Tag Archives: Fletcher Henderson

“WARM REGARDS” and “THANK GOD FOR EARS”: A COLLECTION OF PRECIOUS PAGES

The nimble folks atjgautographs” had their hands full of surprises . . . although their holdings range from Frederick Douglass to Marilyn Monroe to Irene Dunne, Stephen Sondheim, and Thomas Edison, it’s the jazz ephemera — no longer ephemeral — that fascinates me and others.  Here’s a sampling, with a few comments.  (The seller has many more autographs, from Sonny Rollins and Eubie Blake to Gene Krupa and Conrad Janis, so most readers of this blog will find something or someone to fascinate themselves.)  For those who want(ed) to buy what they see here, the auction ended this evening: if you are curious, I bid and lost on the Ivie Anderson and Jimmy Rushing; I won the Henry “Red” Allen and will be giving showings at a future date.  Check Eventbrite for tickets.

A number of the older autographs were inscribed to “Jack,” as you’ll see, and some of the newer ones to “Mark,” “Mark Allen,” and “Mark Allen Baker,” which led me on another path — more about the latter at the end of this post.

Husband and wife, very important figures in popular music, now perhaps less known.  Arranger Paul Weston:

and warm-voiced Jo Stafford:

Yusef Lateef lectures Mark:

while Louie Bellson is much more gentle in his inscription:

Lady Day, to Jack:

and Billie’s former boss, who called her “William”:

Notice that the Count’s signature is a little hurried, which to me is proof of its on-the-spot authenticity, because artists didn’t always have desks or nice flat surfaces to sign autographs after the show.  His calligraphy is in opposition to the next, quite rare (and in this case, quite dubious) signature:

Beautiful calligraphy, no?  But Helen Oakley Dance told the story (you can look it up) that Chick was embarrassed by his own handwriting, and when Helen asked for an autograph, Chick said, no, his secretary should sign it because her handwriting was so lovely . . . thus making me believe that this paper was not in Chick’s hands.  People who are less skeptical bid seriously on it, though.

Blossom Dearie, who arouses no such doubts:

And James Rushing, of that same Count Basie band:

I saw Mister Five-by-Five once, and his sound is still in my ears:

another Jimmy, happily still with us:

yet another Jimmy, playing at the Hotel Pennsylvania:

Would you care to join me for dinner?

Perhaps you’d like to meet both Dorsey Brothers?

and we could stay for the “Bombe Borealis,” whatever it looked like:

A woman I would have loved to see and hear, Miss Ivie Anderson:

She continues to charm:

Smack:

Jay Jay:

and Cee Tee:

The wondrous Don Redman:

Ella, whose inscription is elaborate and heartfelt:

One of the million he must have signed:

Jim Hall, always precise:

One can’t have too many of these:

an influential bandleader and personality:

one of Lucky’s great stars — and ours — from an era when you noted what instrument the star played, even if you couldn’t quite spell it:

Here’s the musical background, in the foreground:

finally, something that deserves its own scenario, “Mister Waller, could I have your autograph?”  “Of course, young lady.  What’s your name?”  “Mildred.”

which raises the question: was the bus ticket the spare piece of paper she had, or were they both on a Washington, D.C. streetcar or bus?  At least we know the approximate date of their intersection:

Neither Fats nor Mildred can answer this for us anymore, but here is the perfect soundtrack:

Mark Allen Baker, in the pre-internet world I come from, would have remained a mystery — but I Googled his name and found he is a professional writer, with books on sports teams and boxing, but more to the point, on autograph collecting.  So although I would have hoped he’d be a jazz fan, my guess is that his range is more broad.  And the autographs for sale here suggest that he has found the answer to the question, “Why do you collect autographs?” — the answer being, “To hold on to them and then sell them,” which benefits us.

May your happiness increase!

HEROES WITH FOUNTAIN PENS AND MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS

The eBay seller jgautographs continues to delight and astonish.  They (she? he?) have several thousand items for sale as I write this, for auction or at a fixed price, and even if the later items are unusual yet unsigned photographs, what they have to show us is plenty, from Jacquelie Kennedy Onassis’ stationery, a Playbill signed by Arthur Miller (DEATH OF A SALESMAN, of course), Joey Heatherton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Redford, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Frederick Douglass, Stephen Sondheim, and more.  When people signed their name in cursive, and often before ballpoint pens were ubiquitous.

And did I mention they have jazz autographs for sale?  I remarked upon such wonders here and here about ten days ago.  I’ll leave it to you to search the thousands of items, but here are some of very definite jazz interest.  (This time, the seller is not showing the reverse of these signatures, as (s)he did earlier, so there is a slight air of mystery to these offerings.  But someone was hip.)

There must still be thousands of Tommy Dorsey signatures still circulating, but this one’s unusual: did TD sign it for a family friend, or for someone who asked what his middle name was?  I’ve not seen another like it, and the flourishes mark it as authentic.

Coleman Hawkins had gorgeous handwriting, which does not surprise me.  I have no idea if the signature and photograph are contemporaneous, though:

Someone who worked on and off with Hawk, including time in the Fletcher Henderson band and reunions in the 1956-7 period, my hero, Henry “Red” Allen:

and a signature rarely seen, Leon “Chu” Berry — also from the time when musicians not only signed their name but said what instrument they played:

So far, this post has been silent, but it would be cruel to not include the two small-group sides that bring together Hawk, Red, and Chu — under the leadership of Spike Hughes in 1933 (also including Sidney Catlett, Lawrence Lucie, Wayman Carver, Benny Carter, and Dicky Wells — truly all-star!

HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?

SWEET SUE, JUST YOU (with a glorious Carver flute chorus):

Back to Chu Berry . . . he was playing in Cab Calloway’s band at the end of his life; in the trombone section was Tyree Glenn, who lived much longer (I saw him with Louis):

A star of that orchestra and a star in his own right, trumpeter Jonah Jones:

Here’s BROADWAY HOLDOVER, originally issued on the Staff label under Milt Hinton’s name, featuring Jonah, Tyree, Al Gibson, Dave Rivera, and J.C. Heard:

Our autograph collector friend also made it to a club where Pete Brown was playing — again, another signature rarely seen:

Pete, Tyree, Hilton Jefferson, Jerry Jerome, and Bernie Leighton join Joe Thomas for one of my favorite records, the Keynote YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME:

And (exciting for me) our collector made a trip to Nick’s in Greenwich Village, from whence the signatures of Pee Wee Russell and Miff Mole came.  Now, two musicians from the same schools of thought — the short-lived Rod Cless:

and trumpet hero Sterling Bose:

and because they have been so rare, here are the four sides by the Rod Cless Quartet with Bose, James P. Johnson, and Pops Foster on the Black and White label — I am told that the Black and White sides will be a Mosaic box set, which is fine news.  Here’s HAVE YOU EVER FELT THAT WAY? (with verse):

MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR:

FROGGY MOORE:

and James P., brilliantly, on I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW:

If I could play clarinet, I would like to sound like Cless.

And a postscript of a personal nature: the auction ended a few minutes ago.  I bid on the Cless, the Pete Brown, the Bose, and on a whim (because I knew it would go for a high price) the Chu Berry.  Chu went for nearly $171; someone beat me by a dollar for Sterling Bose, but my bids — not exorbitant — won the Cless and Pete.  When they come in the mail, I envision a frame with Pee Wee, Rod, and Pete.  It will give me pleasure, and some years from now, it will give someone else pleasure also.

May your happiness increase!

THE EASY WINNERS FILL THE AIR WITH LOVELY MELODIES

There are so many names for the music The Easy Winners create (is it string-band music, ragtime, roots music, Americana, or venerable popular song?) that I have given up the quest to name it.  But it’s light-hearted, sweet, sometimes hilarious, sentimental in the best ways, old-fashioned without being stuffy.

THE EASY WINNERS, photograph by Wendy Leyden.

Here’s RAGGED BUT RIGHT, swinging and comedic at once:

Who are these gifted and friendly people?  In the middle, that’s Nick Robinson, to his left is Zac Salem; for this appearance at the 2019 Historic Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival they are joined by Robert Armstrong — you’ll know which one he is because he sings with great subtle skill.  I’m also pleased to point out that the very fine videos are the product of Unigon Films: video and audio by Rob Thomas, edited by Lewis Motisher.
To me, this music is completely charming — what I envision people who lived some distance from cities playing and singing at home (ideally on the porch in summer), old songs, pop songs, swinging without trying hard to, joining their individual string sounds and vocal harmonies to entertain family, friends, neighbors.  They feel a million miles away from music funneled through the iPhone into earbuds or blasting from someone’s car speaker: they remind me of a time when people made music on their own and they were expert at it even when Ralph Peer didn’t offer them a record contract: a landscape full of wonderful sounds, people creating beautiful melodies for their own pleasure.
One of the additional pleasures of this group is their varied library, “ragtime era music of the Americas on mandolin and guitar . . . classic rags, waltzes, cakewalks, tangos, marches, and songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”  For those whose little “is this jazz?” alarm bells are going off, calm down and remind yourself that Oliver, Henderson, Gioldkette, and other fabled bands (we celebrate them as hot ensembles) played tangos and waltzes because the crowd wanted them and expected them — as delights for the ears and intriguing dance music, variety over the course of an evening.
A little personal history: in 2013 I delighted in Nick’s former band, The Ragtime Skedaddlers, at the Cline Wine & Jazz Festival, and it was my pleasure to write about them and post video from their performance here.  Nick happily reminded me that I called the R.S. “old-fashioned melodists,” true then, true now, no matter what the band is called.
The R.S. gave way to The Easy Winners — an optimistic title with echoes of Joplin (and much easier to spell).  I wasn’t at the Sutter Festival, but 17 (!) beautiful videos have emerged and I am delighted to share a few with the JAZZ LIVES audience in hopes of introducing them to this beautiful expert unaffected group.  You can see them all
here or here (the first is Nick’s playlist; the second the filmmakers’ channel).
But here are two more that I particularly like because the songs have deep jazz connections for me and perhaps you as well:
DIANE always makes me think of Jack Teagarden, although the verse is new to me — as is Robert’s fine playing on that home-improvement item (he doesn’t sing “Did you see what I saw?” but perhaps he should):

BREEZE, which I associate with Clarence Williams and Jess Stacy:

I didn’t have the good fortune to grow up among people so talented (although my father played a round-back mandolin in his youth) but the Easy Winners are not only a musical delight but a kind of spiritual one.  Although we are listening to them digitally through our computers, they link us to a time and place where sweet music helped us to perceive the world as a benevolent place.  I hope they prosper.
If I had a house with a porch (my apartment complex has unyielding concrete benches) I would want to hire The Easy Winners for late-spring serenades.  There could be pie and lemonade, too.
May your happiness increase!

THEY LED BANDS, OR PLAYED IN THEM: A COLLECTION OF SIGNATURES

Thanks to jgautographs for putting these and other bits of sacred ephemera up on eBay, where I found them.  This seller has a wide range — from Mae West and Rudy Vallee to Stephen Sondheim, Playbills, actors and actresses both famous and obscure.  But I thought the JAZZ LIVES audience would especially warm to these signatures (some, late-career, but all authentic-looking, many inscribed to Al or Albert) from bandleaders and famous musicians.  In no particular order of reverence.

This is not common at all:

Artie Shaw, 1984:


The Kid From Red Bank, undated (but its casualness makes it feel all the more authentic, with rust, mildew, or food embellishments):

Pioneering trumpeter Billie Rogers:

Glorious lead trumpeter Jimmie Maxwell (always listed as “Jimmy”); I regret that he died two years before I moved into his Long Island town:

Yes, Sammy Kaye, included here because of a Ruby Braff story, memorable and paraphrased: an interviewer tried to get Ruby to say something harsh about this sweet band, and Ruby retorted that if he saw Sammy he would kiss him, because “You had to be a MUSICIAN to play in those bands!”  True:

The front of a card, signed by the insufficiently-celebrated Miff Mole:

and the back, which tells the story, although the handwriting is mysterious and the stains might require a good chemical laboratory to identify — circa 1944:

and two signatures from people who spent their lives signing autographs, the Sentimental Gentleman:

and That Drummer Man, 1967:

Once again, it brings up the question of what we leave behind us when we depart, and how are we remembered.  Did Basie or Gene think, when they were signing a fan’s autograph book, that their signatures would be for sale decades later?  I don’t know what to hope.

May your happiness increase!

EXPERIMENTS IN MUSIC THERAPY, THANKS TO DOCTORS HILL AND WALLER, AND OTHER PRACTITIONERS OF THE HEALING ARTS

Here’s the recipe, or perhaps the prescription:

And the first musical exhortation, this by Mamie Smith (Note: I’ve consciously not written out the known personnel on each of these musical therapies, thinking it a distraction.  If you need to know who’s in the section, write in and I will look it up in Tom Lord’s discography.):

Step two:

and another contemporaneous version, by Lou Gold and his Orchestra:

and the next step:

and the Fletcher Henderson version, arranged by Benny Carter:

Another step:

and the Ellington version that thrills me — vocal by Chick Bullock (whom I like):

Another step:

and the Red Nichols version, where Jack Teagarden delivers the sermon:

and the frankly amazing recording of Bill Robinson.  Follow along!

That’s a hard act to follow, but here are three “modern” versions that have delicious energy of their own.  First, Jeff Barnhart:

and one version by Marty Grosz (there’s another, easily found, on YouTube) where he borrows liberally from Fats’ DON’T LET IT BOTHER YOU for the opening:

and this Teddy Wilson-styled small-group masterpiece by Rebecca Kilgore and Hal Smith’s Rhythmakers:

May your happiness increase!

“A STRENGTH OF SOUND”: CLINT BAKER EXPLAINS (AND PLAYS) THE NEW YORK TROMBONE SCHOOL: (Stomptime, April 30, 2019)

Clint Baker, tbn.

I know someone who can both Do and Teach: my friend and jazz hero above.

When Clint and I were on the STOMPTIME cruise last April and May, we had free time in the afternoons, and (because of my pleasure in video-interviewing others, including Dan Morgenstern, Mike Hashim, and Kim Cusack) I asked Clint if he wanted to sit for my camera.  He was graciously enthusiastic, and because of our recent conversations, he chose to talk about a school of trombonists, working in New York in the early part of the last century, who aren’t praised or noticed as much as they should be.

So here is a beautiful swinging lesson from Professor Baker, the first portion examining the work(s) of Arthur Pryor, Charlie Irvis, Charlie Green, Miff Mole, and the overarching influence of Louis Armstrong:

Here Clint finishes the tale of Charlie Green, considers the work(s) of Jimmy Harrison, Jack Teagarden, Bennie Morton, the “vocal style,” and that influential Louis fellow:

The world of J.C. Higginbotham, with side-trips to Henry “Red” Allen and Luis Russell, Bill Harris, Kid Ory, Honore Dutrey, Preston Jackson, and more:

and finally, a portrait of Sandy Williams, with comments on Sidney Bechet, Bunk Johnson, Jack Teagarden, Chick Webb, and Tommy Dorsey:

Any good classroom presentation asks the students to do some research on their own, in their own ways.  Clint has pointed to many recorded examples in his hour-plus interview / conversation.  I offer a sampling below; for the rest, you are on your own . . . a lifetime of joyous study awaits.

Arthur Pryor’s 1901 masterpiece, THE BLUE BELLS OF SCOTLAND:

A recording that always is heralded for the brilliance of Louis and Bechet, rightly.  But listen to Charlie Irvis all the way through, who’s astonishing:

Charlie Green on the Henderson “Dixie Stompers” CLAP HANDS, HERE COMES CHARLEY:

“Big” Green with Louis, for HOBO, YOU CAN’T RIDE THIS TRAIN:

and, because it’s so rewarding, the other take (which sounds like their first try):

Lawrence Brown showing the Pryor influence on the Ellington SHEIK (YouTube doesn’t offer the 1940 Fargo dance date version, yet) — with a later solo by someone we didn’t speak of, Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton:

Jimmy Harrison on the “Chocolate Dandies” DEE BLUES:

Cross-fertilization: Jack Teagarden on RIDIN’ BUT WALKIN’:

Bennie Morton, on Don Redman’s 1931 I GOT RHYTHM, with a glorious trio:

J.C. Higginbotham, Henry “Red” Allen, and Pops Foster — with the 1929 Luis Russell band, for JERSEY LIGHTNING:

Higgy, Red, and Cecil Scott, 1935, with ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON:

Preston Jackson, explosively, on Jimmie Noone’s 1940 NEW ORLEANS HOP SCOP BLUES:

Sandy Williams with Bunk and Bechet, UP IN SIDNEY’S FLAT:

Sandy with Bechet, Sidney De Paris, Sidney Catlett, OLD MAN BLUES:

and Sandy on Chick Webb’s DIPSY DOODLE:

A wonderful postscript: Dan Morgenstern recalling Sandy Williams at a 2017 interview, as well as the kindness of Bennie Morton, and a James P. Johnson story:

But my question is this, “Clint, what shall we talk about next?  I can’t wait . . . and I know I have company.”

May your happiness increase!

HOT MUSIC, GOOD STORIES, LASTING FRIENDSHIP, KINDNESSES: HANK O’NEAL RECALLS SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT (Nov. 2, 2018)

Here is one perspective on Hank O’Neal — writer, archivist, record producer, photographer, friend of Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott . . . and many jazz musicians from Willie “the Lion” Smith to Borah Bergman.  Hank is also an incredible resource and storyteller, someone I am thrilled to call a friend: reasons that Hank visits JAZZ LIVES, as he speaks with great fondness of Squirrel Ashcraft.  If you say, “Wow, Squirrel!” then you have come to the right place.  If you say, “Who IS that?” you’re also in for pleasure and enlightenment.

Hank O’Neal by Annie Tritt for the Boston Globe, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And since Hank is a masterful photographer, here is another character study, one I like even more — shot by Sherry Sereboff (2017, near Fort Worth, Texas) even better.  When I meet Hank next, I will ask what was on his plate:

I had asked Hank to speak about Squirrel for JAZZ LIVES, and the conversation began very informally, as he was paging through Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft’s scrapbook.  I just started videoing . . . with happy results — little anecdotes about sacred objects connected to Bix, Tesch, and Dick Voynow.  But for future researchers, any time someone you respect says the words, “Letters from Brad Gowans,” you know something important is being revealed:

“Who was Squirrel Ashcraft and how did I meet him?”:

Paging through Squirrel’s 1928-9 notebook, “JAZZ MUSIC,” with entries devoted to the Wolverines, Hoagy Carmichael, Benny Goodman, the Georgians, Jack Pettis, Leon Roppolo, Henderson’s adaptation of RHAPSODY IN BLUE, and more:

I first learned about Squirrel through EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (a book Eddie did with Hank) and then through Squirrel’s home recordings, later issued on rare lps by . . . Hank.  Here’s the story of Squirrel’s career — about fifteen years — as an archivist of home recordings, often aluminum, including performances by Johnny Mercer, Joe Rushton, Jimmy McParland, George Barnes, Boyce Brown, Bob Zurke, Spencer Clark, Rosy McHargue, also Joe Rushton, his motorcycle, and Pee Wee Russell, and Squirrel’s later playing career in Washington, D.C., and sidelights on Jean Bach, Jimmy Dorsey, and jazz reunions at Princeton University from 1975-79:

Finally . . . Hank brings us up to date (Squirrel died in 1981, but his relics are going to a good place.  And don’t miss the story about the Bob Crosby band: Squirrel and friends obviously knew how to live:

The best part of this story, just over an hour with Hank, is his obvious affection and indebtedness to Squirrel, and Squirrel’s sweet feelings for the music and musicians.  Thank you, Hank, for making the reclusive Squirrel appear to us in this century.

And . . . because Hank is a wonderful writer, here’s his “little piece” on Squirrel from his book on pianists. Some of the stories you will have heard from the videos above, but they don’t wilt with a second telling:

SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT
September 20, 1905 – January 18, 1981

Edwin Maurice Ashcraft III, better known as “Squirrel”, is the least known pianist in this book, but he was by far the most important to me. It all started because of two courses I’d taken at Syracuse University; one in Russian Studies and another in African Studies. The Russian Studies course ultimately led me to be employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The African Studies course, particularly one taught by Eduardo Mondlane, who was later to lead and win the revolution in Mozambique, led me to the CIA’s Office of Operations, where Squirrel Ashcraft was the Director.

Though forgotten today, Squirrel was a legendary figure in the world of jazz, at least into the mid-1970s, but much can be lost and forgotten in a quarter of a century. He was, for example, the only person I knew who had heard Louis Armstrong and King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens, and had known and associated with a host of other legendary players from the 1920s, who were just names in a book or music in the grooves of old records to me. He was the kind of man who could make a simple telephone call and John Hammond, Neshui or Ahmet Ertegun would welcome me warmly. The same was true of any number of musicians of a certain age, i.e. the Austin High Gang, and their musical associates or disciples.

He was the first jazz artist I ever heard perform in an informal setting, that is away from a concert hall or club, where I was a paying spectator. By that time, he was in his 60s, hadn’t played regularly for years, never had been a first rank player anyway, and now had an affliction in one of his hands that affected his dexterity. But for someone of my age, and limited experience, it was more thrilling to be standing two feet from a legendary figure in his living room than hearing a great pianist from the top balcony in Carnegie Hall.

He was also the man who first introduced me to an active jazz musician, in this case, Jimmy McPartland. Later, he would introduce me to many others, and simply because he made the introduction, I was accepted by these men and women without question.

A little background is in order. Squirrel was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1905. His family was socially prominent and well situated. In the early 1920s he discovered jazz and became as deeply involved with it as possible. He was active in Chicago in the same way John Hammond was in New York, and he met many of the up and coming young jazz musicians in that city long before they had come up, befriended them, helped them whenever possible, and continued to for years and years.

Squirrel came east in the late 1920’s and attended Princeton. He played both piano and accordion, was part of Princeton’s Triangle Club, wrote songs, recorded with the Triangle Jazz Band, was known to and played informally with such legendary figures as Bix Beiderbecke, and even corralled the elusive cornet player one night, convincing him to record with the Princeton band. It almost came off, but not quite; Bix was there when everyone fell asleep but had vanished when they woke up. He continued at Princeton, but eventually returned to Chicago in the early 1930s, and took up his post in the family law firm.

He opened his home to every jazz musician who could find their way to Evanston, and hundreds did, usually on Monday nights. The sessions at Squirrel’s featured a who’s who of whoever was in Chicago at the time. He began to record these proceedings in about 1933 and, until he left for World War II, hundreds of private discs were made, sometimes with the help of his friend John Steiner. Steiner eventually issued some of the goings-on on Paramount 78 rpm discs and later on 10” LPs.

World War II closed down the Monday night sessions; Squirrel was inducted in the U.S Navy, and assigned to naval intelligence. After the war, he returned to Chicago, his law practice, and the music and recording began again, this time on a crude tape recorder that used paper tape. The music didn’t last long, however, because in the late 1940s Squirrel was selected by the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency to run its Chicago field office, and the music slowed down once again. He was so good at the CIA game, he was urged to become the Director of all domestic operations in the early 1950’s.

Squirrel accepted the challenge, closed down the house in Evanston, moved to Washington, and vanished into another world, his whereabouts unknown, except to the musicians and friends with whom he kept in touch. There were no sessions at Squirrel’s massive apartment in Washington. When I arrived on the scene in 1964, his piano sounded a bit like one from a Charles Addams’ haunted house. But that was soon to change.

Suddenly there was someone around who knew his past, and even had one of those old John Steiner-issued Paramount records to prove it. I was the junior guy in the Office of Operations, but I had immediate access to the Director because of the music. This is when I learned that love of jazz of a certain sort could cross any cultural divide, regardless of age, race, or anything else.

It didn’t take long before the piano was tuned and regulated, and informal musical gatherings began. The first was with Jimmy and Marian McPartland, and two wonderful local Washington musicians, clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney (who founded and owned Blues Alley) and guitarist Steve Jordan. Squirrel got his hands back in shape, so he could spell Marian when she wanted to relax and, just like in the old days, everything was recorded. The first “new” informal session was eventually issued as a record that was given away to anyone who wanted one. I cut my recording teeth on Squirrel’s Ampex F-44 and two Electrovoice microphones.

Listening back to the old acetate and aluminum recordings from the 1930s, Squirrel reminds me of a pianist like Frank Melrose. A great deal more passion than technique, but good enough to get the job done. He was a better than average amateur in those days, and could easily hold his own with his peers, and provide good accompaniment to A-list artists when it was required. I remember him telling me that one night the entire Bob Crosby band came out to his house for a Monday night session. The thing that pleased him most was that the first complaint was from a neighbor whose house was three blocks away. And he got to play with the band when Bob Zurke was doing something else.

Squirrel’s influence in the jazz world was not as a pianist. He was always behind the scenes and, eventually, way behind the scenes. If Eddie Condon couldn’t get a liquor license to open Condon’s; Squirrel could make the call to the right person so it could be worked out, despite the checkered past of some of the club’s owners. If a certain player were down on his luck, there would be a check in the mail. There were any number of people he supported for life. He was a safety net for many, many of the first generation of jazz musicians, and probably some of the second and third. My guess is he was a safety net for a lot of people I didn’t know about, musicians, old friends down on their luck, or even a struggling bullfighter.

After he officially retired in the late 1960’s, Squirrel spent less and less time in Washington and more time at his home in Spain. Sometimes a year would pass and I wouldn’t see him, except perhaps to see him off on either the ocean liners Michaelangelo or Rafaello, his favorite modes of transportation between New York and Spain. When in Spain, he had little time for music, but towards the end of a letter from there, dated November 12, 1969, he says, “We are listening, which we do seldom at all, to Miles’ Sketches, and I wish so very, very much that Bix could have heard it…. We think about you often. Please write the whole story.” I’m not sure I ever did, but in the 1970s, and early 1980s, he had a burst of musical energy, at least every June, for half a dozen years.

In 1975, Jack Howe liberated a funny little band, affectionately called The Sons of Bix, from cornetist Tom Pletcher. Jack was an amateur tenor saxophone player, who’d been part of the in the Princeton Triangle Jazz band with Squirrel in the 1920s. He augmented the SOBs with Princeton alumni musicians, aided by the likes of Spencer Clarke, Bob Haggart, Max Kaminsky, Maxine Sullivan and others. The band only had one certain engagement each year, to play a class reunion at Princeton. It turned out, however, the band played the reunion of the Class of 1929 or the Class of 1930, every year until at least 1982. Squirrel actually played a little piano on all the dates until 1981. I recorded the performances, which, as often as not, were presented in tents. Squirrel and Jack then chose their favorite tunes, and I arranged for a few LPs to be pressed up and distributed to the dwindling faithful. The records are often spirited, but not landmark recordings. A friendly souvenir, but little more. Much to my surprise, some of them have been listed in Tom Lord’s landmark The Jazz Discography.

In those years, if I had to be in Washington, for whatever reason, Squirrel’s Watson Place apartment was always open, whether Squirrel and his wife, Patter, were in residence or not. I haven’t stayed in a hotel in Washington since 1960; but to confess, I only went back a few times after Squirrel died in 1981. The last time I was there was at the urging of his wife. She telephoned in the mid-1980s and said she was cleaning out files and had found some correspondence from me in a box of music-related junk in the back of a closet. Would I please come down and save all these found items from the trash collector? I was also urged to pick up the crank-up Victrola with the bamboo needle cutter that was now stored in the basement. I’d first seen it at an old filling station somewhere in Virginia in the mid-1960s, offered the owner $10, which he was happy to have, and had passed it on to Squirrel, so he could play his old Hot Five 78s as he played them in the 1920s, when they were fresh and new. I was happy to have it back, and it still works just fine.

I drove down, had a nice visit with Patter, and loaded all the papers, the boxes of stuff she’d found in the closet, and the old Victrola in the back of my car. I had a last look around, and never went back, but stayed in touch with Patter until she became ill and her Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where she didn’t know who I was.

When I got home after that last trip, I had a good time looking at the correspondence, the old clippings from the 1930’s and 1940s. At the bottom of the box I saved from the trash man, I found the bell of a battered cornet, with a note from Jimmy McPartland. This was all that was left of the cornet Bix had bought him, when Jimmy replaced Bix in the Wolverines. This was the kind of thing that turned up at Sqiurrel’s house. And I’ll bet things like that don’t turn up too many other places.

Squirrel Ashcraft was a kind and generous man who touched the lives of many men and women in a positive way. When he found time to touch a piano, it was equally positive. I never heard him play the blues.

May your happiness increase!