Tag Archives: Fats Waller

JAMES P.’S SPACIOUS UNIVERSE

Someone unknown to me — a generous anonymous benefactor — has posted on YouTube two of the irreplaceable 1939 piano solos by James P. Johnson.  I think they are uplifting creations that never grow over-familiar.

BLUEBERRY RHYME, Johnson’s own musing original composition, has not only several strains but feels multi-layered, as if two moods were moving along in time and sound throughout the piece.  One is sweetly, sadly ruminative — thoughts of a solitary seeker in a meadow, perhaps, with calm and loss intermingled.  The other is joyous — all of James P.’s most elegant trickeries offered to us at half-speed and half-volume, so that we could think, for an evanescent moment, “Hey, I could play the piano like that if I only practiced.” In this stratum, we hear what so many pianists — Tatum, Fats, Basie — worshipped and borrowed from him.  (There’s a tinkling figure at :20 that Tatum nipped off with and made his own.)

Is BLUEBERRY RHYME sweet thoughts of home, or of a love that might have been, musings on a pie, or something private to James P.?  We cannot know, but we can enter this world for a few minutes, its gently rocking motions and lingering melodies both comforting and elusive.

BLUEBERRY RHYME is followed by one of my favorite interludes, a joyous yet stately romp on Edgar Sampson’s IF DREAMS COME TRUE.  This recording has been one of my consolations and dear musical friends for perhaps forty-five years, and it not only provides happiness but embodies it.  Within the first ten seconds — that prancing bassline, the treble chords announcing the melody — we know we are somewhere elation is the common language, where all will be given over to the dance.

Each chorus is a complete utterance in itself, and each chorus’ variations look backwards to its predecessor and anticipate what is to come.  Stride piano is also misunderstood by some as a metronomic left hand with a freer but rhythmically-obedient right hand creating variations in its own realm, but notice the playful elasticity between the steady bass lines and the widening rhythmic freedom of the treble, in a playful push-and-pull that we feel as the performance continues. The dance gets more and more ambitious, but James P.’s time and volume are both steady delights, and form is never abandoned.

Compare, for instance, the opening chorus where the melody is explicitly stated in contract to what happens at 5:30, magical in itself. Although the performance has offered a certain ornateness, the thrilling competitive display the Harlem players loved, here James P. seems to pull back into softer enigmatic utterances, offering space and an abstraction of what he has been playing instead of attempting to dazzle the hearer even more.  And the three ascending chords at 6:19!  So simple and yet so memorable.  On my admittedly untuned piano, they are a C, D, and E — the first do re mi of a beginning student, but what ringing sounds they are here.

Should I end my days in a hospice, I hope I will have these recordings with me to take on the journey.  And I exult in them now.

Hear for yourself:

Coincidentally, James P. was the subject of a brief cyber-discussion the fine pianist Michael Bank and I were having, and Michael (lyrical in prose and music) wrote that James P. “creates a portal to the universe.”  James P. Johnson was and is his own universe, vast, inviting, heartfelt.  How fortunate we are to hear such beauty!

(Blessings on the often-imperious John Hammond, who booked the studio time in 1939 to make these recordings and treasured them when Columbia Records would not issue them, saving them for future generations.)

I have heard that Mosaic Records is preparing a James P. Johnson set.  Talk about DREAMS coming true.

May your happiness increase!

THE DEFENDANT TELLS HER STORY, THROWS HERSELF ON THE MERCY OF THE COURT (1929)

Miss Baker, guilty of Love.

Counsel for the Defendant, Messrs. Waller and Razaf:

My only hope is that Justice was Merciful.

(One of my favorite songs and a wonderful performance, new to me.)

May your happiness increase!

“TO IGNITE THE SPARK”: MR. WALLER’S ROMANTIC SONG (1937)

Recently there was a long, energetic discussion on Facebook, sparked by our friend, the superb young pianist Kris Tokarski (you can find it if you scroll down to March 31) on what attributes constitute a “jazz singer.” Bless him, Kris didn’t come to it with a narrow ideology; he wanted to open up a discussion, which he did.

I made mention of instrumentalists with “untrained” voices, and mentioned Hot Lips Page — then also Jimmy Rushing and Ivie Anderson.  But I forgot one of the finest singers of all, Thomas “Fats” Waller.

Most often, we think of Fats, at high volume,  shouting and carrying on — THE JOINT IS JUMPIN’, satirizing, parodying, mocking, clowning. But there was another side of him, heard all too infrequently: the dear romantic balladeer, treating a deserving song with great tenderness.

He does it here — with the 1937 I’M ALWAYS IN THE MOOD FOR YOU:

The lyrics aren’t memorable — in fact, they seem a winking collection of love-song-conceits — but the performance lingers because it is so close to the heart. Hear the long, leisurely piano chorus, Fats’ careful, endearing reading of the lyrics with only Herman Autrey whispering sweet nothings in back of him, and the return.  I think it’s fascinating that this take was issued, for clearly Fats got distracted or the lyric sheet slid off the piano, for there is a distinct near-crisis around three minutes in.  Whether Eli Oberstein said, “Look, we have six more sides to get done today,” or “Well, you made a mistake, Fats, but it’s so late in the record and the side is so beautiful, let’s leave it be,” I don’t know.  (It was the fifth side of nine recorded that day, so I suspect Fats was pressed to move on, even though there was this momentary lapse of attention.  I find the “mistake” completely endearing.)

I also wonder if Fats’ very tender delivery of the song was because it was written by Benny Davis (lyrics), a true veteran of the Brill Building, and Fats’ dear friend and eating buddy J. Fred Coots . . . whatever the motive, it is a very sweet performance and one that has stayed in my mind for years.

I hope you have someone you adore who can hear this recording — preferably seated right nearby — and know that the lyrics and melody are Cupid’s arrow, aimed tenderly but accurately.

May your happiness increase!

FACING THE MUSIC: EHUD ASHERIE, DAVID WONG, AARON KIMMEL: JAZZ AT THE KITANO (March 4, 2015)

An ideal evening in New York — or anywhere else — with the brilliant pianist / composer Ehud Asherie and his expert friends, David Wong, string bass; Aaron Kimmel, drums.  This mini-concert took place at Jazz at the Kitano on March 4, 2015.

Songhounds will notice that Ehud currently draws much of his inspiration from songs written before 1945, but that his approach is wide-ranging, “modern” yet lyrical and deeply respectful of the original inspirations. He can offer a lovely classical tribute to a jazz set-piece (as in the deliriously fine Waller interlude below) but he is not only a conservator of traditions.

Ehud never reduces a song to a stark harmonic formula; rather, he opens its doors and plays around inside and outside of it. The trio swings assertively but cheerfully; this is endearing and engaging music.

A well-deserved nod to Fred and Ginger and those glorious films, LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE:

A whimsically titled but emotionally kind original, THE WELL-EDUCATED MOTH (Ehud explains it all):

The very tender Eubie Blake – Noble Sissle love ballad in swingtime, A DOLLAR FOR A DIME:

For this, our tour  guides are Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Duke Ellington, and [stowing away in the hold] James P. Johnson — the accurately titled FAST AS A BASTARD:

Ehud’s Brazilian souvenir, SAMBA DE GRINGO:

His brilliant solo excursion into the Land O’Waller, AFRICAN RIPPLES / VIPER’S DRAG:

Who remembers Vincent Youmans?  Ehud does: FLYING DOWN TO RIO:

The Ralph Rainger / Leo Robin THANKS FOR THE MEMORY is most often played at an appropriately mournful tempo, but Ehud gives it a kind of jaunty wave as he and the trio say “Bye now!”:

And we come back to Berlin and Astaire for TOP HAT, WHITE TIE AND TAILS:

Jazz at the Kitano happens regularly in a comfortable space in the Kitano Hotel (66 Park Avenue in New York City) — worth the trip!

Thanks to Ehud, David, Aaron, our friend Maggie Condon, and the durable Gino Moratti, who helps good things like this to happen — always.

May your happiness increase!

LIGHTLY AND POLITELY: THE SPEAKEASY QUARTET

If THE SPEAKEASY QUARTET is new to you, you might conclude that it was a vocal group, or a faux-Twenties ensemble, heavy on costume and affectation. Happily, you’d be misinformed:

Sounds very nice, doesn’t it?

A friend, knowing of my delighted reverence for the playing of jazz cellist Mike Karoub (with the Royal Garden Trio and most recently in James Dapogny’s hot string ensemble) said, “Karoub is an integral part of this quartet.  Have you heard them?”  Thus, the Speakeasy Quartet — originally a trio, formed in 2009 by rhythm guitarist — tenor rhythm guitarist — Hugh Leal, with Karoub, soprano saxophonist Ray Manzerolle, and pianist Mike Karloff.

They are unusual but they are also rewarding — mere novelty in music doesn’t win me over.  The odd instrumentation in itself would mean little if the players weren’t lyrical and swinging, which they are.  Ray Manzerolle is new to me, but I am glad to know him.  Often the soprano saxophone becomes at best an assertive instrument, at worst an assault weapon.  Ray has a delightfully centered tone, a sweet but not sugary tone, and a lightness of approach that reminds me happily of (still with us and playing) Robert Sage Wilber.  I know Ray, like Bob, draws inspiration from Bechet, but he does not adopt Bechet’s violent romanticism — and volume.

Pianist Mike Karloff is a quiet but essential member of the quartet, offering lilting melodic lines, subtle harmonic support and a modern Hines / Wilson commentary and comping.  Hugh Leal’s tenor guitar — the instrument of Eddie Condon and a young Marty Grosz — offers airy but strong support and a wonderful light swing.  He’s been playing since 1970, and his pulse never falters.

I think Karoub is one of the great multi-taskers: a swinging rhythm player without the ponderousness one sometimes finds in traditional string bass, then adding a wondrous light eloquence on swinging bowed cello. Think of Casals sneaking uptown to take lessons from Milt Hinton, and you have Karoub.  The Quartet’s sound is, be definition, silken and airy, but it’s not effete: they swing, and they swing effectively.

The group’s repertoire is a mixture of Bechet-associated classics — PREMIER BAL, EGYPTIAN FANTASY, INDIAN SUMMER — three very pleasing Manzerolle originals — TAKE ME UPTOWN TO DOWNTOWN, A LETTER FROM BECHET, CAFE ROYALE — and jazz classics covering a wide range — THE MOOCHE, EAST ST. LOUIS TOODLE-OO, JUBILEE, WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, WILLIE THE WEEPER, WILD MAN BLUES.

Here’s the group’s Facebook page.  And their website, where you can hear more sound samples from the  CD.

The first pressing of the Speakeasy Quartet is sold out, but there is a special limited second run: the price is $18.00 including postage.  Send checks made out to Hugh Leal — to Hugh Leal, P.O. Box 681, Detroit, MI 48231.  And Hugh tells me that the second SEQ CD is coming out at the end of this June.

And here’s another taste — sweetly sad instead of frolicsome, Gordon Jenkins’ BLUE PRELUDE:

May your happiness increase!

DOT’S AUTOGRAPH BOOK (1944-47)

HAMPTON autographs 1945

These remarkable pages come from a time when big jazz bands appeared regularly at large urban ballrooms — for dancing and listening.  The assiduous jazz fan and “autograph hound” was one Dot Spokisfield, who lived in or near St. Louis, Missouri.  My source (offering the autographs for sale on eBay) writes, “Dot would encourage to the musicians to write what they pleased on the page, with most of them writing the name of the band or orchestra they were associated with most of the signatures being signed in pencil and often personalized to Dot. Dot would then write where and when the signature was obtained and adding a red asterisk next to the name.”

The perforations show that these pages were originally bound in an autograph book, the pages being 4 by 6 inches.  I have not been able to find anything out about Dot — even with her unusual name.  But the evidence of her friendly enthusiasm for the music and the musicians remains. Fortunately for us, she was a careful archivist and musicians in that era not only signed their names but indicated what instrument they played — making our twenty-first century research almost too easy.  The page at top:

4×6’ album page autographed by Teddy Sinclair, Dave Page, William Mackel, Alice Lindsey, Freddie Simon and Charlie Harris on one side, and Joe Marr, Arnette [later Arnett] Cobb and Charles Fowlkes on the back. The signatures were obtained on September 24, 1946.

LOUIS 1945

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Velma Middleton, Larry Anderson, Big Chief Moore and on the back by Norman Powe and Elmer Warner. These were signed on February 10, 1945.
DIZZY CAB 1946

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Dizzy Gillespie (signed Be-Bop, Big Diz) and two members of the Cab Calloway Orchestra in Norman Powe and Hilton Jefferson. These were signed on December 7, 1946 and August 12, 1946.

JACK T 1947

A 4×6’ album page with an affixed cut measuring 3×4’ autographed by Jack Teagarden in pencil, with a notation that it was signed at Tune Town on April 13, 1947 as part of the Cavalcade of Jazz.

COATSVILLE HARRIS 1947

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Leslie Scott and on the back by James “Coatsville” Harris, Adam Martin, Elmer Warner and Ed Swantson, all then members of Louis Armstrong’s band.

BASIE 1944
A 4×6’ album page autographed by Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Newman, Dickie Wells, Harry ‘Sweets” Edison, Joe Newman one side, and Dickie Wells (another), Harry Edison, Al Killian, Louis Taylor and Ted Donelly on the on the back. The signatures were obtained on June 25, 1944.

KRUPA CAB 1946

A 4×6’ album page autographed by James Buxton and Keg Johnson and on the back, an affixed cut signature of Gene Krupa. These were signed on December 17, 1946 and December 9, 1946.

HINES KIRK 1944

A 4×6’ album page autographed by La Verne Barker and Bob DeVall (Andy Kirk’s valet or band manager?) on one side and Earl ”Fatha” Hines (glues to the page) on the back. The signatures were obtained on May 7, 1944, and one side had McGhee, while on the reverse are the others.

LIPS DINAH WASHINGTON 1947

A 4×6’ album page with an affixed paper autographed by 8 Jazz greats, including Dinah Washington, George Jenkins, Freddie Washington and on the back by Hot Lips Page, Carl Wilson. Ronnie Lane and J.C. Higginbotham. It is noted that this was signed at Tune Town on April 13, 1947 as part of the Cavalcade of Jazz.

CAB 1946 Milt Kansas

4×6’ album page autographed by Dave Rivera, Kansas Fields, Milt Hinton, Hilton Jefferson and on the back by Lammar Wright, Charles Frazier and Paul Webster. These were signed on December 7, 1946.

LIONEL and RED CAPS

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Lionel Hampton and on the back by The Red Caps (signature affixed within the book), and signed in 1945.

Lionel SNOOKY LEO SHEPPARD

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Snooky Young and on the back by Leo Sheppard (signature affixed within the book), and most likely signed in 1946.

KENTON 1944 in audience

Stan Kenton, in the audience, 1946.

FRED BECKETT NANCE LAWRENCE BROWN

Hamp, Duke, Ray Nance!

ANDY KIRK 1944

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Edward Loving, Jimmy Forrest, Ben Smith and Ben Thigpen on one side, and Wayman Richardson, (Art?) and J.D. King on the back.The signatures were obtained on May 7, 1944, and one side had Howard McGhee.

HAMP 1945

A lot of two 4×6’ album page autographed by Dinah Washington and three others, and on the back is signed by Milt Buckner.

SLICK JONES

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Slick Jones, dated August 19, 1944.

MILLS BROS

A 4×6’ album page autographed by The Mills Brothers, Herbert (April 2, 1912 – April 12, 1989), Donald (April 29, 1915 – November 13, 1999) and John Mills Sr.(February 11, 1882 – December 8, 1967). This was signed on September 22, 1944.

ED ROANE AL MORGAN

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Al Morgan and Ed Roane.

JUAN TIZOL

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Juan Tizol and Buddy Devito from the Harry James Orchestra and on he back by Ted (Barnett?) from the Louis Armstrong Orchestra. These were signed on February 9, 1946.

Cozy Cole Ace Harris E Hawkins

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Ace Harris, Leroy Kirkland, Joe Murphy, Ray Hogan, Laura Washington, Matthew Gee, Lee Stanfield, Bobby Smith, C.H. Jones and on the back, affixed to the page is the signature of Cozy Cole. These were signed on January 7, 1947 and March 1, 1947.
LOUIS JORDAN

A 4×6’ album page autographed by Louis Jordan on one side (dated August 18, 1944) and on the back by his piano player Tommy Thomas.

“Keep groovin”!  indeed.  There was a time when giants swung the earth. Blessings on them, and also on people like Dot, who kept them alive for us, seventy years later.

May your happiness increase!

CROSSING OVER: WILLIE FARMER MEETS FATS, RAZAF, LOUIS, and MOSE

I had never heard of Willie Farmer and his Orchestra when I happened upon this Bluebird 78 in the Food for Thought shop in Sebastopol, California, last year, but the two songs sold the disc for me.  Another version of OLD MAN MOSE by an unknown band?  (Although they cannot have been that unknown if they were recording for Bluebird.)  And FAIR AND SQUARE — connected to Fats Waller by way of Andy Razaf — was a song I knew well because banjoist / singer Lueder Ohlwein of the fabled Sunset Music Company — had performed it often.

Online research turned up nothing on Farmer or his band, and George T. Simon’s THE BIG BANDS sniffed contemptuously at Farmer, identifying him as a drummer leading a Mickey Mouse / society band.

Still, the records are more than competent, even though no one would confuse the Farmer band with Basie at the Famous Door.

Here’s FAIR AND SQUARE, with a pleasing muted trumpet paraphrase of the melody:

and OLD MAN MOSE, with Scat Powell — who turned up on some jazz records in the decade — perhaps borrowing some odd vocal effects from the (in)famous Duchin recording:

Tom Lord’s discography lists this personnel for some 1937 sides: Willie Newman, Don “Skippy” Lipsey  or Hymie Farberman (tp) Billy Pritchard (tb) Charles Reauseau, Nat Brown (as) Wes Fogel (ts) Gabby Buttafoo (p) Frank Darnada (g) Chuck Jordan (b) Leo Farberman (d) Willie Farmer (dir)

The Farmer band must have recorded more than Lord lists, but they did cross over several times more into the lands of Ellington and Waller, with SCATTIN’ AT THE KIT KAT, ALLIGATOR CRAWL, and MIDNITE AT THE MADHOUSE, which might be related to Chick Webb’s similar-sounding record. Hymie Farberman had been part of the early Twenties New York “hot”scene; Billy Pritchard turned up on a Bud Freeman V-Disc, and I suspect other members of the band had swing credentials that they kept up to date.

I offer these as pleasant curiosities, and relics of a time when music and “styles” weren’t so rigidly divided into categories that didn’t touch.

May your happiness increase!