Tag Archives: Eddie Cantor

TEDDY BUNN, GUITAR

It’s that point in the semester when I end up having more informal conversations with students about their aspirations.  Today I was talking to a young man who is taking a jazz course and plays guitar.  Blues guitar, it turns out.  Immediately, I said, “I’m going to give you homework.  Listen to Teddy Bunn!” and he copied down the unfamiliar name.  Over the years, I’ve urged other guitar-playing students to devote themselves to Teddy Bunn’s recorded work.  Today, for the first time, I thought to myself, “Why Teddy Bunn rather than Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt?”

For me, the answer is in Bunn’s emotional accessibility.  To young guitarists raised on flamethrowing displays of technique (usually electrified) Bunn might sound unambitious.  But he has a country-blues depth of feeling: his simple phrases come from someplace that belies his birthplace — Freeport, Long Island, perhaps twenty-five miles from where I am now writing and certainly miles away from the Mississippi Delta.  His blues phrases are plain-spoken, logical, affecting.  But he also has a distinctly urban swing: if you had Teddy Bunn in your rhythm section, you hardly needed anyone else.

And I am always trying to consider what my students might have heard before — and how my frankly antiquarian tastes in music will strike them.  To get to Charlie Christian, they have to get past the “Swing Era” in the person of Benny Goodman, although I suppose some of them could go directly to Jerry Newman’s recordings of Christian, uptown.  And to get to Django, they have to make a detour around Grappelly and the Quintet.

Bunn’s simplicity is deceptive.  It would please me immensely to have one of my self-possessed young players say to himself, “Oh, I can do that,” and try to duplicate a Bunn solo — a simple twelve bars — and then realize that his imitation was lacking something essential — perhaps in its tonal qualities or its rhythmic subtleties.  I imagine that Teddy Bunn might teach someone more about inventiveness and humility than I had been able to in fifteen weeks in a classroom.  (Charles Peterson caught him in action at a 1939 Blue Note session with trumpeter Frank Newton, who is standing in front of Sidney Catlett . . . fast company!)

A place to find out some more about Teddy Bunn is Mike Kremer’s CLASSIC JAZZ GUITAR site, http://classicjazzguitar.com/aboutus/about_us.jsp, the source of the images here.

During his lifetime, everyone knew about Teddy Bunn.  Sammy Price called him for the Decca “race records” sessions of the late Thirties; he was a charter member of the Spirits of Rhythm, also accompanying Ella Logan and Red McKenzie; he sat in with the Ellington band in 1929; Mezzrow and Bechet made good use of his talents, as did Hot Lips Page, Clarence Profit, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, and Spencer Williams.  Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff made him part of their early Blue Note sessions and gave him a four-song solo date of his own.  Later on, he pops up (now playing electric guitar) with Lionel Hampton, Hadda Brooks, and others.  Unfortunately, he didn’t get much attention in the Fifties, and a combination of poor health, early rock ‘n’ roll, and gigs in Hawaii kept him out of the public eye as far as jazz was concerned.  I do recall a late interview (done by Peter Tanner for JAZZ JOURNAL, if memory serves me) where Bunn talked about his older recordings and was thrilled to hear them again.

Here are some samples of the man whose name comes first to my lips when the subject of blues guitar comes into the conversation:

IF YOU SEE ME COMIN’ is from 1938, and shows Teddy Bunn’s talents in three ways — first, as a singer, intense yet understated; second, with some of those same characteristics in his solo (notice how he lets his notes ring, how he doesn’t feel the need to fill up the spaces); third, as a rhythm player.  Who’s the pianist?  There isn’t any — those harmonies and rhythmic pushes you hear are Teddy’s.  The other musicians on this date are the co-leaders Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Tommy Ladnier, trumpet; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.  (The player closest in spirit to Bunn on this record is Ladnier, who has just been chronicled with eloquent thoroughness in Dan Verhettes’ book TRAVELLIN’ BLUES.)

Here’s I GOT RHYTHM, recorded in 1933 by the Spirits of Rhythm, featuring the irreplaceable singer Leo Watson, Douglas and Wilbur Daniels on tipples (which I believe are twelve-string versions of ukuleles), Teddy Bunn — whose solo and trades come after Leo’s vocal episodes — and Virgil Scoggins on “drums,” more likely whiskbrooms on a brown-paper-covered suitcase:

And two reasonably unsatisfying film clips (from the point of view of hearing Teddy Bunn play) although they offer other rare delights.  TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY, comes from the 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS, and is out of synch.  It is mainly given over to Leo Watson (which is not a problem) but it shows us Teddy Bunn on electric guitar.  I’ll even ignore that the clip shows Black musicians as having to be distracted from their onstage crap game to perform their act — on a particularly terrible song:

And a new find — the 1941 equivalent of a Soundie, obviously terribly low-budget, which brings together Jackie Greene, impersonating Eddie Cantor, and the “Five Spirits of Rhythm,” who are here cast as railroad porters in charge of shoe-shines.  Here we don’t see Bunn playing but his electric guitar is quite audible on the soundtrack.  But it’s a reminder of how badly Black performers were treated in films until years later (even with such luminaries as Sam Coslow and Dudley Murphy supervising).  There’s comedy, cheesecake, and a good deal of Greene rolling his eyes.  At least the Spirits get to hold out their hands for their tip at the end:

I don’t want to overstate Teddy Bunn’s place in the history of jazz.  He did most often find himself playing the blues, or playing thirty-two bar songs with a deep blues flavoring.  His solos tended to be variations on simple motifs, and his later playing had lost some of its spark, its inventiveness.  When he took up the electric guitar, his identifiable acoustic sound was blurred, and his solos sound rather familiar.

But in his prime he was a remarkable musician, and I look forward to the day when one of my students (or former students) says that hearing Teddy Bunn was a marvelous — even if not life-changing — experience.

Advertisements

ANDY SCHUMM SHINES!

I didn’t stumble upon the title for its alliterative possibilities, for that’s just what Andy did, side by side with his Noble Friends — Bob Havens, Scott Robinson, Andy Stein, James Dapogny, Marty Grosz, Vince Giordano, and Arnie Kinsella (a peerless rhythm section there) — recorded at Jazz at Chautauqua, Saturday, September 19, 2009.  Here are four performances, three of which hark back to Andy’s hero, Bix Beiderbecke.

We begin with LOUISE (which, for me, brings together Bing Crosby and Lester Young) and a lovely rocking performance notable, among other things, for one of Scott Robinson’s heartfelt, floating solos:

Again summoning up Bing (and the Rhythm Boys) as well as Bix, Andy turned to RHYTHM KING:

Then, taking a slight detour into Red Nichols territory — both a 1927 recording featuring Pee Wee Russell and Adrian Rollini and the 1929 Vitaphone short film . . . to perform Eddie Cantor’s theme, IDA, with Andy making a joke at his own expense about his considerable jazz erudition:

Finally, a mysterious homage to Bix and his Rhythm Jugglers, with a song that they tried to record and never got on wax, NO-ONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT.  Hardly a memorable composition but Scott Robinson romps.  (I told Andy after this session that he was allowed to say that RHYTHM KING was his theme song, but not this . . . We’ll see!)

A young man who holds his own among the Jazz Masters, as the evidence here proves . . . .

CANGELOSI CARDS: LIGHTNING IN THE DARKNESS

Often, when the Beloved and I go to a wonderful restaurant the second time, hoping to repeat the delicious experiences, Disappointment is one of the specials, on or off the menu.  What was blissful now seems formulaic; the shine is off of everything.

So I am thrilled to report that I dared the Fates and went back to Banjo Jim’s last night to repeat the experience of one week earlier — seeing the Cangelosi Cards perform on a Monday night.

And I brought a friend: the clarinetist and reed explorer / jazz scholar / memoirist Leroy “Sam” Parkins, whose words you’ve been reading in these pages.

Or, rather, he couldn’t stay away.  He had seen my January 30 posting about the Cards: CANGELOSI CARDS: SWEET SATORI! and wondered what they were like in person, and if he should bring his “Klarinette.”  I gave him encouraging answers to both questions.  The result was that Sam sat next to me right in front of the band for the first four songs (you’ll see them below) transfixed.  In fact, if you listen closely, you’ll hear an astonished man’s voice commenting on what’s going on in a kind of jazz rapture.

Tamar and Jake were happy to meet him and delighted with the idea that he wanted to sit in once the band got itself into its groove.

The Cards began as a band-within-the-band (a neat trick for such a compact touring ensemble) in Hot Club style.  Tamar Korn stood at our left, and you’ll see Karl Meyer on violin, Marcus Millius on harmonica, Jake Sanders on guitar, and Cassidy Holden on bass, pizzicato and arco both.  Everyone was in splendid form, with solo honors often going to Jake and Cassidy, both of whom soloed at greater length than I had heard them do a week ago.

The set began unusually with a soulful rendition of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, one of those songs (like GOODNIGHT, SWEETHEART) I expect bands to play at the end of the night, the close of the gig.  Here it was a wistful jumping-off place, quite remarkable.

Then, another piece associated with farewells (what was going through everyone’s mind?): AFTER YOU’VE GONE.

Gordon Webster, pianist of note, came in just in time to join the Cards on EXACTLY LIKE YOU — which I think of as ‘ZACKLY — and he was more than welcome.

Another admonitory song (in the “you’d better watch your step” mode) followed: SOME OF THESE DAYS.

Next to me, Sam alternated between rapture and impatience — this, after all, is truly his music, the sounds he grew up with.  Ever the instigator, I suggested he politely let everyone see that his clarinet was assembled, the reed properly moist and seated happily in the ligature . . . and it worked.  He was invited to the bandstand (an illusion at Banjo Jim’s) and, even better, the estimable trombonist Matt Musselman and Dennis Lichtman (usually on clarinet but initially doubling mandolin with great style and skill) came in.

Once the front line (actually leaning against the back wall and window) had settled itself in and introductions had been accomplished, someone asked Sam if he knew IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE.  This courtesy made me smile: it’s graciousness of the highest order when the members of the band want to make sure that the newcomer is comfortable with their repertoire.  But it was a kindness that Sam didn’t need, as he smiled gently and said that it was the first song he had learned to play as a young man in the Thirties.  He has an innate gleeful sense of his environment, and he let them know how pleased he was that they had chosen something that was in his very capillaries.)

And did they swing out.  Catch Matt grinning while Sam plays, and notice that although Tamar has taken her inspiration from Fats Waller’s recording (always a good idea!) that her scat singing goes deep inside.  It’s plaintive and nearly primitive, reaching back before recordings.

After a sweet, long MOONGLOW and a deep-down TISHOMINGO BLUES (not visible here because so many eager, expert dancers — including the nimbly stomping Mimi Terris — obscured Flip’s view), the Cards decided to end their set with another surprise.  Eddie Cantor’s theme, IDA, SWEET AS APPLE CIDER, is almost always done at a medium tempo.  Red Nichols took it very slowly; Eddie Condon (twenty years later) repeated the same wonderful idea (Pee Wee Russell in charge, both times).  But I’d really never heard it done as a stomp — which it is here. (Incidentally, all the percussive accents you hear in these clips are Tamar’s inventions.)

When this set was over, I was both elated and drained.  I had said I would stay for the second one, but I ended up taking my leave by saying to Tamar, “I’m full!  I don’t need to hear any more music,” and I happily drove home, thinking about the experience — which is at once jazz, country, Hot Club stomp, and music with a timeless yearning delicacy.  And a good deal of my pleasure is that Flip and I can share essential portions of it with you.

It just might be that the Cards are a pleasure we can go back to again and again with no diminuition of joy or insight.  At least I can testify that their brand of heartfelt, romping lightning struck twice — in the same place, no less.