was he disappointed at the failure of his bargain?  I couldn’t tell. 

Many players looked horrified and refused, politely but vigorously, when I asked if they wanted me to mail them a copy of what they had just played.  Was it modesty?  Perhaps they had no particular desire to relive what they had done in what was supposed to be an informal situation.  I recall Ray Nance playing splendidly as part of a large ad-hoc ensemble at a Queens College concert (with Joe Newman, Garnett Brown, Hank Jones, Milt Hinton, Al Foster, and others), and I recorded it from the audience.  Some months later, he appeared for a few nights at a tiny local club that had – for whatever reason – ventured into jazz.  Few people came to hear him, and on the second night, I brought a tape copy of that concert, approached him and offered it to him, thinking I was giving him a present.  He was pleasant enough, but I recall his looking at the box, now his, with mild puzzlement, as if I had given him a parakeet or a box of raisins.     

But taping made for delightfully weird interchanges with some players, made more aware of our presence by the machinery set in front of them.  Ruby Braff came over to Rob Rothberg and myself during a set-break one Tuesday night when he was guest star at the 54th Street Eddie Condon’s.  He peered at the small notebook in which I was writing down personnel and song titles for future reference.  “What is that?” he asked.  I showed him, and he said, “Want my autograph?”  “Sure,” I said, although we had met a dozen or more times already.  He took my pen and spent more time than I expected before handing the book to me, proudly chortling.  He had drawn a pistol, smoke curling out of its muzzle, with “Lucky Luciano” signed boldly beneath it.  A fellow law-breaker!     

After beginning my life of crime, in a few years I had piles of tapes, annotated and organized.  It may have made no sense to anyone not a member of the jazz world, but it meant that I could hear Vic Dickenson play Louis’s famous WEST END BLUES, the cadenza note-for-note, as he had in an outdoor concert at Port Jefferson, New York.  I could hear Marty Grosz sing ISN’T LOVE THE STRANGEST THING, as he did when Soprano Summit appeared at the Jazz Museum in midtown.  On a precious cassette, I still have perhaps ten minutes of what might have been the ultimate small group — Hackett, Vic, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones — strolling through JUST YOU, JUST ME, BODY AND SOUL, and a slow blues — from a Newport concert in 1974. 

Having these tapes did not prevent any of my heroes from dying, but bits and pieces of their music have been saved.

But “saved” is, alas, an overstatement.  The blank tapes I used were thin and inexpensive; even the best ones were inherently fragile.  The coating flaked off, or their sound got dimmer and dimmer.  So I no longer have many of my original tapes, surely an irony in itself.  In my mind’s ear, I hear Al Cohn, Joe Newman, and Zoot Sims surging through THE RED DOOR and MOTORING ALONG at a Town Hall concert sponsored by Dick Gibson (was it 1970?).  The tape has been gone for years, proving that all things fall or decay, that objects disintegrate or scurry away, beyond our reach.  I didn’t succeed in making permanent records, or at least the tapes I made proved to be impermanent.  But the idea of capturing — or nearly-capturing — jazz in full flight appealed to me then and continues to now.

And (as a postscript) such taping allowed me to make friends from Florida to Westoverledingen, Germany – friends who also loved the music and broke the rules.  I will write about such partners-in-crime in a future posting, among them the brilliant and generous John L. Fell. 

My crimes continue unabated, I state proudly.  The ancient cassette recorder gave way to a Sony minidisc recorder in 2005, thanks to my mentor Kevin Dorn, and I try to be an ethical, polite lawbreaker and ask the musicians’ permission to record whenever possible.  But if you see me in a club, vigorously enjoying the music, nodding my head, smiling broadly, but not applauding, you can be fairly sure that I am continuing my wicked (although fairly harmless) ways.  Come say hello – but not while the music is playing, if you don’t mind.      

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.     

 

I THOUGHT I HEARD RUBY BRAFF SAY

In 1971, when I read in The New Yorker that cornetist Ruby Braff was going to play a week at the Half Note in New York City, this was exciting news. I had first heard his playing on one of the famous Vanguard recordings, The Vic Dickenson Showcase. On “Everybody Loves My Baby” and “Old-Fashioned Love,” he had added remarkable deep indigo shadings to the ensembles, his solos mixing melodic embellishment, passionate surs and moans.

Soon after, the legendary jazz broadcaster Ed Beach devoted four hours to Ruby on WRVR-FM, and I began to search out his records. In the Fifties, Ruby had been in the studios with the best players: Lee Wiley, Coleman Hawkins, Dave McKenna, Lawrence Brown, PeeWee Russell, Benny Morton, Jo Jones, Walter Page . . . and he was featured as a member of George Wein’s Newport All-Stars.

What Wein has done for jazz in the last half-century and more with the Newport Jazz Festival and its incarnations is beyond dispute. But he is in the odd position of being simultaneously an impresario and a musician of limited gifts who saw it as his right to play in the bands he sponsored and hired. The pleasure he takes in playing is visible, but no one ever wished a Wein solo longer, no one ever delighted in the subtlety of his accompaniment. But he got gigs, he loved Ruby. Ruby derided him in interviews and no doubt in person but accepted the gigs.

Shortly before the Half Note gig, I had just bought Wein’s newest record — “George Wein and the Newport All-Stars” on Atlantic, featuring Ruby, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Red Norvo, Larry Ridley, and Don Lamond. And Wein, of course. The players were superb soloists but there was little ensemble unity. One of the high points, I thought, was Ruby’s lovely solo on “My Melancholy Baby.”

Full of anticipation. I went to the Half Note with two friends, Stu Zimny and Rob Rothberg, both of whom were equally excited about seeing Ruby. Being bold, Stu had driven us from our suburban familiarities to the unknown reaches of West Greenwich Village (the Half Note was on the corner of Spring and Hudson Streets, no longer uncharted territory); Rob, an amateur trumpet player, had brought a rare record — Ruby with Ellis Larkins — for Ruby to autograph.

We came into the club, which was typically small and dark, with a raised stage at one end of the room, under it the bar. Ruby was standing nearby. He wore a blazer and tie. I had expected him to be diminutive, and he was, with a cigarette in one hand. We approached him.

I was meeting one of my idols, someone I had spent hours listening to. I had Braff solos by heart and could call them to memory. I was nervous and eager. Being a respectful nineteen-year old, I called Ruby “Mr. Braff,” told him that I loved his playing and had been collecting his records. He may have smiled. What I do remember most clearly is this exchange:

Me: “I especially like the solo you played on ‘My Melancholy Baby’ on the new Newport All-Stars record.”

Ruby: “That shit?”

Me: Embarrassed silence. When I replay this scene in my mind, I say something elegant, perhaps, “Well, I liked it,” but I don’t know if courage deserted me. The music Ruby played that night (and I illicitly recorded) is another story, but that was my first introduction to him in person.