Tag Archives: First Thursday Jazz Band

FROM THE HEART, FOR THE HEART: RAY SKJELBRED’S “FIRST THURSDAY BAND” (Dec. 1, 2011)

Feeling low?  Got a parking ticket?  Can’t shake that nasty cold?  Worried about the bills?  Did you burn the toast?

It’s going to be all right.  In fact, it’s already all right. 

Make yourself to home and listen to this music.  Or — if you’re swiffing around, turn up the volume and feel the deep swinging joy this band creates.

They’re Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band, caught live at the New Orleans Restaurant in Seattle, Washington, on December 1, 2011.  They are Ray Skjelbred, piano / leader; Steve Wright, cornet, clarinet, alto and soprano saxes; Dave Brown, string bass; Mike Daugherty, drums.

And — in the spirit of the season — do you hear what I hear?  I hear a real jazz band.  “What’s that?” I hear someone in the back saying.  Well, that’s an improvising group where all the members love the music and work together towards the same purpose, supporting one another in a gritty joyousness appropriate to the song, picking up each others’ cues, playing witty follow-the-leader so that one hears simultaneously a quartet and four strong-minded individualists taking their own path to get to their own versions of Jazz Paradise.

I also hear echoes of Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Fud Livingston, Guy Kelly, Doc Poston, Earl Hines, Frank Melrose, Wellman Braud, Milton J. Hinton, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty (a relation, perhaps?), George Wettling — all embodied on December 1, 2011, by living creators who have absorbed the tradition and made it their own.  Who cares if people fight cyber-skirnishes in the blogosphere about whether “J**z” is alive or dead?  Call this by whatever polite name you like: it is most certainly alive.

The first song and performance that caught my attention was LOVE ME TONIGHT, which is associated in my mind with Earl Hines and Bing Crosby — one hell of a pair!  It is a lovely song: with lyrics, one of the most insinuating seduction lyrics I know (perhaps more wooing than A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY): a carpe diem pointed towards the bedroom.  But here it’s a bit more lowwdown, suggesting that Chicago jazz was a powerful aphrodisiac as well:

And here’s a lowdown Commodore JADA:

Something unusual from Mister Piano Man — a little solo tribute to someone quite forgotten, Cassino Simpson.  All most of us know of him is that he worked with Tiny Parham and did his own Chicago gigs, before succumbing to mental instability.  After he unsuccessfully tried to kill Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, he was institutionalized and I believe he spent the rest of his life there.  The noble John Steiner took recording equipment to Simpson and recorded him playing piano in 1942: the results, very hard to find even fifty years ago, appeared on a Paramont 10″ lp, which I’ve heard but never seen.  Mister Skjelbred gives us a window into the blues — the Cassino Simpson way:

And something pretty, soulful, as well as funky: Ellington’s BLACK BEAUTY:

Here’s a truly mournful TRAV’LIN ALL ALONE (Ethel Waters – Jimmie Noone – Kenny Davern tempo, not Billie’s ironic bounce):

And a rather obscure tune from 1936 — I associate it only with Henry “Red” Allen, but that’s sufficient pedigree for anyone — NOTHING’S BLUE BUY THE SKY:

Something else from Red (circa 1933), his affirmation that everything is really OK — THE RIVER’S TAKIN’ CARE OF ME:

And the song that could stand as the band’s secondary title, summing up their attitude towards their work and their art, LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY (think of Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, and Jeni LeGon in STORMY WEATHER).  Ray sings the delectable lyrics softly, but you might consider memorizing them — you could do far worse for a mantra to get you through every day:

What exquisite music — delicate and raunchy at the same time!

P.S.  I don’t want to be especially preachy, but I would like all the youthful musicians in the house to watch and listen closely to these clips — for the deep unspoken unity of the quartet, the shifting sound-textures, and numberless virtues.  Mister Skjelbred doesn’t cover the keyboard with runs and arpeggios (unless he wants to); his left hand is integral to his playing; he could be a whole orchestra but doesn’t trample on anyone.  Mister Wright knows everything there is to know about “tonation and phrasing”: not a note is out of place and each one has its own purpose, its own sound.  And, children, there were ways of playing the alto saxophone that Charles Parker did not render obsolete.  Mister Daugherty does so much with so few cymbals — bless him! — he knows what his snare drum and bass drum are for; he swings those wire brushes, and he is always listening.  And Mister Brown, whether plucking or bowing, gets a deep resonant yet flexible sound out of his bass.  Want to know what kind of amplifier he uses?  It’s called LOVE.  And although he can play the guitar beautifully, he doesn’t turn his string bass into one.  There!  I have spoken.  Learn it to the younguns!

WELCOME BACK, RAY SKJELBRED!

Some JAZZ LIVES readers might wonder why my title warrants an exclamation point.  The music, I think, will speak for itself — but the singular pianist Ray Skjelbred had suffered a broken hip earlier this summer . . .  and he is now back playing and sounding like himself.

Here are four video performances (thanks to Candace Brown) recorded at the monthly gig of the First Thursday Jazz Band, with guest Craig Flory on reeds,  at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, Seattle.  Along with Ray, you’ll hear and see Dave Brown, bass, and Mike Daugherty, on drums.

Here’s I NEVER KNEW, where the sound of the band is reflected in the swinging dancing of Natalie Bangs and Kevin Buster:

And a quartet like this can swing as fiercely as a Thirties big band — hear how on BLUE LOU:

A fast blues (situated between Count Basie and Albert Ammons), named for the championship racehorse, WHIRLAWAY:

Finally (for now), here’s a bit of pretty New Orleans gutbucket — an exploration of the 1919 hit JADA:

So happy you’re back on the bench, Mister Ray!  And thanks to Craig, Dave, Mike, Natalie, Kevin, and especially Candace (without her, this would all be hearsay).

I have it on the best authority that Ray and his Cubs (the Chicago kind) will be performing for the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society this Sunday, September 11, 2011, at The Dante Club, 2330 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95825, from noon to 5 PM.  For more information visit: http://www.sacjazz.org/calendar.html.  I know that my friend and colleague RaeAnn Berry will be there: join her in the fun!

RAY SKJELBRED LIGHTS THE WAY

There’s electric power, wind-driven energy, solar power, and then there’s Ray Skjelbred.

I first heard this intelligently swinging pianist when my California friend and musical guide John L. Fell sent me cassettes of the Berkeley Rhythm band — a loosely floating jazz ensemble held together by goodwill, the desire to swing, and the gentle force of Mr. Skjelbred at the piano.

When you hear Ray improvise, you think of the great players: Stacy, Melrose, Hines, Sullivan . . . but his musical wisdom exhibits itself in the same way that Basie’s did — a gentle, understated reminder of The Way . . .

Since then, I’ve bought Ray’s CDs (solo and as a member of various ensembles, with everyone from Hal Smith and Becky Kilgore to Melissa Collard and Dawn Lambeth — most recently The First Thursday Jazz Band with Steve Wright) and always found myself uplifted.

Ray doesn’t have a collection of gestures and motifs, suitable for every time the band turns the corner from C7 to F at a medium-tempo.  Rather, he merges with the music and it pours through him: his energies becoming part of the band and vice versa.

For the past few years, people who don’t live close enough to Ray to see him in person have been able to do the next best thing through the generosity of Rae Ann Berry, who has been toting her video camera and tripod to festivals and jubilees where she knows Ray and his colleagues will be playing.

Most recently, Rae Ann drove from San Francisco to Oregon to capture Ray and his Cubs (named for his beloved Chicago Cubs) live at the 21st Annual Greater Olympia Dixieland Jazz Festival in Lacey WA.  Rae Ann is a woman of discernment and diligence, so she’s posted forty-two video performances by the Cubs, which to my way of thinking isn’t one too many.

The Cubs are Kim Cusack on reeds, Katie Cavera on guitar, Clint Baker on bass, and Jeff Hamilton on drums.  (Before you dive into the videos, you should also know that this band has made a wonderful CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO, for the Jazzology label.)

Here’s some of the Good Stuff:

BREEZE (BLOW MY BABY BACK TO ME):

And for the Goldkettians in the audience (I know there are many) here’s a slow-drag IDOLIZING:

One of my favorite songs is SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE.  (I do, however have a logical problem with the lyrics as delivered by Kim Cusack.  Can you imagine an army of lovers that would push Kim aside?  for the life of me, I can’t):

I purposely chose the three videos above — not because they’re especially good — because they find Ray performing on a keyboard, not a full-size acoustic piano.  Did you notice?  He makes that electronic object sound like a baby grand.

Here he is on an instrument more suited to his talent, even though it’s a spinet — rocking through SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE:

The good news is that there are thirty-eight more videos of the Cubs to savor.  And the Cubs have gigs for 2011 and 2012.

The bad news?  I’ll let Ray tell you himself, concisely:

“I broke my hip July 2, had surgery later that day, must put no weight on it for six weeks. I sadly had to cancel all my work in July and August. I believe I will be able to get back to it in September, if everything heals as it should.”

It pains me to offer that news — but I hope that for Ray and for those of us who admire and love him, those six weeks pass in the space of a George Wettling four-bar interlude.

And I would like to ask JAZZ LIVES readers to do something — not for me, but for one of our musical heroes.  Send no money and no boxtops — but if you’ve drawn joy and delight from anything Ray has ever played, would you send him some healing vibrations in return?  I would like to imagine the esteemed Mr. Skjelbred surrounded by love and empathy from every corner of the musical globe.  Although he’s a modest man, someone seriously unconcerned with the weight of “Western ego,” I don’t think Ray would mind if we wrapped his troubles in healing dreams.  And if you prefer to send your affection in the form of an email, then there’s rayskjelbred@gmail.com.

Thank you, Ray, Kim, Katie, Clint, Jeff, and Rae Ann — our generous heroes!

TRULY WONDERFUL: THE RAIN CITY BLUE BLOWERS (May 7, 2011)

The post’s title isn’t hyperbole.  A friend sent me a few YouTube videos of this new band — holding forth on May 7, 2011, at the Bellingham Jazz Club (in Washington State).

I got through about fifteen seconds of the first clip before becoming so elated that I stopped the clip to make a few phone calls . . . their import being “You HAVE to see this band!  You won’t believe how wonderful they are!”

For a change, let’s begin with the rhythm section.  You can barely see Candace Brown, but you can hear her firm, flexible pulse — she’s playing a Thirties National steel guitar.  On her left is her husband Dave on string bass — strong yet fluid.  Closer to the camera is that monument of unaging swing, Ray Skjelbred on piano — the hero of the steady, varied left-hand and the splashing, striding right hand.  (His right hand knows what his left is doing: no worries!)  The front line is a mere duo but with multiple personalities — great for Jimmie Noone / Doc Poston ecstasies — of two gifted multi-instrumentalists.  On the left is Steve Wright — cornet, clarinet, soprano sax, vocal; to his right is Paul Woltz, bass, alto, soprano, tenor sax, and vocal.  Their repertoire moves from New Orleans / ancient pop classics to Bix and Tram to Condonite romps with a special emphasis on Noone’s Apex Club.

You’ll hear for yourself.  I began with MY HONEY’S LOVIN’ ARMS (homage to Bing and to Cutty Cutshall, who called this tune MAHONEY’S . . . . ):

Pee Wee Russell had a girlfriend named Lola (this would have been in the late Twenties and onwards, before Mary came along); legend has it that Lola was violently jealous and when she got angry at Pee Wee, she’d take a big scissors and cut his clothes to bits.  The Mound City Blue Blowers (with Coleman Hawkins and Glenn Miller) recorded a wonderful song and called it HELLO LOLA — were they glad to see her or merely placating her, hoping she hadn’t brought her scissors along?  We’ll never know, but this version of HELLO, LOLA (with comma) has no sharp edges — at least none that would do anyone harm:

The young man from Davenport — forever young in our imaginations — is loved so intensely that the RCBB offer two evocations of his music.  Young Bix Beiderbecke is on everyone’s mind for a romping IDOLIZING (memories of those Goldkette Victors):

And we think of Bix at the end of his particular road — with I’LL BE A FRIEND (WITH PLEASURE):

Now do you understand why I find these performances so enlivening?  This band has tempo and swing, heart and soul, rhythm in its nursery rhymes!  Seriously — what lovely rocking ocean-motion, heartfelt soloing and ensemble playing.  This band knows and plays the verse and the tempos chosen are just right.  And that beat!

I want Ralph Peer or Tommy Rockwell to hear the RCBB and I want them to be under contract to Victor or OKeh right this minute!  I would invite John Hammond to hear them, but John tends to meddle so – – – he’d want to replace half the band with people he liked better.  And I can’t think of people I would prefer . . .

How about two more selections?

This one’s for Mister Strong — his composition, you know! It’s MUSKRAT RAMBLE at the nice Hot Five tempo:

And just for fun (and because Red McKenzie sang it so wonderfully), the DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL — with the verse:

By day and by profession, I am an academic — which explains the didactic streak in my character — but this is a suggestion aiming my readers towards happiness rather than a graded assignment.  You might want to consider visiting Steve Wright’s YouTube channel — “” and indulging yourself in the other performances by this band.  How about SWEET SUE, EVERY EVENING, KING JOE, ONE HOUR, STACK O’LEE, CHANGES MADE, GEORGIA CABIN, LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART, and I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY.

Multi-instrumentalist Steve Wright told me this about the band’s instant creation, gestation-while-you-wait:

“We pulled this together in a hurry.  Chris Tyle’s Silver Leaf Band was originally booked, but Chris got a call for some work in Europe and gave the gig to Dave and Candace (who play with him in Silver Leaf).  I play occasionally with the three of them in Candace’s Combo De Luxe, so I was looped in, and then we decided to pull in a second horn player (Paul) and Ray on piano.  I pulled together some leadsheets and two-reed arrangements from previous bands, and off we went.  Even the name was a rush job: I got a call from the Bellingham folks needing a band name for their publicity, and an hour to figure something out. Since I was already planning to use some Red McKenzie material from the First Thursday book (Hello Lola, for example), I thought of taking off from the Mound City Blue Blowers.”

Now . . . suppose the names of these players are new to you?  Ray Skjelbred has his own website — go there and feel good!

http://www.rayskjelbred.com/

— but Wright, Woltz, and the Browns might be less familiar to you.  Don’t fret.  Here are some facts for the factually-minded.

DAVE BROWN began his musical career decades ago, on banjo and guitar, later expanding his impressive talents to string bass.  He lays down solid rhythm with an energetic style influenced by Steve Brown and Pops Foster. Dave’s credits include membership in the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band, Stumptown, Louisiana Joymakers, Chris Tyle’s Silver Leaf Jazz Band, Combo de Luxe, Glenn Crytzer’s Syncopators, Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band, Gerry Green’s Crescent City Shakers and others.  Many West Coast bands call Brown for gigs, including Simon Stribling’s New Orleans Ale Stars, Red Beans and Rice, Vancouver Classic, Solomon Douglas Sextet, and Jonathan Stout’s Campus Five.  Over the years he has appeared at national and international jazz festivals and has been privileged to play alongside jazz greats “Doc” Cheatham, Spiegle Willcox, Jim Goodwin, and others.

STEVE WRIGHT has been a sparkplug of many fine bands, including the Paramount Jazz of Boston, the Happy Feet Dance Orchestra, the Stomp Off “studio” band (The Back Bay Ramblers).  He’s even substituted a few times with the Black Eagles on clarinet.  After moving to Seattle in 1995, he  joined the Evergreen Jazz Band as a second reed player and then moved to mostly playing cornet as personnel changed.  In the last few years, he’s played a great deal with Candace’s and Ray’s bands, as well as with a local Lu Watters-style two-cornet band, Hume Street Jazz Band.

CANDACE BROWN is one-half of the Jazzstrings duo with husband Dave, Combo de Luxe, Louisiana Joymakers, and she has subbed in many other bands (including Simon Stribling’s Ale Stars and Mighty Aphrodite) as well as playing in the pit orchestra for musical theater. Candace has been heard at a number of festivals including the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, on an Alaskan jazz cruise, at several jazz society concerts, and in July of 2007 she was a member of the pit orchestra for a production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”  Candace is also a splendid writer — if you haven’t read her inspiring blog, GOOD LIFE NORTHWEST, you’re missing out on deep pleasure:  http://goodlifenw.blogspot.com/

PAUL WOLTZ began playing music in his youth, in California.  He performed frequently at Disneyland for a decade, worked as a studio musician in Hollywood, and was a member of the Golden Eagle Jazz Band.  In the Seattle/Everett area, he is a member of the Uptown Lowdown Jazz Band (with whom he has performed at countless jazz festivals and on jazz cruises) is principal bassoonist in the Cascade Symphony, occasionally performs with the 5th Ave Theater, and is called as a sub in numerous bands in the Puget Sound area and beyond — all over the United States and abroad.

TRULY WONDERFUL!

THE FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND (April 7, 2011)

The First Thursday Jazz Band — a delightful small group paying homage to Pee Wee Russell, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis (Armstrong and Prima) among others — was caught live for five video performances at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Pioneer Square, Seattle, Washington.

The quiet heroes up there are Ray Skjelbred, piano; Steve Wright, trumpet, reeds; Dave Brown, bass; Mike Daugherty, drums.  For further information, visit the “islandstarfish” YouTube channel, where you can hear and see this band perform HELLO, LOLA!, CHASIN SHADOWS, a groovy BLUES IN THIRDS, and a tender IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN.

Here’s a sweetly meditative I’M ON THE CREST OF A WAVE — for Bix and Bing and the King of Jazz:

http://youtu.be/4PBw_dcvF8E

I hope to see more of this band!