Tag Archives: Fernando Ortiz de Urbina

GLIMPSES OF THE GRAIL, 1949

We love the music we have — the wooden boxes of phonograph records and cassettes, the wall shelves of CDs, the iPods with thousands of songs.  But our hearts beat faster for those things imagined but not realized.  Poring over discographies, we breathe faster when reading of unissued takes, the performances rumored to exist, acetates held by someone in another country, the film footage . . .

But thanks to Lorenz Yeung and Fernando Ortiz de Urbana (I’ve had the good fortune to meet the latter in person) are a few bite-sized bits of one kind of Holy Grail: http://jazzontherecord.blogspot.com/

(Fernando’s blog, EASY DOES IT, is a wonderful cornucopia on its own.)

Who assembled this I do not know.  It is a tribute to Sidney Bechet, who well deserves such honors.  But obviously someone followed Bechet around in 1949, on his penultimate visit to the United States.  And Bechet appeared a number of times on television (think of it!) in the States — most often, I believe, on the Eddie Condon Floor Show oon WPIX.

It’s always heartwarming to be able to praise Mr. Condon, so allow me a few sentences.  Whenever he could (later with the help of his wife Phyllis and the publicist Ernie Anderson) he looked for venues where his music could be played — in mixed bands on Fifty-Second Street, at the Park Lane Hotel, at Town Hall, the Ritz Theatre, and Carnegie Hall, several incarnations of his own club . . . on records, radio broadcasts, transcriptions for the servicemen and women . . . and television.

The Floor Show was his rewarding pioneering television series, broadcast between 1948 and 1950 on WPIX-TV.  It brought together the best jazz players and singers — Louis Armstrong, Sidney Catlett, Jack Teagarden, Lee Wiley, Billie Holiday, Earl Hines, Pee Wee Russell, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Hot Lips Page, Count Basie, Bobby Hackett, Buzzy Drootin, Ralph Sutton — alongside Rosemary Clooney and tap-dancer Teddy Hale, and fifty or so other luminaries.

Eddie was wise enough to understand that the human ear and psyche would wilt on a steady unremitting diet of Hot, so in his club there was an intermission solo pianist; there were ballad medleys, slow blues, medium-tempo pop tunes, as well as RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE.

And his understanding of “show,” of variety, developed in the visual world of early television — hot numbers interspersed with slow ballads, sweet singing, tap dancing, and more.  (I’ve seen a still photograph of what must have been a perfect jazz trio: Hot Lips Page, James P. Johnson, and Zutty Singleton.  Pardon me while I rhapsodize silently.)

Some small portion of the music survives on vinyl issues on the Queen-Disc label and in the collectors’ underground trading world, but we know that the kinescopes made at the time — films of the programs — no longer exist.  I have this on very solid authority, unless there were multiple sets made.

However . . . this YouTube surprise package has color silent footage of Sidney with Cliff Jackson, Kid Ory, Muggsy Spanier, Teddy Hale, Peanuts Hucko, possibly Kansas Fields, Gene Schroeder, Buddy Rich, Chubby Jackson, George Wettling, and another saxophonist named Charlie Parker.

You will have to watch the video several times to fully appreciate all its great gifts, including shots of Bechet acting in several French films, occasionally at the stove or battling an over-assertive shirt dickey.

About the television footage: I imagine that someone who loved Bechet followed him onto the soundstage with a movie camera (the kinescopes would have had sound and been in black and white) — blessings on this intrepid soul and those who saved the footage and shared it with us.  (I’ve written to Lorenz Yeung, the poster, to ask the source of the Condon material; he generously told me that it was part of a Bechet CD package he bought in Australia, a bonus CD (!)  I’m also quite amazed that none of the orinthologists have noticed this — and it’s been on YouTube since 2011.  Research!  In color!)

The question, is, of course, “What else is out there?”  And the answer is unfathomable.  But all things are possible.

My personal Holy Grail might no longer exist.  I can’t remember where I heard or read this story, but Ernie Anderson knew a fellow in the advertising trade, quite wealthy, whose son loved jazz.  Father wanted to give his son a present, and asked Ernie to set up a recording session for the boy: Ernie assembled Bobby Hackett, Sidney Catlett, and the fine pianist Harry Gibson (later Harry “the Hipster” Gibson), had them record some music, had the records pressed in perhaps one set, and I assume the boy was terrifically pleased.  But where are those records now?

Readers are invited to submit their own versions of the jazz Holy Grail . . . we could start with the airshots of the King Oliver band with Lester Young in it and go from there.

Thanks to Lorenz Yeung, Fernando, to David J. Weiner, Maggie Condon, Loren Schoenberg, Dan Morgenstern, and to Sidney Bechet (of course): the soundtrack is DANS LES RUE D’ANTIBES.

May your happiness increase!

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LESTER YOUNG’S GRIEF

presToday would have been Lester Young’s one-hundredth birthday. 

His centenarybecame a media event weeks ago.  Smithsonian Magazine and the Wall Street Journal carried articles celebrating Lester’s life and art; Ted Gioia has written what looks like a fine book proposing that everything that was once outsider cutlure, “hip,” “cool,” the property of only a few trend-setters, originated with Pres.  Online, there are sites devoted to the occasion (I could send someone a Pres e-card this morning, or I could subscribe to a jazz video site that promises me a new one emailed every day). 

All these celebrations seem good omens that our culture, typically ignorant or dismissive of jazz, is paying attention to a heroic figure. 

Would the attention have pleased Lester?  I hope so.  I have in my mind’s eye the account of a birthday party given in his honor at Birdland in the Fifties, where Lester cut the obligatory first piece of cake for the photographers while holding his horn in the other hand, playing I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS, both witty and apt.

And I was cheered by the blogpost written by Fernando Ortiz de Urbina, where he states the heretical but resounding truth that Lester’s influence outweigh’s Charlie Parker’s.  You should read it here: http://jazzofftherecord.blogspot.com/2009/08/lester-young.html — his blog, not incidentally, is named EASY DOES IT, in Lester’s honor.  And as I write this, WKCR-FM is playing Lester’s music — for free — and it can be accessed online at http://www.wkcr.org

But I wonder how much posthumous affection and attention we would have to give Lester to make up for the hurts he suffered.  His feelings, once wounded, stayed that way.  His father threw him out of the family band because he couldn’t read music (although he played his part magnificently by ear); later, his section-mates in the 1934 Fletcher Henderson band mocked him because he didn’t sound like their idol Coleman Hawkins, and insisted that Fletcher get another tenor player; John Hammond discouraged Count Basie from raising Lester’s salary although Lester was that band’s star; he could not make a success of his own small band; the United States Army did its best to destroy him; a legion of “grey boys” played his phrases back to him in clubs and concerts for more money; he ended his days in New York, sitting by his window, playing mournful Frank Sinatra records, drinking cognac. 

pres2It is no accident that some of his most unforgettable solos — BLUES IN THE DARK, I LEFT MY BABY, FINE AND MELLOW — sound like a heartbroken man trying to hold back tears.  Can love that comes too late make up for its absence?  I don’t think so.