Tag Archives: Fats Waller

A DREAM COME TRUE: THE RETURN OF RAY SKJELBRED and CARL SONNY LEYLAND (WARREN JENNINGS’ HOUSE PARTY, July 14, 2019)

Both Ray Skjelbred and Carl Sonny Leyland are bright skies in my night sky, deep quirky soulful individualists.  Each is a strong-willed person and player.  Although they have some of the same ends in mind — swing, lyricism, and a deep immersion in the blues — they always take different routes to get to those ends.  Having them sit down at two pianos in a room is a great dream of mine; having them do so in front of a quiet audience with an expert videographer is almost more than I could hope for.  But it happened, as you will see.

I was at perhaps their first public conversation — at the Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 9, 2014 — which rings in my ears and heart, although the pianos were widely spaced making them hard to video simultaneously. However, the blessed jubilant evidence remains! — this and this and this, too.  (It makes me nostalgic for Monterey, but we’ll be there in March 2020 if the creeks don’t rise.)

But here, thanks to Rae Ann Berry, is a selection from their most recent collaboration.  I haven’t posted all of what happened at the Jennings’ house party — there are more than two dozen songs and one prose poem — but you can chase down the delights on your own.  Here are treasures.

SONG OF THE WANDERER:

Ray, musing his way through Fats Waller’s CHELSEA:

The Rhythmakers’ YES, SIR!:

KMH DRAG (for Max Kaminsky, Freddie Moore, Art Hodes):

Sonny’s RAT CATCHER’S BLUES:

PANAMA:

Sonny’s delicate boogie version of TOGETHER, which I would guess is in honor of Denis Gilmore:

an indigo reading of HOW LONG BLUES:

and a frolicsome SWIPSEY CAKEWALK, so wonderfully orchestral:

Living at a cosmic intersection where Sonny and Ray can create together is a great uplifting boon.  Bless them, Rae Ann, and Warren Jennings too.

May your happiness increase!

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“BUSY ‘TIL ELEVEN,” A CHARLESTON LESSON, and OTHER ECSTASIES: The CHICAGO CELLAR BOYS at the JUVAE MINI-FEST: ANDY SCHUMM, JOHN OTTO, PAUL ASARO, JOHNNY DONATOWICZ, DAVE BOCK (March 30, 2019)

This started out as a video post — a sharing of platefuls of joy — of music from one of my favorite bands, the Chicago Cellar Boys — and then their wonderful debut CD, BUSY ‘TIL ELEVEN, landed in my mailbox.  So it’s now a CD review also.  You can learn more about the Rivermont Records CD here.  And in that same place you can hear some convincing sound samples as well.  For once, words seem superfluous.

If you like Twenties music, hot and sweet, expertly played, wonderfully recorded, thoroughly annotated, you will delight in this disc: twenty-one songs, many thoroughly rare, all uplifting and varied.  The band is thoroughly playful (the title is not a song in itself, but a line from one of the songs performed by pianist-vocalist Paul Asaro).

Perhaps you’ve sat long enough.  In the mood for vigorous aerobics?

Before you delight in the Chicago Cellar Boys performing at the Juvae Jazz Mini-Fest last March 30, here’s some relevant dance instruction:

The hot music that follows was performed in Decatur, Illinois, by the Boys: Andy Schumm, cornet, clarinet, tenor saxophone, arrangements; John Otto, clarinet, alto saxophone; Paul Asaro, piano; Johnny Donatowicz, banjo, guitar; Dave Bock, tuba.  Now, roll up the carpets and put the pets outside.

Here’s one for Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra and Sammut of Malta:

And a statement of intent, courtesy of Coon-Sanders:

Willie “the Lion” Smith’s particular brand of uptown hedonism:

A rare Fats Waller tune describing someone entranced by the dance:

Finally, Cliff Jackson’s THE TERROR (which is only scary for those who choose to play it):

I feel thinner already, and I’ve only intermittently left my chair.  May the Boys flourish; nay they have so many lucrative gigs that they have to turn some down; may their CD sell out (if it hasn’t already).

May your happiness increase!

THRILLING TERRIBLE CHILDREN, SEDATELY WELL-BEHAVED ADULTS (IN JAZZ, OF COURSE)

Consider this very truncated list: Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Purvis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Jabbo Smith, Sandy Williams, Cassino Simpson, Dave Tough, Tony Fruscella, Fud Livingston, Dick McDonough, Serge Chaloff, Fats Navarro, Fats Waller, Bunny Berigan.

What do they have in common?  Would you, were you a recording supervisor, hire them for a record date?  Would you hire them for your orchestra or gig?  Could you count on them to do the work asked of them?  (A hint here: as much as I revere, let’s say, Fruscella or Livingston, I wouldn’t want them driving the kids to summer camp.)

That list contains poets of the music, artistic trailblazers, instantly recognizable creators, memorable improvisers.  But it is also a list of people who didn’t show up on time or at all for the gig or has to be awakened in the middle of a song to play, people who were addicted to alcohol, food, drugs, and sex; people who had borderline personality disorder; people who stole, lied, and destroyed property; people who refused to bathe or change their clothes . . . and more.

Even if this seems blasphemous, do me the kindness to read on.

And if you proclaim that Genius must be forgiven anything because it’s Genius, I wonder how you would feel if the Genius vomited on your living room rug or stole money from you.

I suspect that most jazz fans are Apollonian (in Nietzsche’s dichotomy): they drive in the proper lane; they shower regularly; they hold jobs; they change the registration sticker on their car when the law says they must.  But, perhaps as a result, they are fascinated by the Dionysiac, the Bad Boys and Girls of Jazz, the people whose behavior is flashy, self-destructive, eccentric, illegal.

Consider this: if someone could come up with an authenticated needle used by Billie or Bird, or a piece of Bix’s mummified blue sweater, how much would those holy relics — the jazz Shroud of Turin — fetch on eBay?

Violently erratic “bad” behavior makes good copy.  How many biographies of Bix are there, as compared to his more restrained contemporaries? How many theatrical presentations “recreating” Billie are there, as opposed to the lives of other singers who drank Seven-Up?

I was motivated to write this piece because of the just-issued biography of Johnny Guarnieri, SUPERSTRIDE, beautifully written and researched by Derek Coller, depicts a good husband and father, and a craftsman, someone serious about his art even when striding joyously.

I think of others of the same general character: people who kept pocket notebooks and were thus early to gigs, who came prepared to make music, with horns that worked and a knowledge of the charts; musicians who could transpose and knew their keys; who came to the club date in appropriate, even elaborate formal wear; whose clothes were clean; who conducted themselves as professionals and whose behavior might have been placid and thus not worthy of chronicling, but who behaved as adults.

Think of Maxine Sullivan, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, Teddi King, Eddie Barefield, Al Hall, Ed Hall, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Bennie Morton, and Buster Bailey among others: artists who didn’t use “genius” as an excuse for childishness.  Sadly, I sense a silent snobbery among jazz fans, who look down on these mature men and women because their personal lives are uneventful.  And, aside from Hinton, Wilder, and Ed Hall, how many of the artists in the list above have been properly chronicled?   Men and women who didn’t destroy themselves and others are proper figures to contemplate and admire.  Even if they are tediously busy being professional, monogamous, and sober, their lives  have much to show us.

Obviously it’s not thrilling to write about someone who does his or her job without drama, but we should be celebrating these artists as grownups.  And grownups are hard to find in any field.

Here’s music made by several grownups: musicians, classically trained who could cut the charts and swing like mad, who appear on many record dates because they were both creative and reliable: William C. Bailey of Memphis, Tennessee, coincidentally backed by Osie Johnson, drums, and that very same Johnny Guarnieri among others:

I wonder what would happen to us, as an audience, if we chose not to fetishize childish self-destructive behavior, and instead celebrated adult behavior?

Inspiration for this post is, as it often is, thanks to Sammut of Malta, whose thoughts are always inspiring.

May your happiness increase!

“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!

GROOVIN’: THE HOLLAND-COOTS JAZZ QUINTET at MONTEREY: BRIAN HOLLAND, DANNY COOTS, MARC CAPARONE, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, STEVE PIKAL (March 1, 2019)

Milt Gabler and Harry Lim would have loved this band.  But to move from the conditional to the present, we love them now.  Here are two rocking performances (and two on-the-spot comic interludes) by the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, created for your swing pleasure at the Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 1, 2019, in Monterey, California.  The gentlemen of the ensemble are Brian Holland, piano; Danny Coots, drums; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet and alto saxophone; Steve Pikal, string bass.

Steve and Danny, waiting for the unusually capable soundman to do what needs to be done.  Carnitas, cliantro, and black beans, please:

Then to more serious bidniss: MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’ — from the 1943 film STORMY WEATHER — performed by the Quintet in the style of a Hot Lips Page small group:

Brian considers the situation and tells us how he feels, commentary from Danny:

And another massive Forties groove, the love-child of Stephen Foster and Albert Ammons:

What followed (I’ve already posted this one on its own, but for those who might have missed it, here is the lovely Fats ballad, now in context):

I promise to have more music by this band in different locations — joys to come.

May your happiness increase!

“CAN WE PLAY A BALLAD NOW?”: HOLLAND-COOTS PLAYS FATS WALLER at MONTEREY (BRIAN HOLLAND, DANNY COOTS, STEVE PIKAL, MARC CAPARONE, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, March 1, 2019)

LONESOME ME is one of Fats Waller’s most lovely — and least-played — songs.  Marty Grosz has made several versions, but here’s a particularly splendid performance by the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet (Danny Coots, drums; Brian Holland, piano; Steve Pikal, string bass; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet and alto saxophone) at the 2019 Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey, California.  And catch the beautiful duet between Steve and Jacob once the melody’s been stated.

I didn’t feel lonesome this morning, but had I, this lyrical outpouring would have made me feel better about being in a world where such beauty was not only possible, but accessible.

One way to access it, is, of course, the CD referred to above:

And you can see the HCJQ in person, with “your very own two looking eyes.”  I’ll have the privilege on the Stomptime cruise at the end of April, and at the Evergreen Jazz Festival in July . . . but you should join me.  Video-life can only take you so far.

May your happiness increase!

HOT DISHES FROM THE OPTIMISTIC CAFE

Life — however you define it — got you down?  Has your trusty shield suddenly become Saran Wrap?  Has existential dread got you by the windpipe?  Are you walking in the shade?  Who filled your suitcase with bricks?

Come with us to the Optimistic Cafe.

“Hi! welcome to the Optimistic Cafe, where we brighten your day as we fill your plate.  My name is Cleo, and I’ll be your server for tonight.  Can I start you off with a burst of possibilities?”

“Hi, Cleo!  The lady would like the Waller Platter — dressing on the side, and no arugula in the salad.  Is that something the kitchen can do?”

“Can do.”

“And for you, sir?”

“I’ll take the Strong Bowl.  Rare, please, with extra sunshine, and Chittison dressing.”

“Certainly, sir.  I’ll put those orders right in.  And everything will be OK.”

May your happiness increase!