Tag Archives: Ephie Resnick

“LUCKY ALL MY LIFE”: EPHRAIM RESNICK, TROMBONE and PIANO (July 6, 2020)

My phone rang on July 3.  This in itself would not be unusual.  But that the caller ID panel read “Ephraim Resnick” was a surprise.  I had been on a quest to find the wonderful and elusive trombonist (now pianist) Ephie Resnick for a few years, and had enlisted my dear friend — also a fine trombonist — Dick Dreiwitz in the search.

I knew Ephie first as a beautiful soulful viruoso heard on live recordings from George Wein’s Storyville in 1952 — alongside Pee Wee Russell and Ruby Braff; later, I’d seen him with the New York Jazz Repertory Company in their 1972 tribute to Louis Armstrong, some of which was released on Atlantic, and then Bob Greene’s Jelly Roll Morton show in 1974, issued on RCA Victor.  Perhaps eight years ago I had heard him playing piano at Arthur’s Tavern with the Grove Street Stompers.  He asked me to refrain from videoing him, but he was friendly and I did buy his two recent CDs, NEW YORK SURVIVOR and THE STRUGGLE.  Still more recently, a musical friend of his, Inigo Kilborn, had asked me if Ephie was still on the planet.  He is.  At 92, he’s a clear speaker and thinker, although his memory is “sometimes OK, sometimes not too good.”

Ephie and I made a date to talk on the morning of Monday, July 6.  He doesn’t have a computer.  “I live in the last century,” and when I asked if he wanted me to transcribe the interview and send it to him for corrections, he said no.  So this is what he told me of his life, with my minimal editing to tie loose ends together.  It’s not only the usual story of early training, gigs played, musicians encountered, but a deeper human story.  If you’d never heard Ephie play, you’d think he wasn’t all that competent, given his protestations.  I wonder at the gap between the way we perceive ourselves and the way the world does.

With musical examples, I present our conversation to you here.

I began with the most obvious question, “When you were a kid, did you want to be a musician?” and Ephie began his tale.

I come from a family of anger and bitterness and humiliation, and all that stuff, so I was in confusion most of the time.  When I was in first grade, and this is really important, I was born left-handed, and they made me right-handed, so it really did away with my focus.  I got asthma, and I started stuttering soon after that.  So my life was a turmoil. 

And when I was about sixteen, I guess, I hadn’t any idea of doing anything.  I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything.  And I heard a Louis Armstrong recording, and that really made me crazy.  It showed me a way out, the way out of my turmoil.  So when I went to school, they gave me a trombone.  Because the guy said, “I want somebody to play the trombone,” and he pointed at me.  At that point, it was difficult to breathe, it was difficult to talk, and I couldn’t get a sound out of the horn.  And I didn’t understand it until just recently, when I moved to Brooklyn, after I was finished, finally.  I wasn’t breathing.  I couldn’t breathe.

I took the trombone home from school, I tried to play it, and really couldn’t play it much.  But I listened to a lot of records.  I listened to a lot of Louis Armstrong then.  I got as much as I could out of him.  And then I started, for some reason, to go out playing.  In little clubs and things.  I don’t know how I could play — I didn’t practice.  But I played, mostly with black people at the beginning.  And there were two places, especially, where I could play.  A guy named Bob Maltz had a place downtown, all the way downtown.  And across the street a guy named Jack Crystal — there’s a comedian, Billy Crystal, and Jack was his father. [The Stuyvesant Casino and the Central Plaza.]  Both of these guys hired mostly black musicians from the Thirties, and I started out just sitting in, and then I started getting paid.  And that was the beginning of my jazz playing.

And then I made a record [in 1947].  Irv Kratka, the guy who started Music Minus One, was in our little group.  I went into — I forget what it’s called now — it was on Broadway and they had studios and rehearsal studios.  I walked into one and there was Bob Wilber and his little group with Denny Strong on drums.  The trumpet player turned out to be the Local 802 president years after that [John Glasel] but they gave me the names of some guys, and I got together a little group and made a record.  I was just around 17 or 18, I was just playing about a year.  It was OK, it was sort of nice.

Here’s Ephie with Knocky Parker, piano; Irv Kratka, drums, May 1, 1949:

I turned 18, and my mother wanted me to go to a college.  And I thought, I could never do that.  I couldn’t focus.  I couldn’t learn anything.  Whatever I knew, I knew from having read myself or having heard, or something, so I got good marks in English and history.  But anything I had to study and learn something, I couldn’t do it: language or science or something like that.  So with all this, she wanted me to go to a college.  So I applied to Juilliard, and they gave me a date for an audition.  I picked a piece, and I couldn’t play it.  I couldn’t play it at all.  It sat there on my music stand, and once in a while I tried, but I couldn’t do it. 

I should have called them up and told them I couldn’t make the audition, but I went there anyway.  I played the piece perfectly.  That was my life.  Sometimes I played really good, sometimes I played terrible.  Sometimes I played mediocre, but this time I played really good and they clapped me on the back and said, “You’ll go far, young man.”  My teacher was there, Ernest Clarke, Herbert Clarke’s brother.  Herbert Clarke was a trumpet virtuoso.  Ernest Clarke was some sort of a name, I don’t know what he did, but he was well-known there.  He was 83 then.  And he opened up his book when I took my first lesson.  The first page was a row of B-flats.  B-flat with a hold on it, more B-flats and more B-flats.  And I couldn’t play it.  I couldn’t play the note.  He would walk back and forth, his hands behind his back, he couldn’t figure it out.  So I did that for a couple of weeks, I showed up once a week, and then after a while he turned to the second page.  And there were F’s, a little higher but medium-low.  And I couldn’t play that note either.  And then he retired.  I always say that he retired because of me. 

Anyway, whatever it was, while this was happening, I was playing outside.  I was sitting in and playing, going to clubs and stuff.  I played a lot at the beginning with Sol Yaged.  He was a clarinet player who played in the clubs where they used to have jazz and now they had strippers.  So I played for the strippers with Sol Yaged.  I still couldn’t get a sound on my own.  When I was in the house, I couldn’t practice.  I couldn’t play a scale, I couldn’t do anything.  I fell apart.  And I went to a lot of teachers.  Nobody gave me anything.  And when I moved to Brooklyn, I quit playing the trombone when I was here.  I started to figure out, what it was was so simple — I guess I wasn’t breathing.  I was tight.  I never could find an embouchure, except once in a while it happened.  It came in by itself, and when it happened, I could really play well.  But I wasn’t practicing, I couldn’t play a scale, I couldn’t play anything like regular trombone players could.  But I knew that. 

My first year at Juilliard I got a straight A because all they did was ear stuff — ear training — and I was good at that.  And piano playing, and I could do the piano.  And that was it.  The second year, I started getting academic subjects: science, languages and stuff, and I couldn’t do it.  So I stopped going to school.  And years ago, before they fixed up Forty-Second Street, it was a mess, but there was one movie theatre called The Laugh Theatre, and they had, once in a while, regular movies, but usually short subjects, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and all that stuff.  So I was there, and I was laughing.  My life was awful, but I was laughing.  I did that for the rest of my school year, and then I got out of Juilliard.  Finally.  And years later I figured out that, you know, going to school would have depressed me and made me feel really awful, but being away from the school I was laughing.  I felt OK.  Laughing is very good for you.  

Anyway, I don’t know how it was, but I got out of school, and I started working.  I still couldn’t play, I still didn’t practice.  So my first job was with Eddie Heywood.  He was a piano player.  It was an all-black band, at Cafe Society Downtown.  There was also a club, Cafe Society Uptown.  I was there six weeks or so, and then somebody recommended me — I don’t know how it happened — to Buddy Rich.  It’s hard for me to believe.  I played six weeks with Buddy Rich: Zoot Sims and Harry Edison were in the band, I forget the bass player and the piano player.  So I did that, and then I came out, and that was the end of the big band era.  So then I went out, maybe two or three weeks, maybe a weekend, with big bands, but they were beginning to close down.  I played with a lot of them, but the only ones I could remember were Buddy Morrow, Ray McKinley, and Charlie Barnet.  And with these bands, I was the jazz player. 

With Charlie Barnet I also played lead, but I had one solo — that was the audition.  There were about eight trombone players who auditioned for Charlie Barnet, and later on he told me that when he saw me he figured I would be the last guy to get it.  But the audition was a song — I forget the name of it — [Ephie hums ESTRELLITA] — a Spanish song.  It had a trombone solo, there was a high E in the middle or someplace, and I really smacked that thing.  I took a chance, you know, I got it, and I was great.  The other guys played that E, but they played it hesitantly, so I got the job.  And that was great.  I had that one solo, and I played lead, which was great for me, because I learned how to do that.  

Here’s Ephie with Marty Grosz, guitar; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, string bass; Tommy Benford, drums; Hugh McKay, cornet; John Dengler, baritone saxophone; Frank Chace, clarinet.  June 6, 1951: comparative listening thanks to “Davey Tough”:

And then I started to work with small bands.  I don’t know how I got this work either. Dixieland bands.  Wild Bill Davison, who was at Condon’s for I guess twelve years, lost that job — they closed down or something — he went on the road and I went with him, and we made a record. Then I played with Buddy Morrow, and I was the jazz player in that band.  He was a great, great trombone player, but a little stiff for my taste.  Then Ray McKinley, and I was the jazz player in that band.  And Bill Davison, we made a record with that.  And then I went with Pee Wee Russell, Ruby Braff was in that, and I forget who else.  And we made a record with him.  So, so far, I made a lot of records.  I got a little bit of a fan club in England because of those records.  And Pee Wee — those records were in Boston, and they recorded a whole night, and they put out four ten-inchers.  And then they made an lp out of it, or two lps.  I don’t imagine any of these things are available now.  That Pee Wee thing, it sold well, I don’t understand how, exactly.  Can’t figure out those things.)

Here’s Ephie in 1952, with Pee Wee Russell, Ruby Braff, Red Richards, John Field, Kenny John — the second part of this presentation (the first offers Johnny Windhurst, Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, George Wein, John Field, and Jo Jones).  For the impatient among us, Ephie’s portion begins at 16:00:

While I was working, I was still struggling.  I wanted to finally learn how to play.  Since I was working, I might as well learn how to play.  I still couldn’t play a scale without falling apart.  But in context, I could play, somehow.  I saved enough money for a couple of years and went to Philadelphia and studied with a guy named Donald Reinhardt who had a system.  His system was really good, but you had to figure out the system.  He couldn’t, by himself, help you. 

Art DePew, a marvelous trumpet player who played lead with Harry James and a few other bands, went to him and got fixed up.  Kai Winding used to run there once in a while.  He had problems.  His mouthpiece would slip down.  Sometimes he could get it back up, sometimes he couldn’t. 

Reinhardt didn’t teach me anything.  He couldn’t tell you what you were doing wrong or what you should be doing.  He had a book and a system.  He had a lot of people, and they could look at what he had to say and do it.  I couldn’t do that.  I had to be told what I was doing wrong.  And nobody told me I wasn’t breathing.  Lots of times I couldn’t get a sound out.  I had no control over it.  When I played well, it had nothing to do with me. It just happened.  When I played badly, there was no way for me to fix it.  

I spent a couple of years there in Philadelphia, and I met my wife.  She was a singer, a wonderful oratorio singer.  And there was a jazz club over there, and I was playing once a week.  I was playing piano in strip clubs with another guy, a very strange man.  He wore a toupee, but never bought one.  He wore other people’s old toupees; everybody gave him their old toupee.  So he just dropped them on top of his head.  I spent four years there, learned nothing, and still couldn’t figure out what was happening. 

I had to come back to New York, because we got married, and she had a six-and-a half-year old son.  We became friends, and that was really good.  I did various things, and then a contractor called me.  In those days, there was a lot of money around, money flowing freely.  In music, there was a shortage of musicians, and I came in at that point. 

I’ve been lucky all my life, actually. 

I got a job playing in various theatres around the city, short things.  There was a theatre on Sixth Avenue and Forty-Eighth Street, I believe, the contractor liked me, and he had some shows coming to New York.  He said I could pick one, and one of them was HELLO, DOLLY!  I did that for seven years.  Playing a show, especially if you’re a jazz player, is terrible.  You’re doing the same thing all the time.  But I took off a lot.  You could take off as long as you got somebody good, and I always got somebody better than me. 

I worked with Lester Lanin and played all around the world — Ireland, France, Paris, the Philippines.  The guy whose wife had all those shoes [Imelda Marcos], I played their thirtieth anniversary.  We went to Hawaii, to Hong Kong, and then I came back, was home for a couple of weeks.  They started a group in New York, playing different types of music, so I was in that group, and then they had a small group out of that.  I was picked out of that, and we went to Russia — a jazz  group.  We traveled all over the country, and that was really interesting.  That was during the Khruschev era.  When I came back, I continued to do club dates,  but I couldn’t really progress, I couldn’t learn anything.  When I was forty, I still couldn’t play a scale.  I was making my living as a trombone player, and I couldn’t play a scale once up and down without falling apart.

Somebody introduced me to marijuana.  I tried that, and it was wonderful.  Absolutely wonderful.  It saved my life.  The first thing I started to do after I started to smoke was to go downstairs to the basement every morning.  We had small radios, and I hung the radio up, right next to my ear, as loud as I could.  Not music, but talking.  I started to play scales, and it sounded awful, because I couldn’t really hear it.  I did that for a couple of years, and finally I got rid of the radio.  I began a regular practice, for the first time in my life, when I was about forty. 

But by that time I was sort of on the way down, in a way.  And then I did a job with Lester Lanin in London, and I met a guy there — I knew him was I was nineteen or twenty.  He became rich: his father died.  Max, his father, was not too smart, and he couldn’t come to a decision: he didn’t know how to make a decision.  So his father, who was a lawyer but a Mob lawyer, he was powerful with a lot of connections those days, so he put Max on the Supreme Court.  He couldn’t make a decision.  That was his life’s work.  So I met this guy, and stayed at his house for a while, and then I stayed in London and made a record there.  I have two left, of those records.  The other stuff I don’t have any copies of. 

Then I had an accident.  I’m not sure of the timeline now.  I was hit by a car, and broke both my legs and my pelvis.  My ankles were messed up.  I was in the hospital for about three months.  When I came out, I couldn’t really move around, so I didn’t work for a couple of years.  But I was lucky, again, because they just had passed a law in Albany, and if you had an accident, they called it “no fault insurance,” and gave you fifty thousand dollars and services.  So I was in the hospital, and they would send me a check once a month to live on.  So I didn’t work for a couple of years, but I was taken care of.    

I came out, and I wasn’t working very much at all, so I called Marty Grosz.  I knew him from years ago.  We had worked together, in a bar someplace.  Not in New York, someplace else.  I forget where it was.  And I called him, and we made a record.  [THE END OF INNOCENCE.]  And it got a great review from John S. Wilson, the Times music reviewer.  He wrote a really good review of it, not in the paper, but in an international magazine.  So I sold about a thousand records.  People wrote in.  One guy sent it back to me because he didn’t like it.  So I sent him back his ten dollars.  [I complimented Ephie on the record.] Well, thank you.  But I hadn’t worked for three years before that.  Again, I was lucky it came out OK.  [I reminded Ephie that he and Marty had recorded before, in 1951.]  Oh, those records!  Those records were nice!  Those were really good.  I was really happy with those records.  I’d forgotten about that.  I don’t have any of that stuff, but somehow they turned out to be really good.  Frank Chace was nice.  Yes, I liked the way he played.  Years before, Marty and I had a summer job together.  He was just learning how to play and I was learning also.  And I never paid him for that record, THE END OF INNOCENCE.  He did it for nothing.

I will offer THE END OF INNOCENCE — a glorious duet — in a future posting.

I was in England for ten years, and I did a record there.  [Two: NEW YORK SURVIVOR and THE STRUGGLE.]  Well, that was close to the end of my career.  After my accident, I didn’t do too much.  I hung around for a while, and everything got slowed down to nothing.  My wife got sick, she got Parkinson’s.  So I got a job — I was lucky again — working for Catholic Charities, playing piano for Alzheimers people, various venues, different bosses, for almost twelve years.  They just closed down, in March, because of the virus.  So I was lucky, I was working all this time, until right now. 

So now I’m in one room, I’m hiding out, and I’ve got an electronic piano.  I guess you’d say I’m an old-fashioned piano player.  Pretty much old-fashioned, with a couple of things thrown in, contemporary.  And a couple of months ago, in February, before the virus became widely known, I made a record with a trombone player from England, Malcolm Earle Smith.  I hadn’t played in a while.  My playing was — I don’t know how to describe it.  Except on the last two pieces, there I kind of relaxed.  I was careful — I was too careful, so I don’t know about that record.  I have a couple of copies.  Some people liked them, and some people I sent them to didn’t like it at all. 

Ephie at the piano, briefly but evocatively:

[I also mentioned Inigo Kilborn, one of Ephie’s musical colleagues, to him.]  Inigo heard me playing in a club in England, and wanted me to come down.  He was living in Spain then, he went from London to Spain, he was retired.  He wanted me to play in clubs, and I wasn’t working much, I still didn’t have an embouchure, and I still didn’t know how to play.  I put him off and finally he gave up.

One of the people I sent the record to was a guy in Sweden.  He sent me a letter, that he loved the record, and he wanted me to play all over Europe, he had  contacts in clubs all over Europe.  And I couldn’t do it.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.  Maybe I could play one day or two days, but I’d fall apart.  I fell apart, here and there, when I was playing.  So I didn’t answer him, and he came to New York and then he called me.  He wrote me another letter, and he called me and called me, but I didn’t answer the phone.  That was the end of that.  I couldn’t have done it.  It would have been wonderful for my future, my present, but I couldn’t do it.  So that was that.

Then, little by little, I faded away, until I got this job.  This job saved my life, this piano job.  That’s it.  

So that’s my story up till now.  And here I am.  I’m practicing every day, trying to play a little more contemporary, make the chords closer together.  Not so old-fashioned.  So I’m working on that a little bit, but I’m not working at all now. 

I’m just old.  And that’s my story.

Ephie at the piano, Malcolm Earle Smith, trombone:

[Ephie had delivered almost all of what you read above in a diligent narrative, and I had not wanted to interrupt him, to distract him.  But now, after forty minutes, I thought I could ask some — perhaps idle — questions.  I told Ephie I’d seen him onstage, at Alice Tully Hall in 1974, with Bob Greene’s “The World of Jelly Roll Morton.”]

Oh!  I forgot about that.  That was great.  He played like Jelly Roll Morton, and he started a band, a Jelly Roll Morton band.  We played all those songs, and I could really do that.  I was good at that.  I could really blast out.  The record doesn’t show that, but we traveled all around the country, and we had standing ovations on every job except one.  I don’t know exactly why that one.  But that was easy for me, easy and natural.  It paid well, and it was fun.  Those were happy moments in my life. 

I was with Kai Winding — four trombones.  It was a tour.  We started out someplace — I can’t remember where it was but it was a restaurant.  We were above the eaters, so we couldn’t play too loud, and we were close together.  And for some reason I played just great — just wonderful, all the way along.  and he was talking about making a tour with just the two of us.  The job ended, and we had a three-day layoff, and then went into the Little Mirror, a place in Washington.  There was an echo, we were spread out, it was loud, I lost what I had in that previous gig, I never found it.  I looked for that embouchure for years and years and never got it back.  We made a record with Kai Winding.  I made a lot of records with different people, but that one was OK.  That turned out nice.    

[I asked Ephie if he could tell me about people — heroes of mine — he’d encountered, from the Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza, on.]  There was one guy, Jerry Blumberg [a Bunk Johnson protege on cornet and a pianist].  He was wonderful.  He got one job someplace, and hired that famous pianist from the Thirties, James P. Johnson.  I played one night with him.  That was interesting. He was old, but he still played OK.  I never worked with Sid Catlett, but I saw him play.  I played with Frankie Newton a couple of times.  He was fun to play with.  Very easy to play with. 

When I was in Boston, I was with Pee Wee Russell.  He had his own pianist.  It wasn’t Wein, and Red Richards came later.  There was another guy [Teddy Roy] who I didn’t know, but had played with Pee Wee for years and years.  And he had a book, with all the chords in it, which he didn’t need.  Every tune that was called, he’d open up the book.  He never looked at the book, but the chords were there.  He was sort of tied to that.  

Ruby Braff was a fantastic player.  Nobody ever played like him.  He didn’t play like anybody else.  He had phenomenal technique, and he used it in very personal ways.  A wonderful player.  He had his personal problems, like we all do.  Sometimes, we were playing someplace, and he didn’t feel he was playing right, or he wasn’t doing justice to what he was doing, someone would come up to him and say, “Ruby, you sounded wonderful,” he would say, “Aaahhh, what do  you know?” and dismiss it, insult the guy who liked him.  He felt vulnerable all the time, but a great player.  And later on, he played with Benny Goodman.  He couldn’t read, but Benny would put him at the end of the line of trumpets, and once in a while call upon him to play.  He did that for a while.

Did you know Johnny Windhurst?  I did one job with him and Ed Hubble on trombone, and I played piano, and Ed Phyfe on drums.  He was a wonderful player also. 

I didn’t hang out with anybody in Boston.  I wasn’t a hanger-on.  I went right home after the last tune we played.  And I don’t want to hear any of my old stuff.  The only records I have are the ones I made in England, THE STRUGGLE and NEW YORK SURVIVOR.  THE STRUGGLE is a terrible record, but the other one turned out good.   

I played for six-eight months with Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s.  He was playing trumpet then — with the mute, not ebullient, but great.  Those records with Dizzy are really wonderful.  At one point, I was on staff with ABC for three years, subbing for one of the jazz guys.  Dick Dreiwitz is such a sweet man, and his wife Barbara, who plays tuba.  For a while I was playing ball games with them — they had a Dixieland band.  Between innings, we’d walk up and down the aisles and play.  People used to throw stuff in the tuba — peanuts, papers, everything — so the tuba players put a pillowcase over the bell.  People aren’t naturally nice, you know.  Some are, some aren’t.  

I’m 92, and I hope I don’t have too many years left.  So far, I’m OK.

At that point, we thanked each other, and I assured Ephie he was safe from me. But in the next few days, the phone rang again, as Ephie remembered some other stories:

Ephie played about six weeks at the Cinderella Club with pianist Bross Townsend and a bassist, not Peck Morrison, whose name he didn’t remember.  He thought that cornetist Hugh McKay played really well on the 1951 Marty Grosz records and wondered what happened to him.  [Does anyone know?]  He saw Vic Dickenson once at some uptown Manhattan gig and thought he was wonderful.  When working in San Francisco with Wild Bill Davison, he found out that Jack Teagarden was playing in Los Angeles and took the bus to see him.  But this was when Jack had quit drinking and Ephie thought he sounded dull.

Another postscript: an extended list of Ephie’s performance credits, which are staggering:

Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Eddie Condon, Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Zoot Sims, Lennie Tristano, Teddy Wilson, Kai Winding and Willie the Lion Smith. He has also played with a variety of rock and pop bands including The Bee Gees, The Four Tops and Englebert Humperdink, and has worked for Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, Woody Allen and Norman Mailer.

Ephie spent much of the 1990s working in London, during a period in his life when he felt trapped in New York. During that stay he met and played with a number of British musicians as well as becoming something of a mentor for many of them. He also played at a number of society parties with the world renowned orchestra headed by veteran bandleader Lester Lanin. The musicians included: Dick Morrissey, Alex Dankworth, Huw Warren, Tim Whitehead, Martin Speake, Mike Pickering, Steve Watts, Julian Siegel, Chris Gibbons, Andrew Jones, Carl Dewhurst, Dave Whitford and Jean-Victor de Boer. He recorded two albums whilst in the UK: New York Survivor and The Struggle (both released on Basho Records)

Although he stopped playing trombone in 2010, Ephie continues to lead an active musical life in back in New York, playing piano in care homes. Still an inspiration to his friends and colleagues, his passion for music is still as strong as it was decades ago.

Taken and adapted from Ephie’s profile page at Jazzcds.co.uk

Blessings and thanks to Ephie, to Dick Dreiwitz, to Inigo Kilborn, to Malcolm Earle Smith, who made this informal memoir of a fascinating man and musician possible.

May your happiness increase!

MARTY GROSZ, NOW AND THEN (March 4, 2020; June 6, 1951), and a POSTSCRIPT

Marty Grosz and Joe Plowman, Philadelphia, June 2020.

Before the world we knew or thought we knew morphed terribly into the appalling shapes it is now in* — and you can add details as you like — Marty Grosz had a ninetieth-birthday party in his hometown of some years, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  I had the good fortune to be there, and documented the joyous proceedings here and here.

In my borough or perhaps burrow, it is only polite to inquire, “Will you have another?” so I offer just that.

At his party, where he gave us presents, Marty picks up “the riverboat violin” for the venerable WABASH BLUES — alongside Vince Giordano, tuba; Jack Saint Clair, Dan Block, Scott Robinson, reeds; Randy Reinhart, trombone; Jim Lawlor, drums; Danny Tobias, trumpet. The impatient among you — and you, along with the Corrections Officers and the Disapprovers, seem to proliferate — should be warned that Marty, as he is wont to do, tells a tale before the music starts at 7:50. Myself, I think Marty-narratives are valuable (have you read his autobiography, IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE: MY LIFE IN JAZZ, published by Golden Valley Press?) and the music that follows is of course also. This burst  of joy took place at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on March 4, 2020.

The official JAZZ LIVES copy of one of the two discs. Peruse and admire.

Marty would call his first official recordings — two 78 discs recorded for the Jolly Roger label (2003 and 2004) “prentice work” at best . . . but they are jubilant explosions of youthful ardor, by Hugh McKay, trumpet; Ephie Resnick, trombone; Frank Chace, clarinet; Dick Wellstood, piano; Pops Foster, string bass; Tommy Benford, drums.

And here are the four performances, thanks to archive.org.

I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU

SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE (here, “WOBBLE”)

DIXIELAND JASS BAND ONE-STEP

OH, BABY

And a note about the asterisk above — for those who read what I write, and thank you for doing so.  I have not felt much like blogging in the past few days: it seems trivial and even disrespectful to the people who suffer, who die and have died, to people who would like to breathe but find they are not permitted to, my peaceful friends who find themselves facing violence while bringing none, to post uplifting jazz music.

I won’t make any pompous claims about jazz being a bringer of peaceful relations.  It hasn’t always been so, either for musicians or listeners.  But I feel an obligation to spread joy in deep darkness, perhaps to remind ourselves that the human spirit is capable of acts that are generous and kind.  I hope you feel this too.

And if my “politics” offend you, if you applaud what is happening in your neighborhood, if you think the current regime is the best there ever was, if you praise a deceased musician of color but recoil from an actual person of the same hue taking a walk, please feel encouraged to cancel your subscription to JAZZ LIVES and find another source for music.  Kindly hold the door so it doesn’t slam, here and on Facebook. I will live through your defection.  And so will the music.

May your happiness increase!

HE RODE WITH JAMES P. JOHNSON: TALKING WITH IRV KRATKA (July 31, 2015)

irv

Irv Kratka (drums) doesn’t have a huge discographical entry in Tom Lord’s books, but he played with some fine musicians: Bunk Johnson, Dick Wellstood, James P. Johnson, Ephie Resnick, Joe Muranyi, Bob Mielke, Knocky Parker, Jerry Blumberg, Cyrus St. Clair, among others, in the years 1947-50.  I knew of Irv from those recordings (many of which are quite rare) but also as the creator and guiding genius of Music Minus One and a number of other jazz labels including Classic Jazz and Inner City.

But I had never met Irv Kratka (human being, jazz fan, record producer, concert promoter) in the flesh until this year when we encountered each other at the Terry Blaine / Mark Shane concert in Croton-on-Hudson, and I immediately asked if he’d be willing to sit for a video interview, which he agreed to on the spot.  Irv is now 89 . . . please let that sink in . . . and sharp as a tack, as Louis would say.  His stories encompass all sorts of people and scenes, from Bunk’s band at the Stuyvesant Casino, Louis and Bunk at a club, a car ride with James P. Johnson, lessons from Billy Gladstone, a disagreement between Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke, all the way up to the present and his current hero, multi-instrumentalist Glenn Zottola.

I didn’t want to interrogate Irv, so I didn’t pin him to the wall with minutiae about what James P. might have said in the car ride or what Jerry Blumberg ordered at the delicatessen, but from these four casual interview segments, you can get a warm sense of what it was like to be a young jazz fan in the late Thirties, an aspiring musician and concert producer in the Forties, onwards to today.  It was a privilege to speak with Irv and he generously shared his memories — anecdotes of Bunk Johnson, Baby Dodds, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, George Lewis, Bill Russell, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dick Wellstood, Peg Leg Bates, Lena Horne, Joe Muranyi, Billy Gladstone, Jacques Butler, Jerry Blumberg, Art Hodes, Albert Nicholas, Sarah Vaughan, George Brunis — also fond recollections of Bob Wilber, Bob Mielke, Ephie Resnick and others.

Here are four informal segments from our conversation — the first and last fairly lengthy discussions, the middle two vignettes.

One:

Two:

Three:

Four:

Now, here’s another part of the story.  Irv plans to sell several of his labels: Inner City, Classic Jazz, Proscenium (the last with three Dick Hyman discs) Audio Journal (The Beatles at Shea Stadium – Audience Reaction), and Rockland Records which consists of the first and only CD by the Chapin Bros. (Harry, Tom, and Steve) comedy albums by Theodore, and a disc featuring Mae West songs / W.C. Fields. The catalogue includes 141 titles, and there are more than 42,000 discs to turn over to the new owner, all at “a very nominal price.”  Serious inquiries only to ikratka@mmogroup.com.

May your happiness increase!

GOODBYE, RED BALABAN. FAREWELL, BOB GREENE

I’ve written very sparingly about the deaths of jazz musicians in JAZZ LIVES — for one reason, thinking that turning this blog into an ongoing necrological record was at odds with its title. But without saying that one musician is more important than another (Bobby Gordon, Frank Wess, Al Porcino, Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Sam Ulano, and a dozen others I am not mentioning here) I want to write and share a few words about two deaths of late 2013.

One was the bassist / guitarist / singer / impresario Leonard “Red” Balaban, the other, pianist Bob Greene.  Both of them were ardent workers in the jazz vineyards, and both (in their own subtle ways) did as much to advance the music as more-heralded musicians.

I had occasion to observe and interact with Red Balaban many times in 1972-5, again in 1975-the early Eighties, and once in 2013. In the summer of 1972, I learned from reading the listings in THE NEW YORKER that Sunday-afternoon jazz sessions were being held at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage — sic transit gloria mundi) on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street.  I and several friends made pilgrimages there.  The Mustache was a huge hall with sawdust on the floor, creaking long tables and wobbly chairs.  But for a nominal admission charge and the purchase of food and drink of dubious quality, we could sit as close to the bandstand as possible and (often) illicitly record the music.  The house band — Balaban and Cats — harking back to Red’s heritage in show business with the Chicago movie theatre chain created by Balaban and Katz — was usually a sextet, with Red playing string bass and singing, occasionally guitar or banjo, rarely tuba.  He called the tunes in consultation with the guest star, chose tempos, and led the session.  The Cats I remember were Marquis Foster, Buzzy Drootin, Dick Wellstood, Bobby Pratt, Chuck Folds, Red Richards, Sal Pace, Kenny Davern, Joe Muranyi, Dick Rath, Herb Gardner, Ed Polcer, Doc Cheatham, and I am sure there were others.  The guest stars, stopping in from Olympus or Valhalla, were Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Buddy Tate, Jo Jones, Dicky Wells, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Bob Wilber — enough stiumlation for a lifetime.  I was a college student with limited funds, so I didn’t see every session: missing Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, Lou McGarity, and others.  But I did see Eddie Condon in the audience, which would make the Sunday sessions memorable even if no music had been played.  And his daughter Liza was there now and again, photographing the musicians.

A few years later, I saw Red occasionally as a member of Mike Burgevin’s little band at Brew’s, playing alongside Vic Dickenson and other luminaries.  Eventually, Red and Ed Polcer created the “last” Eddie Condon’s, on 54th Street, and I went there when I could — the house band, as I recall it, included Ed, Vic, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, John Bunch, Connie, Kay, Ronnie Cole, and another galaxy of visitors, including Helen Humes, Al Hall, Jimmy Rowles, Brooks Kerr, Marty Grosz, Bob Sparkman, Ruby Braff, Joe Bushkin, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones.  At Condon’s one could also see Billy Butterfield, Dan Barrett, Soprano Summit, Zoot and Al — a midtown oasis, now gone.

Finally, I got to meet Red once again, after a lapse of decades, at the October 2012 house party created by Joel Schiavone and Jeff Barnhart. I introduced myself as someone who had good reason to be grateful to him for those Sunday sessions, and we chatted a bit.

Thanks to CineDevine, we have two samples of Red, late in his career, gently entertaining the room, with assistance from Jim Fryer, Jeff Barnhart, and others.  In a Waller-Razaf mood:

and something pretty from Rodgers and Hart:

A musician I respect, someone around in those New York years, had this to say about Red: “Not only did he love the music, but thousands upon thousands of dollars went through his hands and into the hands of musicians.  What he did with Condon’s # 3 is part of New York City jazz history.  He was a kind man who came from a very interesting family.  He wasn’t Ray Brown or Bob Haggart, but he kept jazz alive.”

Without Red Balaban, I doubt that I — and many others — would have heard as much memorable music as we did in those New York years.  So we owe him a great deal.  And he will be missed.  Another view of Red can be found here.

Pianist Bob Greene also left us late in 2013.

Bob devoted his life to celebrating Jelly Roll Morton and his music. He wasn’t the only pianist who has done so, but his emulation was fervent. I saw him summon up the Master at Alice Tully Hall in 1974 with a lovely little band (Pee Wee Erwin, Ephie Resnick, Herb Hall, Alan Cary, Milt Hinton, Tommy Benford).  They couldn’t quite turn that austere space into a Storyville bordello or the Jungle Inn (it would have required an architectural reconstruction taking years) but the music floated and rocked.  Across the distance of the decades, I think of Bob as a brilliant actor, committed with all his heart and energy to one role and to the perfection of that role — not a bad life-goal.

Bob was respected by his peers.  Mike Lipskin said, “Bob was a fine performer of Jelly Roll Morton compositions, and devoted much of his life to keeping the memory of this giant early jazz pioneer alive. I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert many years ago.”  And a man we just lost, Bobby Gordon, told me, “I have fond memories of Bob for 40 years. He was always enthusiastic about music. I recorded with him 40 years ago and most recently for Jazzology. It was wonderful to record with him again, and a joy to be with such a remarkable talent. I will miss him……..a dear friend.”

Here’s a beautiful expansive piece by Hank O’Neal, a very lively evocation of Bob:

The first time I saw Bob Greene, he was playing a poor electric piano with a fairly loose ensemble, on the back of a flat bed truck. The band on the truck was trying, unsuccessfully, to recreate the feeling generated by old time bands on wagons in New Orleans. It is a long way from New Orleans to Manassas, Virginia, and 1967 was a half a century removed from those heady days in the Crescent City. I don’t remember the enterprise stirring up much support for the first Manassas Jazz Festival, but Bob was on board because his old friend, Edmund “Doc” Souchon was also there, and Doc had probably asked him to come along. I know it happened because I have a snapshot to prove it. In another snapshot from the same day he’s playing cornet.

You had to look pretty hard to find out anything about Bob. He’s not well-known today, rarely mentioned in any of the standard jazz reference books, and you have to dig pretty deep to come up with any information at all, but the bits and pieces are there if you look for them. And the story and the music he’s made along the way are both wonderful.

Bob’s first love was Benny Goodman, Jess Stacy and the swing guys who were all over the place when he was a teenager. He could still, when asked, do the best imitation of Stacy I’ve ever heard, but at some point he heard Jelly Roll Morton, and was hooked. Until his death in 2013, he remained one of the foremost exponent of Jelly’s music in the land. There are other guys who could play more notes, play King Porter Stomp louder or Fingerbuster faster, but when it came to really delivering the goods, with just the right mix of technique, exuberance and sentiment, nobody else even came close.

There are other guys who play Morton’s compositions well, in the style, often with more sheer technique, but, for the most part, this is just a portion, usually a small portion, of their repertory. The music of Jelly Roll Morton and some of his circa 1900 contemporaries, made up about 90 percent of Bob’s playbook, and the telephone doesn’t ring very often these days, or any other days for the past few decades, for someone to play a recital of Morton’s music. Which was just fine for Bob. He never had any intention of being a full time musician. The world was just full of too many other things to try.

Bob made his first recordings in 1950 with Conrad Janis (Circle) and in 1951 with Sidney DeParis (Blue Note) and recorded intermittently for the next sixty years, whenever it was convenient. His performance schedule was about the same. He played in and around New York City in the 1950s and Washington D.C. in the 1960s because he was writing some pretty fancy stuff for assorted notables to read on radio or in political speeches. Goodness knows what else he may have been up to. When he wrote a book about the OSS exploits of his cousin, Paul Blum, he had no difficulty gaining access to the highest levels of the intelligence community. But back to the music.

After Bob climbed down off the back of the truck during the ill-fated parade in Manassas, I discovered he could also play a real piano and when he played Morton it was special. As I’ve suggested, he made up in spirit and authenticity what he may lacked in a formidable technique. Not that he made mistakes, he didn’t, but to this particular pianist, passion was the point, not technique. He had all he needed to get his point across. Much in the same as Thelonoius Monk. Other people played Just A Gigolo better than Monk, but nobody played it with more quirky feeling.

The first time I really heard Bob was when I was asked to round up the gear to record a band to be led by the then legendary, now largely forgotten drummer, Zutty Singleton. The gear came from Squirrel Ashcraft, the recorder, microphones, even the take-up reels. It was February 12, 1967, I remember the date with great affection because it was the very first commercially released record I ever worked on. It was also my first encounter with Zutty, still a marvelous drummer, and the only person I ever heard in person who could almost simulate a melody on the drums.

Bob Greene was a strong presence among many exceptional players that day and the highlight of the recording, to me at least, was a duo, just Zutty and Bob, on Cake Walking Babies From Home. I don’t know if Jelly ever played the tune, but if he did, he would have played it like Bob played it that day, and maybe Zutty would have been around to make sure. This was Johnson McRee’s first record for his Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and except for a solo outing by Don Ewell, perhaps the best record he ever produced.

In the 1970s, I asked Bob to record for Chiaroscuro on many occasions, but he always declined. There was always a semi-legitimate excuse. He was the only person I asked to record in those years who didn’t jump at the chance, including Bob’s first idol, Jess Stacy. In the late 1970’s Bob assembled his World of Jelly Roll Morton band, made a fine record for RCA, played Carnegie Hall a few years and toured successfully with the group. But most of the time he was in between New Orleans, Paris, Tokyo and New York, rarely in any place for very long. He slowed down long enough to record all the Jelly Roll Morton tracks for Louis Malle’s fine film, Pretty Baby and he enthralled audiences with his Jelly Roll show at numerous Floating Jazz Festivals. I recorded one of these shows in the late 1980s. Maybe I’ll listen to it one day and see if it should be released.

In 1994 we produced an event for Cunard on Queen Elizabeth 2, a 12-day survey of the music of New Orleans, and Bob was on board, as both Jelly Roll Morton and as the pianist with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The New Yorker’s noted critic, Whitney Balliett, was also on board, in disguise as Baby Dodds, tastefully accompanying Bob on a snare and cymbal. Romantic that he was, Bob fell in love with the ship and was heartbroken when he learned that much of the furniture in the ship’s Theater Bar, where he held forth nightly with Whitney, was to be taken off QE2 when it reached New York, and given to the Salvation Army. He decided he had to have a table and four leather chairs and set about finding a way to work it out.

When we docked, I left via the crew gangway, and saw Bob at the other end of the pier in heated conversation with a man in a Salvation Army uniform. Longshoreman were hauling the furniture and putting it inside a truck. I later learned that Bob got his furniture. The deal was for a table and four leather chairs, in the best condition possible, delivered to his home on 92nd Street. In exchange, Bob promised to assemble a band, including Whitney, to play for a Salvation Army Christmas party. A decade or so later Bob moved out to the end of Long island and that old Theater Bar furniture moved with him, a few miles closer to Southampton. This is the kind of thing that appealed to Bob.

If Bob had worked at a career in music half as hard as he worked at getting that furniture, who knows what might have happened? But perhaps nothing would have happened, which is the case with most people who try to have a career in jazz, and he wouldn’t have had nearly as good a time as he had for the past 91 years. He was one of a handful of pianists I’d go out of my way to hear because he always made me happy. He had the same effect on others.

In November 2006 he toured Japan and a lot of other people went out of their way to hear him. After that he began working on a project to present a Jelly Roll Morton show at Jazz At Lincoln Center but it didn’t work out. A year or so after that he asked what I thought of getting him together with Joshua Bell for some duets. I thought it sound like a good idea, that Bell could do a lot worse. That didn’t work out either but an awful lot did and the music that resulted with simply wonderful.

Bob and friends:

MAMIE’S BLUES (2006):

I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY (2010):

TIGER RAG (2011):

Thinking about these men, all I can say is this.

Not everyone is a Star, but everyone counts.  And fortunate are those who can follow their life’s calling and share their passions with us.

May your happiness increase!

BREAKING NEWS OF 1942: PEE WEE ERWIN LAUNCHES OWN NAME IN THE BIG TIME!

This full-page advertisement (a musical history in photographs) comes from the 1942 Conn instruments advertisement book / brochure.  It’s a delightful piece of ancient musical history but also serves as a reason to celebrate George “Pee Wee” Erwin, one of the great yet underrated lyrically hot trumpeters for more than four decades.  Early on (as the photographs show) he worked with Joe Haymes, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Ray Noble, Tommy Dorsey — in that latter situation, being asked in 1937 to follow Bunny Berigan, a nearly impossible task.  I don’t know how long his 1942 fame lasted, but after the end of the Swing Era he led memorable small “Dixieland” bands at Nick’s and Lou Terassi’s . . . I saw him play in 1974 as part of Bob Greene’s THE WORLD OF JELLY ROLL MORTON — in a concert recorded and issued on RCA Victor (the other members of the band were Milt Hinton, Tommy Benford, Alan Cary, Herb Hall, and Ephie Resnick).  Late in life Pee Wee was able to record several relaxed, unhackneyed sessions under his own name for the Qualtro label — one a duet with Bucky Pizzarelli, others just as sweetly expert.

I don’t understand how someone “Launches own Name IN THE BIG TIME,” but perhaps that’s why I was never an advertising copywriter.

As a lead trumpeter or a hot soloist, he is someone we miss!

May your happiness increase.

“RECORD TREASURES (2) MARTY GROSZ”

The syntax is sometimes baffling (thanks to Google translation from the Japanese) but the intent is clear, and it’s one I share — to celebrate and honor Martin Oliver Grosz, as well as his wonderful (and extremely rare) 1951 records with Dick Wellstood, Frank Chace, Pops Foster, Tommy Benford, Ephie Resnick, and Hugh McKay:

Record treasures (2) Marty Grosz
September 3, 2000 (Sun), Marty Gross charity concert was held in Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Art.
Why, you might reasonably be thought to concerts at the museum. Actually, the father of gross, but was born in Germany, continued to criticize the German caricaturist George Grosz’s largest Century 20 (real name: George Gross 1898-1959) is the.From August 6 to September to the 24th, the exhibition has been held by George Grosz, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Art, Sept. 3, the concert is not held as one of the event Marty Gross.
Gross, now ages 20, 30 in the leading jazz and classical repertoire’s primary, has been active on the world stage as an arch-top guitar virtuoso.On the day, the Tsukuba depart 8:40 minutes, if all goes well I will get to Utsunomiya sometimes 12. Joban Line in injury Tsuchiura But straight out of a whopping three hours late! Start of the concert arrived 10 minutes before the museum was 2:50 minutes.So I became a part of stand. Year 1929 made by Gibson L-5 (16inch gold hardware in the body) have appeared in gloss, CD follows a familiar song and we sang and played. Still raw L-5 was a really good sound.The second part, and to return to families with young children could sit in the front. 2 meters before the closely watched technique was a good shout. No.1 song in the popular vote in the ability of power, now 70 years old and is unbelievably great, energetic two hours.After the concert, I went to see the gloss. People who bought the CD only, beating restrained by staff that差Shi出Shimashita two copies of the records SP Gross. Was surprised when I can not forget that face. Records this SP, June 6, 1951, which was recorded in New York, Gross was the first session will be 21 years old. In this session, and view photos Gross tenor (4 string), seems to play the guitar.

The time to migrate to the LP era, this record is the end of SP Gross and I have only two copies.
Historically, the record was one of my treasures, treasures risen in the ranks of the sign of the day.(2000.9.4)


Mart Gross & the Cellar Boys
(Jolly Roger 2003)

Mart Gross & the Cellar Boys
(Jolly Roger 2004)

Gross said during performance
Marty Grosz with Gibson L-5
(Photo: Dr. Yanagisawa)

(From left) After the concert, around the Gross
Seya Yanagisawa Mr. Hasegawa said Mr. Yamada, Mr. Gross’s exit
(Photo: Dr. Yanagisawa)

The original site, for those fluent in Japanese, is http://www.sakura.cc.tsukuba.ac.jp/~jazzsp/topic/rare2.htm.

“BIX AND HIS GANG” REDUX, 1975

I don’t exactly know the source of the videos below — except that they’ve been posted by “sergech” on YouTube some time ago.  I was in the audience at several New York City concerts of the New York Jazz Repertory Company in 1974 and 1975: two tributes to Louis Armstrong, two to Bix Beiderbecke, but I can’t say whether these clips come from either of the two Bix concerts that I saw.

And perhaps the whole world has already seen them on YouTube.  But since I keep returning to them with pleasure, awe, and sadness, perhaps they will be new to someone?  The personnel is Richard M. Sudhalter and Warren Vache, cornets; Ephie Resnick, trombone; Bob Wilber, reeds; Kenny Davern, bass sax; a nearly invisible Dill Jones, piano; Marty Grosz, banjo; Chauncey Morehouse, drums.  Although the color is murky (perhaps the source was a videotape?) the camerawork is professional, as is the sound. 

Here’s a serious, steady ROYAL GARDEN BLUES that features Sudhalter and Vache trading congenial solos at the end, anchored by Davern’s stately bass sax (he sounds as if he’s playing LESTER LEAPS IN at one point) and Morehouse’s rocking drums:

DAVENPORT BLUES, where Sudhalter takes the solo:

And GOOSE PIMPLES, solidly anchored by Morehouse’s parade beats on the snare, Dill Jones both audible and visible, Vache having the last word:

Finally, a moving SINCE MY BEST GAL TURNED ME DOWN, with the “slow-drag” section firmly in place and a wonderful Davern solo:

Shall we mourn all of them who are gone — Davern, Dill Jones, Morehouse, Sudhalter?  Or shall we celebrate the survivors — Grosz, Resnick, Vache, Wilber?

Both, I believe.  And Bix, both gone and surviving.

FRANK CHACE ON DISC

This post is meant as a follow-up to my lengthy presentation of letters from the Chicago clarinetist to me.  When Frank Chace died, many jazz listeners who would have admired his work were unaware of it, and the first question asked on several online forums was “Where can I hear his recorded work?  Here’s a brief overviewm beginning with something of a sentimental artifact.

These aren’t compact discs, but 78s from the first recording session of both Marty Grosz and Frank Chace.  Dick Wellstood had already been recording since 1946; Pops Foster and Tommy Benford were veterans. 

Two other titles were recorded: the session was reissued on ten-inch lps on the Pax / Paradox label.  Compact disc reissue, anyone?

Since most of my readers prefer compact discs, here is a brief (and perhaps incomplete) listing of current issues of Frank’s music, in approximate chronological order.

DEWEY JACKSON LIVE AT THE BARREL CLUB, 1952 (Delmark).  This session, recorded by Delmark’s founder Bob Koester, finds Chace with trombonist Sid Dawson and St. Louis trumpet legend Jackson as well as long-time friend Don Ewell. 

SALTY DOGS 1955 (Windin’ Ball).  This features trumpeter Birch Smith, who arranged for the music to be recorded, the legendary trombonist Jim Snyder, John Cooper (piano); Jack Lord (banjo); Bob Rann (tuba); Dick Karner (drums).  Visit http://www.tradjazzproductions.com/music3.html to hear an mp3 of Frank — and to order the CD from TradJazz Productions.

HOORAY FOR BIX: Marty Grosz and his Honoris Causa Jazz Band, 1957 (Riverside / Good Time Jazz).  These sessions — under Marty Grosz’s leadership – pair Frank with cornetist Carl Halen, Bill Priestley on guitar and second cornet, Bud Wilson on trombone, Bob Skiver on reeds, Tut Soper on piano, and others.  (The outlandish names on the liner are pseudonyms — for reasons I have never discerned, since most of the players were not under contract to any other company.)  This might be the best introduction to Frank on record.  A vinyl record of alternate performances showed up very briefly at the end of the vinyl era (and the alternate material was again issued on a compact disc on the British J&M label.)

JIMMY ARCHEY / DON EWELL LIVE AT THE EMPORIUM OF JAZZ, 1967 (GHB: 2 CDs).  Recorded live at the Emporium of Jazz in Mendota, Michigan, home base for the Hall Brothers’ Jazz Band, this live issue features Archey, Don Ewell, trumpeter Bill Price, and drummer Red Maddock among others.

FRANK CHACE and his CHICAGO LOOPERS, 1987 (Jazzology: 2 CDs).  This 2009 issue pairs Frank with the fine drummer Hal Smith, the Bix-inspired cornetist Tom Pletcher, gutty trombonist Tom Bartlett, bassist Dan Shapera, and pianist Joe Johnson.  The candid portrait of Frank at work is by his friend Terry Martin. 

Jazzology plans to issue a complete 2-CD set of the sessions Frank recorded with Butch Thompson, Charlie DeVore, John Otto, Hal Smith, and others — originally issued in part on vinyl as BUTCH THOMPSON AND HIS BOYS.

Should anyone suggest a hidden agenda — ranking the merit of these recordings by the size of the images above — nothing of the sort is implied or expressed. 

Other CDs with appearances by Frank have come and gone — a Vanguard session led by Jim Kweskin (featuring Marty Grosz and Ted Butterman) called JUMP FOR JOY; Frank’s one track from a 1981 Newport Jazz Festival tribute, CHICAGO JAZZ SUMMIT (Atlantic).  Much of his recorded work has been issued on spectacularly obscure recordings: two records by Marty Grosz and his Gaslighters on Audio Fidelity; a session with Dave Remington on Jubilee (a record, oddly enough, that has surfaced a good deal online — in inexpensive V+ copies); with Doc Evans on Soma (where Frank plays baritone sax as well as clarinet).  But Frank’s refusal to play or record music not to his liking make his recorded oeuvre smaller than it should have been.  Ironically, at times I tried to interest two producers of traditional jazz records in doing a Frank Chace recording — preferably a new session — by sending them a cassette of chace in 1958 and 1997.  I received, as I recall, polite demurrers.  Not, mind you, that Frank was ever eager to record: his Chicago friends did herculean wheedling and coaxing with very little result.  But it took until 2009 — and the efforts of Hal Smith — to have a CD issued under Frank’s name, which is a pity.

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2010
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

LETTERS FROM FRANK CHACE, 1998-2002

I first heard the Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace on 1951 broadcast recordings from Storyville (issued on Savoy records and reissued in the late Seventies) where he held his own alongside Wild Bill Davison, Ephie Resnick, and a loud rhythm section.  (Later, Frank would tell me that he was half-deafened by Davison’s habit of blowing into the clarinetist’s ear.)  Chace impressed me as having absorbed Pee Wee Russell’s style without exactly copying Pee Wee.  Years later, I thought that he was to Pee Wee what Buck Clayton was to Louis — a loving reflection, a distillation.  But in the early days of my vinyl-searching, there was no other Chace to be found on record. 

in 1986, when I began corresponding and trading tapes with John L. Fell — film scholar, amateur clarinetist, and erudite jazz collector — he sent a cassette of private Chace performances: some with Marty Grosz, others with the guitarist / cornetist Bill Priestley.  On this tape, I heard thoughtful questing that had only been hinted at on the Storyville recordings.  And I wanted to hear more.  After asking all the collectors I knew (among them the late Bob Hilbert and the still-active Joe Boughton, Wayne Jones, Gene Kramer) to dig into their Chace holdings, I had a good deal of music in settings where he felt comfortable enough to explore, from 1951 duets with Don Ewell to a Marty Grosz nonet and various small groups.  Frank’s brilliance and subtlety — his willingness to take risks — moved me greatly.  I iamgine I was also intrigued by his elusiveness: his name appeared in none of the jazz reference books; his issued recordings were out of print, except for a Jim Kweskin session on Vanguard. 

Quite by accident I learned that he was still playing.  WBGO-FM broadcast live remotes from the Chicago Jazz Festival over the Labor Day weekend.  In 1997, listening idly to the proceedings, I heard the announcer say, “Up next, the Frank Chace Quintet.”  I scrambled for a new cassette, and, feeling as if the heavens had opened to let divinity in, heard Frank play, marvelously, including a bossa nova and LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY.  This gave me hope that he was alive and well, and I imagined that I might see him play sometime or have a new Chace recording to study. 

Because I had spent much of my academic life as a literary detective, poring over unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, I became fascinated by Frank as a subject for study.  I knew that he lived in Evanston, Illinois, and when I had his address confirmed by the Chicago musicians’ union, Marty Grosz, and John Steiner, I felt bold enough to proceed by writing to him.

I don’t have my letters to Frank, although his friend and executor Terry  Martin tells me that Frank saved them, but I am sure that I introduced myself as an admirer, someone who would like to write about him (I had been reviewing CDs for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors Journal and was soon to start writing for The Mississippi Rag).  In this post, I present his side of the correspondence.  I have omitted only a few telephone numbers and addresses of individuals; otherwise I have left the letters intact.  I have guessed at the placement of the few undated items; readers are free to do their own reshuffling if my logic offends. 

I must have sent him some Pee Wee Russell cassettes, and addressed him (politely) as Mr. Chace:

12 Apr 98

Dear Michael,

     A hasty note of thanks for the astounding packet.  Golly, Pee Wee was even better than I thought.

     I had no idea anyone was tracking my transgressions.  If I recall, some of those pallid Pee Wee-ish peregrinations are even lousier than others.

     You still think I should be interviewed?

     I wish Hilbert had looked me up.  I might have filled in a few spaces, e.g. PWR for Jack T. at Curley’s in Springlfield IL Oct 93 [sic], et alia.  Five glorious drunken nites. 

     My father was from Mayville, N.Y.  Any relation?

Cordially, Frank.

P.S.  I’m Mr. Chace only to the IRS.

Frank’s opinion of his playing here is positively sunny.  “Hilbert” was Robert Hilbert, who had written a Russell biography and compiled a discography.  Later, Frank told me that the Curley’s gig was meant to be a Jack Teagarden quartet — Teagarden was by then appearing only with Don Ewell, a bassist Frank remembered only as “Pappy,” who was derisive about the other players, and drummer Barrett Deems.  When Teagarden took sick, Pee Wee filled in for him, and Frank remembered long explorations of each song that would end with many choruses of eight-bar and four-bar trades among the quartet.  Don Ewell was his great friend and musical mentor.  And “Mayville” is a mild joke; I was living in Melville, New York.

Encouraged by his response, I sent Frank a photocopy of my then amorphous Chace discography:

 20 April 1998

Dear Michael,

     I’ve entered some guesses along with one or two certainties.  I recall some of these sessions vividly, others not at all.

     As for the penultimate entry on the reverse side, if you send a cassette I might sort it out.  But aside from a few tunes with Marty [Grosz] and a bassist [Dan Shapera] from the Chi. Jazz Institute’s Jazz Fair in Jan. 1984 I haven’t listened to myself since before 1982, when I stopped drinking.  Too grisly.  (Except for a few S[alty] D[og] ensembles, below*.)

     There was a 1968 session (at John Steiner’s, like many of them) during Marty’s brief affair with electricity: Lullaby in Rhythm, Exactly Like You.  These should be around, God knows, if the rest of this stuff is.

     Birch Smith sent me a CD “Selty Dogs 1955” last year.  He finally issued them (Windin’ Ball) but so far as I know distributes from his home, only.  I’d make you a dub but don’t know how.  (I have only a Sony Diskman for playing.)

     Do you have the 1961 Jabbos?  Lorraine Gordon issued [a] two-LP boxed set around 1984.  Sure enough, we didn’t try any Jazz Battles or Boston Skuffles, but we thought Jabbo was wonderful seapite reviewers’ demurrers.  I never had other than a tape dub but gave it away 30 years ago!

Cheers back atcha,

 Frank

I don’t remember when I asked Frank if we might talk on the telephone; he agreed, although our conversations were intermittent at best, usually on Sunday evenings.  Once I interrupted him when he was about to eat some soup; other times I would let the phone ring twenty or so times before giving up.  I now assume, and Terry Martin agrees, that Frank was at home — as he aged, his mobility was limited by illnesses — but did not want to talk. 

I do recall his amusement when I asked his permission to record our conversations for a profile of him; he was both flattered and puzzled.  He had said that he didn’t write to me as often as he would like because he lacked paper and pens; ever enterprising (or overbearing?) I sent him some.  Now, I think he was being polite and evasive; I was more interested in interviewing him than he was in being interviewed.  Gene Kramer, who had co-written a book on Don Ewell, had sent me a collection of Pee Wee rarities, which I copied for Frank:            

24 Aug 98

Dear Michael,

     It’s yet unclear how churlish I can get — might at least have sent a thank you card, but didn’t think I had any stamps.  (NO — please don’t send stamps – I found some.)

     *I haven’t listened to it all so far — it’s easier to replay the marvelous alternate Ida.  Marty once opined that PW’s style came to fruition only around Home Cooking time, but it seems PW was annoying and perplexing his colleagues years earlier.  And, how those other guys could play B I Y O Backyard.  I’m reminded again of hos much I love Max.

     *I’ve wondered for a long time how the US got this way — a week ago at the N[orthwestern] U[niversity] library I read NSC 68 (to be found in “Foreign Relations of the United States,” 1950 Vol I page 234).  Example: “We seek to achieve (our values) by the strategy of the Cold War.”  The whole thing is absorbing.  Books I might have mentioned to youare The Frozen Republic by Daniel Lazare and Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948 by Frank Kofsky.  If you’re interested.

     Later.  it’s to hot and humid for now.

     *The “I” violated your code.

     SPPFL = Society for the Preservation of Pete Fountain’s Legacy.

 Love, Yakov, master of the ocarina.

The “Ida” was an alternate take of the 1927 Red Nichols recording.  In retrospect, this letter mirrors our phone conversations.  Frank was articulate and well-read.  Although he could be wheedled into talking about himself (briefly and grudgingly) and the musicians he admired, his real subject was the downfall of the United States.  I was much less well-informed about global history, and this seemed to exasperate him.  I shared some of his views, but his gloom and rage were far deeper.  I suspect now that he humored me when we spoke of jazz, but that it struck him as almost irrelevant.  His comments about “I” and the “SPPFL,” which he had written on the envelope, need explanation.  Frank disdained players he thought “synthetic”; Fountain was one.  And I had mock-apologized in a letter for beginning several paragraphs in a row with “I”; hence his asterisks.

I didn’t hear from Frank until the end of the year, when a Seasons Greetings card arrived. 

  Dear Michael,

     A bacterial infection put me in the hospital (out cold) Sept 14 – Oct 13 and Rehab Oct 13 – Dec 4, but I recover apace.  Sorry about the hiatus.  Hope you are well and prospering in this psychotic Republic.

 

[undated]

Dear Michael,

     Hoping all’s well with you.  You wanted a picture.  All I’ve unearthed so far are pix from Aspen, where Marty got me a few weeks with The Village Stompers.  The wide angle shot shows Alfie Jones, a dandy Toronto trombonist, greeting Lou McGarity.  The others you know or are listed.

     I’ve been out of touch with Sandy Priestley, Bill’s younger son, the one most interested in his dad’s music.  He one told me that Avis, Squirrel [Ashcraft]’s daughter, had rescued some stuff from the Evanston Coachouse and needed ID’s for some of the players.  He, Seymour, lives in or near Milwaukee.  I don’t want to put him in touch with you without your permission.  The 1951 tracks with Nichols and Rushton, and Bill’s anthem Isn’t It Romantic might interest Sandy and Avis a lot, but it’s been a while . . . . This makes me miss the old “Club 55” (Lake Forest).  John Steiner, too.  The old order passeth.

Cheers anyway,

As ever, Frank.

I had sent Frank a private tape (original source possibly John Steiner, the great archivist of Chicago jazz) of a 1951 Squirrel Ashcraft session featuring Red Nichols and Joe Rushton.

2 Feb 1999

Dear Michael,

     I only just uncovered your Prima cassette amidst four cases of accumulated mail, mostly junko.  I had never even known of the enhanced orch. of side B.  PWR’s chorus-long trill on Dinah has me confounded.  Never knew him to do the circular breathing thing.  Prima clearly exhilarated him.  Egged him on.  Exhorted him.  PWR IS SUPERMAN.

     I (hereby disobeying your paragraph rule) never replied to your probe for an 8 x 10 glossy.  Fact is, I never had one.  The J D Salinger of the clarinet.

     Yet another fellow, a Brit, has written about doing a piece on me for IAJRC publication of Miss. Rag.  I’ve come across his note ten times, but now can’t find it.  Name of Derek Coller from County Berkshire if I recall.  Do you know of him?  I might never find his address.  I am less churlish than lazy and disorganized.

     Your cassettes are better for me that Wodehouse’s BUCK-YOU-UPPO.

Cheers,

Frank

Frank was referring to the Brunswick recordings Pee Wee had made as a member of Louis Prima’s band, which show off Prima as successfully ouis-inspired, and Pee Wee responding with great enthusiasm.  Ironically, Derek Coller (a fine jazz scholar) and Bert Whyatt did finish a long essay on Frank for JAZZ JOURNAL — in 2009 — and an accompanying discography for the IAJRC Journal in the same year.  Like Bix and some of the Austin High Gang, Frank loved P.G. Wodehouse.

9 March 1999

Dear Michael,

      You Leave Me Breathless.  What?  No Simeon too?  Do I not play like Simeon?  Beale (Billy) Riddle thought I played like Simeon.  Possibly not like him on”Bandanna Days” tho.  Beautiful. 

      Your encomiums had me groping for my blue pencil, but I won’t query you less’n you want.  The finale, or coda, “inspired improvisation,” is a dandy.  STET.  I told you I was fighting for my life.

     As for your S[umma] C[um] L[aude] submissions, they only fortify my esteem for those guys.  How competent they are.  The medley, stitched together with modulations ouf of Easy to Get, seems an outstanding ploy.  Signature segues.  The Miff unissued V-Disc: I heard Peg O’My Heart at Nick’s, then on Commodore, but PWR is positively SEIZED on this on.  And on what you call “Notes on Jazz,” see if you don’t identify Mel Powell.  The Bushkin right-hand grupetti, the fleeting salute to the Lion.  And if Bert Naser is Bob Casey, why?  AFM?  And Joe Sullivans, I’d never heard these.  No wonder [Richard] Hadlock’s fixation. 

     And Swing It.  Priceless.  My undying gratitude is yours.  I’ve watched it only once so far, perhaps refusing to believe it.

     And that fool Brunis.  (Ending tape segment.)  PWR phoned from the hotel upon arriving [in] Chicago with McP (MaFathead) for that NPR thing (Oct. 67?).  I said, “Pee Wee!  You called me”!*  He said, “Who would I call, Brunis”? (Georg was his lifelong tormentor.)

     I found the Coller letter and replied saying that the recounting of my legendary career had been already besought, but omitting your name and address.  If you care to write him . . . .

     Instead of dredging out my apartment I did so with my wallet and found the enclosed.  It’ll have to do.  Soon I’ll be “a tattered coat upon a stick.”  Whence the quote?

Love and XXX,

Frank

*I have to watch my punctuation p’s and q’s, Prof.

P.S.  My regards to [Gene] Kramer.  We’ve got out of touch.

Have you read “the Ends of the Earth” by Robert D. Kaplan?  An outstanding travel book.

Frank admired the Fifties John Coltrane, and “You Leave Me Breathless” was one of his favorites.  I had written an exultant review of the 1955 Salty Dogs CD to the IAJRC Journal and sent Frank a copy.  Since it infuriated him when people assumed he was imitating Pee Wee, I made the point that Frank had reinvented many of the classic clarinet styles — Dodds and Noone among them.  Beale Riddle was a jazz fan, amateur drummer, and recordist who had captured an early trio of Frank, Don Ewell, and himself for posterity.  “Bandanna Days” was recorded by “the Carnival Three” in 1947 for Disc — Simeon, James P. Johnson, and Pops Foster.  I had sent Frank airshots of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra (with Kaminsky, Gowans, Pee Wee, and Bud) from the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in 1940, as well as an unissued V-Disc performance of “Peg O’My Heart” by Miff Mole, Pee Wee, Stirling Bose, and others.  “Notes on Jazz” captured a number of Condon concert performances — before the Blue Network series began in 1944 — for distribution to South America.  I had been given thirty minutes of this material by John L. Fell; the announcements were in Portuguese.  I had also sent Frank a videocassette copy of the Thirties film short subject SWING IT — featuring Pee Wee and Louis Prima at their most lively, and may have included the 1967 JAZZ ALLEY television show with Hodes, McPartland, and Pee Wee.  (Frank was in the audience, and remembered that Pee Wee offered McPartland five dollars to change places with him onstage.)  Richard Hadlock continues to be an active West Coast jazz historian and reedman; he did a good deal for an aging Joe Sullivan in the Sixties.  The quotation was from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which Frank knew I knew.  Still looking for a picture to send me, he had found an outdated bus pass in his wallet and enclosed it, which I still have.  Obviously he was in a happier mood.  And I was thrilled to be purveyor-of-jazz-treats, sharing pleasures.

28 June 99

Dear Michael,

      I went straight to the Marty-Ephie music.  Was there ever a one-man gang like Mart?  And Effie’s dry wit.  I can’t always tell whether he’s trying to be expressive or funny.  And he can play anything, sometimes all at once. 

     Grateful too for the Dodds stuff.  It seems the Harlem hot-shots foreswore mocking him musically – let’s hope they didn’t do so personally.  Terry Martin suggests he probably could hold his own in eiher context, Ewell’s fears notwithstanding.

     I never dreamt the Ashcraft stuff had been orgaznied and documented like that.  Pee Wee, guesting at Priestley’s in 1967, calimed he could identify Joe [Rushton’s] clarinet anywhere.  So far I’ve heard only a little from these cassettes.  Speaking of bass sax I have from the lib. “ART DECO” Sophisticated Ladies (Columbia, 2 CD’s set).  Ella Logan sings I Wish I Were Twins, with Adrian [Rollini], Max, Bud, [Carl] Kress, [Roy] Bargy, [Stan] King.

     It’s raining on this sheet.  Grateful to know someone who connects with my frame of reference.  Must run for cover.  WITH THANKS                      

FC

This time, I had sent a duet recording of Marty Grosz and trombonist Ephie Resnick, as well as the Decca sides pairing Johnny Dodds with Charlie Shavers, Pete Brown, and Teddy Bunn.  The Rushton recordings are informal duets recorded at Squirrel Ashcraft’s — Rushton on clarinet, Bob Zurke on piano.  Whether then or at another date, I had sent Frank a collection of other informal sessions at Squirrel’s: on the telephone, he told me that a prized listening experience was hearing Pee Wee on a 1939 or 1940 “Clarinet Marmalade.”

 27 Mar 00

Dear Michael,

     Don’t get a paper cut from these sheaves.  Not that these observations from K. Amis’s memoirs are new to you.

     I love the references to Hodes, with whom I played off and on between 1957 and 1984.

     Young J. Dapogny introduced me to Lucky Jim.  I evened up by playing him Tea for Two by one T. Monk, of whom he’d never heard.

As ever,

Frank   

The pages were excerpts from Kingsley Amis’s memoirs:  Amis, like his friend Philip Larkin, revered Pee Wee and especially the 1932 Rhythmakers sides.  In 1947, moving into an apartment, Amis glued to the wall “an over-enlarged photograph of the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, with a typed caption adapted from the last stanza of Tennyson’s poem, ‘To Virgil’: I salute thee, Pee Wee Russell, / I that loved thee since day began, Wielder of the wildest measure / ever moulded by the lips of man.’  Frank also took pleasure in Larkin’s dismissal of Hodes: “he sounded as if he had three hands and didn’t know what to do with any of them.”  When I see James Dapogny (now Professor Emeritus) I will ask him if the Monk anecdote is as he remembers it.

17 Jan 00

Dear Michael,

     I write this on my lap in front of football TV, having no surfaces owing to apt. mucking-out, and having no pen I like andneeding to buy six encased in plastic to find out.

     So this should be short – a mercy considering a sentence like the above.

     Nice to hear Jack [Gardner or Teagarden?] again.  An altogether agreeable cohort.  And such exciting Lester and Fats. Listening to that radio announcer makes my blood run cold.  I hate this f…..g country. 

     In that vein I’m reading Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised.  My high school’s history text was Charles Beard.  Reading him now suggests the textbook was seriously bowdlerized.  No wonder we’re all so ignorant.  Oh by Jingo.

     Do you have, I mean do you know, Bud’s I Remember Rio, done latterly in Chi?  Typical Bud.  He’s like a favorite uncle.  

     At the library I check[ed] out the 2 CD Art Deco, Sophisticated Ladies on Columbia.  I Wish I were Twins: Max, Bud, Adrian, Kress, Ella Logan? 1934.  You Go To My Head unusual sunny Pee Wee yet controlled.  Nan Wynn?  Lee W.[iley] and a flock of canaries w/ nice acc.

     I hear of a complete Django – might buy.

     Ask me sometime about who I thought  (whom, Prof.) was Jerry Winter — turns out to be Jerry Winner who hung around North Brunswick, NJ in 1951-2.  Nice cl. With Raymond Scott 1947/8.

     Also ask about the Victory Club.

TaTa,

Frankie

P.S.  I used “nice” 3 X, C-.

Terry Martin tells me that Frank discarded nothing and hoarded things in stacks and piles.  Were the frequent references to desperate cleaning real or merely rhetorical?  What incensed him so much in this letter was a live 1938 broadcast Fats Waller did from the Yacht Club — infamous for a condescending racist announcer who persists in calling Fats “boy.”  Frank loved football but was aghast at the way the announcers spoke: he told me more than once of a famous sports figure, trying to sound polished, making a grammatical error.  Now, this letter seems to combine politeness and impatience: I did not get the opportunity to ask  about the subjects he threw in at the end.  He had told me that as a young clarinetist, he failed to get involved in the rivalry of Goodman and Shaw; he cited Winner as someone he admired.

29 June 00,

Dear Michael,

     I never expected that fooling around with a clarinet would fetch me such bounty as your books and cassettes.  This Buddy Clark sure had accurate pitch, is it not so?

     As for your Salty Dogs (Saline Canines: MOG) inquiries, as far as those of D. Coller about [Tony] Parenti, [Bill] Reinhardt and [Jimmy] Ille, I wouldn’t know what to say.

     Did I ever tell you of my European summers (’51 and ’52) with the Amherst Delta Five?  Their clarinet player preferred to sell used cars in Utica.  One “Bosh” (Wm. H.) Pritchard came along on guitar (’51) which h’d never played.   Someone showed him how to make a G7 chord.  Some girls on board ship told him he sounded like Eddie Condon.  Protchard became Henry Luce Prof. of Eng. at his alma mater.

Hastily,

Frank

I had sent Hilbert’s Pee Wee biography.  The Buddy Clark session was an oddity — for the Varsity label in 1940, where he is accompanied by a version of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, with Freeman and Pee Wee taking surprising solo passages.  “MOG” is Martin Oliver Grosz.  I hope that the story of Prof. Pritchard is true.

2 January 01

Dear Michael,

     Glad to have your letter, but saddened indeed at news of your mother.  Please accept my condolences.  What good is it to know that it happens to most of us before we depart, and that there’s always regret at what we failed to do or say in time.

     As for me, I’m trying to emerge from the Nov. – Dec. blahs — respiratory congestion followed by the BLAHS of SNOW and cabin fever.  Yes, I played a couple of gigs in Nov., just down the street really at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, a last refuge of cigarette smokers.  I paid for it.  [Bob] Koester showed up both times, and Paige Van Vorst, and someone named Jerry (a friend of Bill Russell of Am. Music) and an OTIS who is a P. W. fancier.  A katzenjammer quartet: [mandolinist  / guitarist Don] Stienberg, [Mike] Waldbridge, me, and an EAGER but blatty trumpet player.  Later, Paige sent me a year’s worth of  Miss. Rag.  Don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

     Koester keeps wanting a record session and I keep demurring.  As for your discography and entries I question the Jazz At Noon dates as to my presence, my having been absent with a misdiagnosed biliary tract infection.  I was in hosp. during the assassination of Fred Hampton.  The Oct. 18, 1968 date shows an odd title inversion suggestive of Steiner: “Pick Yourself Up” is really Let Yourself Go.

Hang in there,

Frankie

My mother had died, at 85, a few months before.  Frank’s comments transcend formula, I think.  And I take it as indicative of his worldview and political awareness that he should recall his hospital stay because of Fred Hampton:  the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, killed by police at the direction of the FBI.

02 Nov 02

Dear Michael,

     Terry Martin sent me a photocopy of D. Coller’s thing on Floyd O’Brien.  Takes me back, if not quite aback. 

     Here’s hoping you are somewhat restored to the quotidian world, the humdrum, what an Army buddy and I referred to as the drab mundane.  Meanwhile, I thought you might be bemused by the enclosed pic, from 1978 I think under a wedding-reception tent in Priestley’s backyard. (Lake Forest, IL).  Bill, left, has his back to the crowd as was his wont, duels with Warren Kime.  Your congenial leader is at back, looking like Bergen Evans.  Not shown: Bob Wright, piano; Joe Levinson, bass; Bob Cousins, drums.  Nice gig.

     I’m looking for a cassette to send you: a string of tunes from the Chi. Jazz Fest, Jan. 1984.  Doubt that you’ve heard them.  A trio: Marty, me, Dan Shapera, hass.  Last time Mart and I tangled.  Trying to get my apt. under control – I’m not exactly a fussy taxonomist.

As Ever,

Frank

I will share this photograph in a future posting. 

18 Dec 02

Dear Michael,

     So you laughed out loud at M[ichael]. Chabon – I coarsen myself listen to the enclosed examples of obtuseness, banality, and dead-ass playing.  I wrote Price and Thompson thanking them for the check and rhapsodic blurb, respectively.  Also mentioned that I was both terrified and pissed off throughout.

     Thanks anyway, but I can’t listen to Braff.  Musically, verbally and in print, he is, for me, a prototype of The  Boston Asshole.

     I really must learn to curb my expressionism.

     As Marty once abjured me, For Your Eyes Only.  I continue to rummage for that cassette – my housekeeping is execrable.

Ever,

Frank

The remarks above may offend, but at this late date I prefer candor to ellipsis.  I had sent Frank a copy of a Braff CD I particularly liked; he sent me the 2-CD set of his live recordings from 1967 with Jimmy Archey and Don Ewell — an odd group of players, their styles rarely coalescing.

This is the last letter from Frank — and my Sunday evening attempts to call met with no response.  I assumed he had fallen ill or no longer wanted to talk or correspond.  Thus I was greatly surprised to receive a package months later — that long-promised cassette, with a scrawled note on a tiny scrap of paper, which read something like, “Sorry, man — I’ve been sick with ascites (?)”  That was the last I heard from him.

Frank’s letters were always leavened to some extent by his wit, even when it was extremely dark.  I don’t, however, know if he would have written to me at all if he didn’t feel the need to thank me for the things I sent him, which he did seem to appreciate. 

Talking to him on the telephone, however, was often a depressing experience as conversation wound down.  I found Frank’s mixture of annoyance, contempt, and sadness sometimes difficult, often frustrating.  I wanted to celebrate and gossip about the older music (a fan’s ardor); he wanted me to listen to Coltrane.  But more, he wanted to vent his rage at United States imperialism and the decline of the West.  In retrospect, we had little to talk about.  Someone listening in might have considered our sonversations as little dramas, with each of us wanting to make things go his way, succeeding only briefly.  I know that musicians and non-musicians are often separated by an invisible wall, but these conversations had even greater barriers, although we were enthusiastic about the same things. 

But Frank often seemed as if he was going through some elaborate set of motions; whether he wearied of me, an enthusiastic correspondent who attempted to ply him with cassettes, whether he wearied of talking about what was now the receding past, whether he was weary of people, I do not know.  That enigma, still fascinates me, although the possibilities are saddening.       

Thus I was surprised when I heard from Terry Martin, perhaps in 2006, telling me that Frank was ailing (which did not surprise me: the long spaces between calls or letters were often the result of hospitalizations) and that Frank had mentioned my name to Terry as someone he wouldn’t mind speaking to.  I feel some guilt about this now, but I told Terry I couldn’t attempt to restart the conversation.  I was going through a difficult period and Frank’s darkness was too much to face.  Terry, to his credit, understood.  The next news I heard was that Frank had died at 83.   

I consider myself fortunate that I had these exchanges, and that we can hear him play on recordings.  Frank had something to tell us, and he still does.      

Frank Chace: July 22, 1924 – December 28, 2007. 

A postscript: when I was attempting to interview Frank for a profile, I amassed five or six pages of transcriptions of those taped conversations.  In the spirit of Frank’s housekeeping, these pages have vanished.  However, I recall a few fragments.  When young, Frank was initially intrigued by the sounds coming from the apartment below — a neighbor was a symphony flautist.  When he began to take up the clarinet (moved to do so, of course, by a Pee Wee Russell record), he listened to “everything” and thought it was his responsibility as a musician to do so.  He recalled with great glee a recording with  Don Ewell in the house band at Jazz Ltd: the band was playing the SAINTS, a song Don loathed, and he kept playing MARYLAND through his piano chorus.  (The details may be awry, but the intent is clear.)  When asked what recordings he particularly liked, Frank eventually called to mind the Mezzrow-Bechet OUT OF THE GALLION, Bud Jacobson’s BLUE SLUG, and expressed a special desire to hear Pee Wee’s solo on the Commodore Muggsy Spanier Ragtimers SWEET SUE, which I did not have, but acquired through Gene Kramer.  When Frank heard it, he remembered that he and Marty played it many times, their verdict being that Pee Wee’s solo “scraped the clouds.” 

But he saved his most enthusiastic words for two extremely disparate recordings: Coltrane’s YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS and Jerry Colonna’s comic version of EBB TIDE.  Since Frank’s death, I’ve heard both, and was much more impressed by the Coltrane.  Colonna’s version of that pop song has the singer nearly drowned by sound-effects waves — surely an acquired taste.   

Frank had seen my hero Sidney Catlett in concert once (a wartime presentation by Deems Taylor); he had played alongside Bobby Hackett once in an informal session, probably at Priestley’s.  But there were almost no contemporary musicians he admired, and fewer he could see himself playing or recording with: Marty Grosz certainly, Dick Hyman, possibly.  He was sure he was able to play a whole session and that he didn’t need to practice.  Terry Martin and Bob Koester have first-hand experience with Frank’s reluctance to record.  In fairness, few of the recordings he did make usually do not find him in the most congenial settings: he felt comfortable alongside Ewell and Marty and some of his younger Chicago friends, but such congeniality was rare. 

Frank deserved better, but it is difficult to make him into another jazz-victim-of-oppression, as his stubbornness often got in the way of musical opportunities.  I offer these letters and recollections as tribute to a great musician and enigmatic figure.     

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.