Tag Archives: Elvis Presley

JOHN GILL SINGS A SAD SONG FOR THE HOLIDAYS

Our hero John Gill says, “Everyone has a little Elvis in them somewhere,” and he proved this once again at Terry Waldo’s Sunday gig (December 18) down in the darkness of Fat Cat, 75 Christopher Street, New York City.  There’s a direct line from Presley to Gill to us, and this song is my idea of a healthy corrective to all the manufactured holiday cheer.

John Gill by Marce Enright / New England Traditional Jazz Plus

John Gill by Marce Enright / New England Traditional Jazz Plus

John’s colleagues, helping him find his way on his dark indigo quest, are Terry Waldo, piano; Brian Nalepka, string bass; Jay Lepley, drums; Jim Fryer, trombone; Evan Arntzen, reeds; Jon-Erik Kellso, cornet.

May your happiness increase!

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DEBRA’S PLATTER PARTY (1952-1953)

I imagine a teenager, Debra, who has her friends over in her parents’ rec room, perhaps the den, perhaps the basement with knotty pine walls.  Her little brother wants to come and join them but Debra firmly refuses.  This is for her friends, not for twirps.  Debra and  her friends have a few bottles of soda which they pour into aluminum tumblers; there is a bag of potato chips.  But the main focus is the music.

RCA 45

Debra has a pile of new 45 rom records and she has gotten a special record player for her birthday — one of those with a big center spindle.

She stacks up a pile of the current hits: Les Paul and Mary Ford, Tony Bennett, Percy Faith, Jo Stafford, Frankie Laine, Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Perry Como, Teresa Brewer, Kay Starr, Leroy Anderson, Al Martino, and someone the kids don’t immediately recognize.  He sings familiar songs: COLD COLD HEART, BECAUSE OF YOU, MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE, I’LL KEEP THE LOVELIGHT BURNING.

He has an unusual voice — rough yet tender — and there is a really impressive trumpet player on the records.  “Who is that singing, Debra?” one of the girls asks.  “Don’t you know Satchmo?” Debra responds.  “Satchmo?” says Julie.  “What kind of name is Satchmo?”  “Oh, that’s Louis Armstrong,” another friend pipes in.  “He’s a jazz musician.  My parents listen to him all the time.”  “He sounds really good,” says Julie.  “Let me see the record,” says one of the other girls.

And so taste is formed.

satchmo serenades

And, yes, there was life before Bill Haley and his Comets, before Elvis.

These ruminations are the result of a trip to a fabled flea market in Alameda, California, where the only thing either of us purchased was this set of two extended-play 45 rpm records — for a dollar.

I have invented the little scenario above because my copy is well-loved and well-played, and Debra wrote her name on the front cover and on the label of each record.  They were hers, you know, and she wasn’t going to get them mixed up with anyone else’s records.

There was a time when “popular music” wasn’t so energetically polarized, when people gathered communally to listen to records, to enjoy, to comment, to discuss.  Life before earbuds.  When Satchmo serenaded, and no one recoiled from “jazz,” or “Dixieland,” or “your parents’ music.”

We can’t bring back those days — or can we?  Play some music for a friend or colleague or family member . . . see if you can send them some old-fashioned good vibrations.  I’m going to play SATCHMO SERENADES when I get back to New York.

Where is Debra?

May your happiness increase.

JOHN GILL’S AMERICAN SONGS: PART ONE (May 30, 2012)

Although John Gill is soft-spoken and wryly modest, he’s an extraordinary figure.  It’s not just that he is a swinging banjoist, guitarist, drummer, and trombonist.  It’s not merely that he is an intuitively fine bandleader: his bands have a certain serious lope, and the musicians look happy (no small thing).  It’s not simply that he is a splendidly moving singer.

What makes John unique to me is the range and depth of his musical imagination.  Many musicians have found a repertoire they prefer and it becomes their identity: when you go to hear X, you know that (s)he will play RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE.  Y will break out one of the OLOGY tunes — ANTHROP or ORNITH.  Z likes SATIN DOLL.

But John Gill’s world isn’t narrowly defined by one group of songs, one “genre,” one “style.”  His knowledge of American music and performance styles is long, deep, and wide.  In his spacious imagination, Bix and Louis visit Bing and Pat Boone; Elvis has coffee with Jolson; they hang out with Hank Williams and Buddy Holly, while Johnny Dodds, Billy Murray, Turk Murphy, and Lu Watters gossip about Tommy Rockwell and what’s new at the OKeh studios.  Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker talk fashion; Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, and W. C. Handy compare royalty statements.  King Oliver lifts the sugar bowl from Scott Joplin’s table, and Jimmie Rodgers does the Shim-me-Sha-Wabble.

When John is in charge, none of this seems synthetic or forced; you never hear the sound of gears changing.  All of these musics live comfortably within him, and he generously shares them with us in his heartfelt, swinging ways.  I had another opportunity to watch him in action at the National Underground on May 30 with his National Saloon Band — Will Reardon Anderson on clarinet and alto; Simon Wettenhall on trumpet; Kevin Dorn on drums; Steve Alcott on string bass.  They began the evening with a MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR, which W. C. Handy then “adapted” as the ATLANTA BLUES:

One of those good old good ones that all the musicians love to play (and that includes Bix, Louis, Benny, and Basie), the ROYAL GARDEN BLUES:

Here’s where John differs from the “traditional jazz” formula: how about the Jimmie Rodgers song T FOR TEXAS:

For the dancers (and they were at the National Underground that night), SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:

If you enjoy odd intersections, I think MUDDY WATER counts as one, a song both Bing Crosby and Bessie Smith recorded in 1927:

Here’s a pretty 1931 pop tune that came back to life a quarter-century later (Vic Dickenson liked to play it, too), LOVE LETTERS IN THE SAND:

And — to close off this segment — a song I’d only heard on recordings (Johnny Dodds); next time, I’ll ask John to sing WHEN ERASTUS PLAYS HIS OLD KAZOO:

In my ideal New York City, John Gill is leading small hot bands like this on a regular basis.  It would take months before he and his colleagues had to repeat a song . . .  More to come!

May your happiness increase.

HEARING IS BELIEVING: GORDON AU / TAMAR KORN (Dec. 16, 2010)

If you close your eyes, something interesting might happen.  Listen deeply. 

Last Thursday, I made a pilgrimage to Williamsburgh in Brooklyn, New York, and eventually arrived at RADEGAST, a beer garden on the corner of Berry and North Third Streets.  The Grand Street Stompers were playing: they are directed by trumpeter Gordon Au (always a good thing) and this edition was all-star: Emily Asher, trombone; Dennis Lichtman, clarinet; Nick Russo, guitar / banjo; Rob Adkins, bass.  And Tamar Korn sang.

But.

Before anyone embarks on the first video, the viewers I call the Corrections Officers should know that Radegast is the darkest club I have ever been in.  Cozy but Stygian.  My video camera was not entirely happy.  So the result is nocturnal, visually. 

Also, the dance floor in front of me was properly filled with dancers: once your eyes get accustomed to the whirling shadows you can discern the most graceful pair, in harmony with each other and the music.

Because of the season, Gordon chose to play I SAW MOMMY KISSING SANTA CLAUS.  Leaving aside the psychological associations: adultery, roleplay with costumes, the primal scene, love-for-sale . . . it’s a Thirties tune that I can hear in my head as a Teddy Wilson Brunswick . . . or what would Fats have done with this?  This version has some of the rocking motion of a Goodman Sextet circa 1941, thanks to Nick and Dennis; also echoes of a Fifties date for, say, Ruby Braff and Benny Morton, courtesy of Gordon, Emily, and Rob:

The same flavors continue into I’M CONFESSIN’ — with the addition of the remarkable Tamar Korn, singing from her heart while standing to the left of Rob’s bass.  Catch the whimsical contrast between Tamar’s air-trajectories and Gordon’s muted answers: is he our modern Hot Lips Page?  And Emily Asher’s tone gets bigger, broader, and more lovely every time I hear her:

With music like this, who couldn’t weather the storm?  Homage to Irving Berlin and more of that Thirties combination of sweet-tart vocals and hot playing, I’VE GOT MY LOVE TO KEEP ME WARM.  I’ve always admired Tamar as a singer who doesn’t cling to safe routines, and her reach continues to expand into space:

I knew the next performance was Serious Business when someone turned on the light above the music stand.  I didn’t immediately recognize the pretty melody Dennis was delicately playing, but I knew I had heard it once.  Then Gordon braved the way into . . . . THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which came back to me from 1962.  As the performance progressed and everyone relaxed (Rodgers’ melody takes a few unexpected turns), I had a different aural epiphany. 

Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager, was obsessed with the quest for more popular hits for Louis.  Sometimes this worked: consider MACK THE KNIFE and HELLO, DOLLY!  But Joe missed this one!  I can hear an imagined All-Stars version of this song (with banjo) that would have been extraordinary.  And Gordon might have felt it too, as he launched into his solo with a passage that suggests Louis — hinting at the bluesy flourishes of the Hot Seven and the cosmic scope of the 1932 Victor sides.  Then Nick’s chimes before settling into a very non-von Trapp Family (say that three times) segment backed by Rob’s Hintonian bass.  Hear and see for yourself:

Tamar returned, for one of her classics — LOVER, COME BACK TO ME — that would have pleased Sigmund Romberg, especially if he’d had some of the delicious German beer that Radegast offers all and sundry.  And she swings out on invisible trumpet (meeting Gordon’s!) in her second outing. 

But I have to apologize to the gifted tenor saxophonist who appeared to the right and began to swing out.  Who are you, kind Sir?  Are you the ghost of Dick Wilson?

Finally, in honor of the season and of Elvis, Tamar creates a mourning rockabilly interlude in BLUE CHRISTMAS, with Nick going a-sliding along.  (I can hear Louis and Trummy Young doing this one, too.  Where was Joe Glaser?):

I hope the only thing of yours that’s blue this holiday season is the sky.  Or socks, lingerie, or a fleece sweatshirt!

JAZZ IN “THE NEW YORKER,” CONTINUED

I’m always happy to see any coverage of jazz in The New Yorker, which has been my essential reading for forty years, ever since I discovered their fine short fiction, the drawings of William Steig and Saul Steinberg, and the irreplaceable writing of Whitney Balliett.  But their latest coverage is profoundly disappointing, both in itself and its implications.

Here’s Colin Fleming’s piece in “Talk of the Town,” March 30, 2009, called MORE SATCHMO:

After virtually inventing the lexicon for jazz soloists with his epochal Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Louis Armstrong set up shop at Decca Records in the mid-thirties. The Armstrong Deccas have not fared as well as their forebears, having been knocked about on compilations of dubious legality and dogged by various aspersions-mainly, that Armstrong had become a puppet for his manager Joe Glaser, who had turned Armstrong into a happy-go-lucky song-and-dance man ready to ham it up on cue.

But as “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions, 1935-1946” (Mosaic Records) attests, Armstrong wasn’t one to be intimidated by his past. The corking take on “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” makes the Okeh version seem positively weak-kneed, with Armstrong’s big band ripping through the breaks. Armstrong the vocalist is arguably at his apex here, and it was through his vocalizations that Armstrong’s chamber jazz took on a second life as pure pop manna. “On the Sunny Side of the Street” is a glorious hybrid: a mix of Stephen Foster-esque Americana and unprecedented vocal inflections that must have pricked up the ears of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The Decca sessions even venture into hardcore R. & B. terrain, once the drummer “Big” Sid Catlett turns up. A fleeting discographical presence over his career, Catlett was at his best with Armstrong, his offbeat accents on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” presaging soul’s infatuation with syncopation.

As a trumpet player, there was no one to touch Armstrong, but Bing Crosby was an apt vocal foil. The two had their summit meeting in 1960, resulting in “Bing and Satchmo” (DRG Records), previously unavailable on compact disk. “Dardanella” suggests how keenly these men must have listened to each other: Crosby’s sly syllabic upticks at the end of each line show how readily he had absorbed Armstrong’s methodology, while Armstrong’s vocal is a blend of full-on melody and smart, conversational tones, a Crosby staple. Throughout, Billy May’s arrangements have plenty of starch to them, but “Lazy River” borders on a kind of laconic grace, two voices whiling the day away before drifting home. ♦

First, there’s Fleming’s remarkable prose style: exuberantly glib, cliched, and apparently unedited: he comes across as a writer in love with his own special effects.  Then come the errors of fact (how casually Fleming, like Mosaic Records, dismisses the work of Gosta Hagglof).   In addition, there’s his adolescent critical point of view, granting Armstrong’s singing special validity (“pop manna,” no less) because it must have caught the attention of Presley and Dylan, how Catlett’s playing prefigures rhythm and blues and soul’s “infatuation with syncopation.”  The “old,” it seems, is meaningful only when it acts as a springboard for the “new.”

Perhaps I should be grateful that Louis Armstrong receives notice of any sort in The New Yorker, even if the praise is appallingly written and full of misinterpretations.

But in the same issue, Anthony Lane writes thoughtfully about a new book of Samuel Beckett’s early letters; Paul Goldberger has a beautifully provocative essay on the architect Palladio.  So The New Yorker can and indeed does think some art that occured before the twenty-first century is worth serious consideration in serious prose.  It’s a pity the magazine’s editors haven’t recognized that jazz might be owed equal respect.

“IDOL OF MILLIONS OF POPULAR MUSIC LOVERS THROUGHOUT AMERICA”

Quick, now.

Which person comes to mind when you read “Idol of popular music lovers throughout America”?

Admittedly, the phrase has a certain archaic sound to it.  But even so: Elvis Presley? Bing Crosby? Benny Goodman?  Glenn Miller?

No, it’s EDDIE CONDON!

I’ve been posting about the fabled Eddie Condon Floor Show for some time now.  My friend Rob Rothberg — who has a fabulous collection of what Ebay calls “entertainment memorabilia” — generously sent along copies of what appears below.  Circa 1949, it appears to be a prospectus for the program, an effort to find a sponsor (cash bulging out of corporate pockets) so that the show could stay on the air.  I assume that the booklet was the creation of Ernie Anderson, but I am sure that Phyllis Condon and Paul Smith, her brother, made some contributions; both of them worked for advertising agencies.

Although the Condons had a dog, whose name escapes me as I write this, I find it difficult to envision Eddie or perhaps Joe Bushkin telling everyone how Ken-L-Ration made for bright eyes and a healthy coat.  Or Tide detergent.  But stranger things have happened.  Some jazz fans will remember the radio and television commercials Louis did for Schaefer and Rheingold beers and Fords — why else would I hear his voice ringing out, “You’re ahead in a Ford / All the way!” some forty-five years later?

The prospectus didn’t succeed, but here are pictures and text:

floor3

Condon and Sidney Bechet, of course.

floor4

Looking off (handsomely) to the mysterious East, where the sponsors ride over the mountains in expensive suits:

floor5

You see I didn’t invent this enthusiastic prose.

floor6

That camera makes me think of the NBC peacock — spreading its animated self as a totem of “living color” even when most viewers saw it in black and white.

floor7

I didn’t know that “the proverbial duck” also played tenor guitar, but no matter.

floor8

These photos are more familiar; they surfaced in Hank O’Neal’s EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, a wonderful book.

floor9

It’s an interesting mix of “jazz” and “popular” — Condon recognized talented musicians, however they might have defined themselves.  I wonder, however, what songs Frankie Carle played when he appeared.

floor10

A cherubic Billy Butterfield, a pleased Joe Bushkin — sixty years ago, when newspapers paid attention to jazz.

floor11

That’s a dramatic art photo — Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge framed by the bent wood of the chair.  And, to the left is an easel.  Was this the program on which Mischa Reznikoff (husband of photographer Genevieve Naylor) sketched while the musicians improvised?

floor12

Here comes the hard sell . . .

floor13Oh, how I wish this prospectus had appealed to some firm — Proctor and Gamble, say.  Then, instead of watching BONANZA on Sunday nights, we could have seen Cutty Cutshall and Pee Wee Russell.

floor14

I think that Virgil Thompson was praising the Town Hall concert series, but the sentiments remained true.

floor15

The VOA transcriptions might be the source for the audio portions of the Floor Show that survive.

floor16Ernie Caceres to the left, Peanuts Hucko, Bushkin, Butterfield . . .

floor17

Alas, it didn’t work.  But Condon’s career didn’t end when the show did, and he kept playing and organizing bands into the early Seventies, when I got to see him in action — a subject for another post.  Right now, let us remember the time and place when it was possible to have such high art on nationwide television, with or without a sponsor.

GOOD SOUNDS ON EAST HOUSTON STREET

I’ve been reading about John Gill’s National Saloon Band all summer, and tonight the Beloved and I decided to pay them a visit at the National Underground (159 East Houston Street, near Allen Street).

We weren’t disappointed: it’s a truly multi-tasking band.

John Gill is steeped in American pop from Bing to Elvis, from Turk Murphy to Fats Domino. He is a virtuoso banjoist and guitarist, a compelling singer, a hot trombonist. Next to him is Bruce McNichols of the Smith Street Society Jazz Band. Bruce triples on banjo, soprano saxophone, and ensemble vocals. Terry Waldo offers solid ensemble piano, ragtime and stride solos, and vocals. The rhythm section is completed by Brian Nalepka on tuba, bass, and vocals and Kevin Dorn on drums. Kevin doesn’t sing, but watching him in motion is more than enough reward. McNichols, Gill, and Nalepka switch from one instrument to another in the course of a song, singing solo or offering propulsive harmony parts.

We could only stay for the opening set, but this band showed its wide range in less than an hour, offering Twenties pop hits (“When You’re Smiling,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone”) and New Orleans standards (“Down By The Riverside,” “Bourbon Street Parade”). John has recently completed the first volume of a tribute to Bing Crosby, and he favored us with a soulful “Out of Nowhere,” complete with verse, showing off his beautiful baritone. He also got to shine on a rocking “Ain’t That A Shame,” associated with Fats Domino. And he displayed his gutty plunger trombone on “Wabash Blues.”

At the end of the set, another jazz multi-tasker came in to join the fun: Jim Fryer, who also sings, plays cornet, trombone, and euphonium.

Smaller than the massive Whole Foods down the street, the National Underground is intimate and thus easy to miss, but the drinks were honest and people were devouring their char-grilled burgers. Duggins King, the club’s manager, told me about the weekly bluegrass night. Another esteemed banjoist-singer, Eddy Davis, has an enthusiastic small group on Wednesdays. Given the paucity of New York jazz spots, this one is surely worth investigating.