Early on in my listening career I was frankly enraptured by Jack Teagarden, trombone and voice. I heard his ST. JAMES INFIRMARY from Louis’ 1947 Town Hall concert and although I played that whole recording until it turned grey, that track and AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ were especially worn. In my local department store, a Decca anthology, THE GOLDEN HORN OF JACK TEAGARDEN, was a cherished purchase, with recordings from 1929 to 1947. Ask any trombonist how astonishing Jack’s technique is — and note I use present tense. And as for his singing . . . who has matched its easy fervor?
This little meditation on the man from Texas is motivated by two autographed photographs on eBay. The seller is from Belgium. Here is one link (the portrait); here is the other (the group photo).
First, a standard publicity shot when Jack was a member of Louis’ All-Stars (and thus employed by Joe Glaser’s Associated Booking Corporation) — inscribed “To Rosie and Tony,” in peacock-blue fountain-pen ink. I suspect that either Rosie or Tony dated the photograph at the bottom; the neat printing is probably not Jack’s:
That photograph holds no mysterious half-submerged stories. But this one does. It is heralded by the seller as “Louis Armstrong – Lucille Wilson – Jack Teagarden – RARE back signed photo – COA,” and I have no quibbles with that except that by 1942, “Lucille Wilson” had taken “Armstrong” as her surname.
But wait! There’s more! Is the partially obscured clarinetist to the left Peanuts Hucko? I believe the seated baritone saxophonist is not Ernie Caceres, but the elusive Bill Miles. And standing behind Louis is a naggingly familiar figure: the penny dropped (as my UK friends may say) — drummer Kaiser Marshall. His headgear suggests that this is a candid shot from a 1947 gathering, “Jazz on the River,” that also included Art Hodes and possibly Cecil Scott — connected to the premiere of the film NEW ORLEANS at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City.
William P. Gottlieb took a good number of photographs of this concert which was to benefit the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund, and you can see them at the Gottlieb holdings at the Library of Congress here. Here’s one:
Other musicians in this band were Cecil Scott, Sandy Williams, and Henry Goodwin. We have even more evidence: an NBC radio broadcast of a concert at the Winter Garden on June 19, 1947, the performers being Louis and Jack, Peanuts and Caceres, Bobby Hackett, Dick Cary, Jack Lesberg, George Wettling, and Sidney Catlett. The broadcast, m.c.’d by Fred Robbins, offered ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS, MUSKRAT RAMBLE, DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND, DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS, SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY, and TIGER RAG.
Back to the second photograph for a moment. It does not look to me like a Gottlieb shot. Was it was a candid one, created by another photographer. Is the number on the back significant of anything more than the developer’s index? I do not know. Did Louis, Lucille, and Jack sign this photograph at or after the concert? And . . . who can decipher the fourth signature, quite cryptic and unfamiliar to me?And an aside: we don’t always think of Kaiser Marshall when we list Louis’ great drummers, but they were colleagues in the Fletcher Henderson band during Louis’ 1924-5 tenure, and they teamed up so very memorably for the 1929 KNOCKIN’ A JUG session — although not after that, at least in terms of recorded evidence. You can hear Kaiser (born Joseph) with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and, in 1946-47, with Mezz Mezzrow and Sidney Bechet for KING JAZZ recordings. Kaiser died on January 2, 1948; he was only 45.
All of that has taken us some distance from Jack Teagarden, but I hope you found this jazz-mystery solving rewarding. Now, for some relevant music from the 1947 Winter Garden broadcast — with Louis in that brief golden period when he appeared and recorded with a group of musicians we would most happily associate with Eddie Condon, to great effect:
‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS:
MUSKRAT RAMBLE :
DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? (Bobby Hackett at the start, and a gorgeous solo by Jack):
(Note: the YouTube compilers seem to have hidden DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND, a duet for Louis and Dick Cary, and SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY. I have no idea why.)
TIGER RAG (with raucous Jack and a wonderful Sidney solo):
Photographs, imperishable music, and a small mystery: JAZZ LIVES’ gift to you.
Is the world going a little too fast for you? Is this your internal soundtrack?
Do you feel like a character in a Fleischer cartoon where everything’s too speedy to be brought under control? (I mean no disrespect to the 1936 Henderson band — with spectacular playing on this fast blues, appropriately called JANGLED NERVES — from Chu Berry, Roy Eldridge, Sidney Catlett, Fernando Arbello, and Buster Bailey.)
I believe the following interlude will calm and enliven your nerves at the same time. It happened here, in a vanished but remembered past — the third weekend in September 2009 at Jazz at Chautauqua, Joe Boughton’s creation, at the Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua, New York.
Joe loved to begin and end his weekend programs with ballad medleys, and here is a segment of one of them, featuring Duke Heitger, trumpet; Andy Schumm, cornet; Dan Barrett, trombone; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Bob Reitmeier, clarinet; Ehud Asherie, piano; Marty Grosz, guitar; Frank Tate, string bass;, Pete Siers, drums. The bill of fare is MEMORIES OF YOU (Duke), STARDUST (Bob), PRELUDE TO A KISS (Scott), OLD FOLKS (Andy), IF I HAD YOU (Dan, with the ensemble joining in):
Let’s see how you’re feeling tomorrow. Leave a message with Mary Ann.
If you’re called “crazy,” it’s not usually a compliment. A psychiatrist might assign your particular condition a number according to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) so that the health insurance company will know what box your paperwork should go into. But in pop music of a certain era, being “crazy” seems to be an exalted state. Think of the Gershwins’ GIRL CRAZY, or the Fats Waller-Alex Hill I’M CRAZY ‘BOUT MY BABY. Or this wonderful state of being:
The composition was Fletcher’s, but brother Horace did the arrangement and played piano in this wonderful edition of the Henderson orchestra, recording in New York, October 3, 1933 — Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Claude Jones, Dicky Wells, trombone; Russell Procope, Hilton Jefferson, Coleman Hawkins, reeds; Horace Henderson, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; John Kirby, string bass; Walter Johnson, drums. Great dance music, great rhythm section, great solos from Claude Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Bobby Stark, Dicky Wells — I imagine this arrangement being “opened up” for a long romp.
And here’s what that record sounds like:
That riffing composition did not get recorded (although there’s a wonderful video of the Harlem Jazz Camels, featuring Bent Persson, performing it) for another eighty years. But pianist Paolo Alderighi and trombonist Dan Barrett get truly groovy here. What a tempo, and what sounds!
This duo was part of a Rebecca Kilgore record session — recorded in the back room of Portland, Oregon’s Classic Pianos, and you can hear it all on the CD that resulted. Talk to our heroine-friend Ms. Beckyhere about acquiring a copy, order it on Amazon here, or here on iTunes: it’s crazy in the best ways.
If you asked me to give an overview of jazz and popular music in 1936, I might summon up Stuff Smith, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Putney Dandridge, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Hill, Gene Krupa, Fifty-Second Street, Red Allen, Art Tatum, Bob Howard, Mildred Bailey, Jones-Smith, Incorporated, Teddy Wilson, and twenty others. It would be a little after THE MUSIC GOES ROUND AND ROUND but just right for I’SE A-MUGGIN’, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, and RHYTHM IN MY NURSERY RHYMES, perhaps DINNER FOR ONE, PLEASE JAMES.
But in even broader strokes, this was the early triumph of the Swing Era, dominated by well-rehearsed bands, using intricate arrangements for dancers. But art, however you define it, is never homogeneous: while Joyce and Woolf were exploding the conventions of narrative, many traditional linear novels were published and read. In jazz, we know that Max Roach and Baby Dodds were on the same radio broadcast in most congenial fashion. And in the very late Fifties, Herbie Nichols, Steve Lacy, Ed Allen, and Cecil Scott were all gigging in New York City simultaneously.
These musings come about because of Briscoe Draper’s posting on Facebook of a song I’d never heard, LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON, which delights me. It features the clarinet playing of Arnett Nelson, someone I’ve heard about from one of my other teachers, Sammut of Malta — whose expert playing has nothing to do with the elegant playing of Benny and Artie, so much in fashion in 1936. These tracks were issued under the all-inclusive but unspecific name “Chicago Rhythm Kings,” which jazz fans will recognize as a nom-de-disque for young white Chicagoans in 1928.
Here is the recording data, edited from Tom Lord. Steve Abrams suggests that Guy Kelly is the trumpeter, but I feel that the player we hear is less assured. And is the pianist Black Bob or Jimmy Blythe? I do not know, nor are such matters my focus.
Lord notes: prob. Alfred Bell (cnt) Roy Palmer (tb) Arnett Nelson (cl,vcl) prob. Black Bob (p) prob John Lindsay (b) Jimmy Bertrand (d). Chicago, March 11, 1936: YOU BATTLE-HEAD BEETLE- HEAD Vocalion 3208 / IT’S TOO BAD (WHEN THE SISTERS START TRUCKIN’ AROUND) in two takes; Voc 3208.
Same personnel but unknown (as-1) added. Chicago, April 3, 1936: SHANGHAI HONEYMOON Bluebird 6371 / LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON (same, unknown vocalist).
Because Steve Abrams has generously made available his 78 transfer of IT’S TOO BAD / YOU BATTLE-HEAD, I have included that as well as the YouTube transfers, which might be from the RST CD collection. (There are pitch and sonic differences: I would assume that the 78 transfer is a more trustworthy source, but such waters are deep and dark.)
I invite you to turn away from the news and immerse yourself in a different world, thanks to these “Hot Dance with Vocal Chorus” records. I’ll have some listening comments at the end.
and the 78 version:
Flip it over, as they used to say:
This seems the same take as the 78, unless they followed the routines closely:
If you are enamored of SHANGHAI HONEYMOON, there are many versions with vocal refrains and ostentatious “Chinese” cliches. However, Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs have performed this opus — you can find it on YouTube — with its ethnic-racial tendencies tamed, and a duet by Ray and Katie Cavera (also on the Jazzology CD, GREETINGS FROM CHICAGO):
and my new favorite ditty, which I hope to hear Dave Stuckey sing when we meet again (although that is a suggestion rather than an order — greetings, Pappy!):
Depending on how deeply you have steeped yourself in the music of the period, you may hear many different things.
First, the material itself is cheerfully homemade: except for SHANGHAI, the songs are composed by the players, and they are miles away from Rodgers and Hart or Arlen and Koehler. That is not to condescend, for listeners respond strongly to campfire songs as well as poetry, but BEETLE and TOO BAD seem more enthusiastic than expert: the end-rhymes are inexact, and occasionally the lyrics and music do not fit neatly. They are set-pieces for an audience who wanted to party: the “you’re a fool for getting so drunk” song; the “let’s celebrate wild action on the dance floor” song — reminiscent of a contemporaneous Tampa Red blues — especially because the Chicago blues records of this period employed many of the same musicians. I hear echoes of MAMA DON’T ALLOW and HOW’M I DOIN’ as well as YOU RASCAL YOU.
LITTLE SANDWICH WAGON aspires to be one of those songs mingling love and the bill of fare (think WHEN LOVE DROPPED IN TO TEA) but it doesn’t get there; the composer(s) are more focused on what’s for sale than in a Billy Wilder meet-cute with someone’s hamburger being shared by thrifty lovers. (I hear echoes of ACE IN THE HOLE in the first strain.)
SHANGHAI HONEYMOON is the most “professional” song of the four, possibly going back to 1927, and whether Lester Melrose had anything to do with writing it or simply required a portion of the royalties in exchange for getting it published, played, and recorded, I do not know, but the three other songs did not have any currency outside of this record date, where HONEYMOON did. I have seen no sheet music for the other songs.
Second, these recordings are stylistically earlier than 1936 (no offense meant there either); rather than being “streamlined,” “innovative,” or “harmonically forward-looking,” they happily live in the musical world that Dick Wellstood called “grease and funk,” with TOO BAD and BEETLE sounding, to me, like Saturday-night-party music. The closest parallel in jazz is the long series of Clarence Williams recordings, but these sides are genuine crossover music before the name ever emerged, with sideways connections to blues and roots music.
And this is understandable, given the histories of the players: for most of them, this was their last recording session, and some of them had been recording since 1921 or 1923. I delight in Arnett Nelson’s wildly opinionated clarinet — “I have something to say and I have to say it loudly and right now,” and the powerful rhythm section. But we are miles away from the Benny Goodman Quartet, Toto. I also have a special affection for the rather sweetly amateurish singer on SANDWICH: was he someone’s relative or friend? (I wonder what the significance of “He didn’t serve no rice” is. An easy rhyme for “nice,” or are there deeper meanings?
Finally, I wonder how these record dates came to be. In New York, Williams made no records between 1935 and 1937, and his 1934 sides for the Decca “Sepia Series” were issued as the “Alabama Jug Band.” Did a Vocalion recording executive in Chicago perceive that this band — of known reliable musicians who were also appearing on blues records — should be given the chance to make two sides of their own compositions with the hope of a jukebox hit? Musicians recorded such sessions with little preparation; they were paid scale. It would not have cost Vocalion much, but clearly the records did not make a stir. Did Nelson or someone else in the band take the test pressings over to the Victor studios and request a date in April?
I have stayed away from discussing race in this post, but I will suggest that a 1936 record buyer would recognize these four sides as being performed and aimed at a “colored” audience, to use the description of the times. Yet I know Bluebird (by which I mean Victor) also used the “Chicago Rhythm Kings” name to issue a record or records by what I believe are white orchestras.
All this must, I think, remain mysterious. What we have is rollicking, enthusiastic hot music played by Chicago veterans. Thank goodness for records, and particularly for odd, cheerful ones like these four.
The chorus begins, “Words that seem so tender / Words of sweet surrender,” so you can invent the rest of this 1924 song — by Al Dubin, Al Tucker, and Otis Spencer — on your own. I have to improvise as well, because the complete sheet music has eluded me so far.
Most of us, if we know the song at all, know the Fletcher Henderson acoustic Vocalion recording where youthful Louis Armstrong explodes into his chorus, backed by an equally stirring Kaiser Marshall, or perhaps later evocations.
Here is a very remarkable “modern” (i.e., 2019) recording of the song that only a few listeners have made friends with — by the Hill Country Dance Orchestra, a band you won’t find in Brian Rust’s books. Listen and marvel:
Hot enough for you? “Authentic” enough for you? Yes, on both counts.
What’s most remarkable is that the Hill Country Dance Orchestra — its personnel two cornets, trombone, two alto saxophones, baritone saxophone, C-melody saxophone, clarinet, violin, banjo, piano, tuba, drums — is both a discographer’s dream and nightmare, because of this young brilliance, Colin Hancock from Texas (and now studying in New York City):
My more attentive readers might be saying, “But I don’t understand. Which instrument does Colin play on this recording?” And then I would respond, with the appropriate emphasis. “ALL OF THEM.” The magic of modern technology; the exuberance and accuracy of a great artist.
I’ll wait while you return to listen to this marvel once again.
And here is Colin’s newest band, his Signature Seven, rollicking through I’M GONNA STOMP MISTER HENRY LEE and DOWN HOME RAG:
Colin’s noble roisterers (he’s playing cornet) are Jeffery Miller, trombone; Daniel Dickinson, alto saxophone, clarinet; Troy Anderson, tenor saxophone; Juan Vidaurre, banjo; Isaiah Thompson, piano; Julian Johnson, drums.
Great music. Tell your friends. Wake the children. No one will want to say, “I wasn’t paying attention when Colin Hancock and friends were making glorious sounds.”
And you can get a direct line to the new / old sounds by subscribing to Colin’s YouTube channel SemperPhonographCo here. (Why wait?)
The nimble folks at “jgautographs” 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:
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.
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:
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.
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
hereor 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.
Thanks to jgautographsfor 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.
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.):
and another contemporaneous version, by Lou Gold and his Orchestra:
and the next step:
and the Fletcher Henderson version, arranged by Benny Carter:
and the Ellington version that thrills me — vocal by Chick Bullock (whom I like):
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:
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.”
Hereis 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.
We didn’t miss the Saturday dance, I assure you. And they crowded the floor.
The event I’m referring to took place at the 39th annual San Diego Jazz Fest — a Saturday-night swing dance featuring Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenadersand Laura Windley, sharing the bill with the Mad Hat Hucksters. I could only stay for Michael’s opening set, but the music I captured was honey to my ears. And you’ll see many happy dancers too.
The Rhythm Serenaders were a mix of local talent and gifted people from New Orleans: Michael on string bass; Kris Tokarski, piano; Jonathan Stout, guitar; Josh Collazo, drums; Joe Goldberg, clarinet and tenor; Nate Ketner, alto and clarinet; Corey Gemme, cornet; Charlie Halloran; trombone; Laura Windley, vocals. Did they rock! And you’ll notice the delightfully unhackneyed repertoire: this is not a group with a narrow range: no IN THE MOOD here.
An incomplete PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (the late start is my doing: at swing dances I have a hard time finding a good place for camera and tripod, and at this one the music was so good that I decided to take the risk of being intrusive and set my tripod on the stage, right behind Kris at the piano. The dancers didn’t notice, or if they did, no one came over to object. Later on, I was able to achieve a pleasing split-screen effect.):
Laura sings IF DREAMS COME TRUE, and they do:
Rex Stewart’s ‘T’AIN’T LIKE THAT:
Laura’s homage to Teddy Grace, the charming I’VE TAKEN A FANCY TO YOU:
Laura’s warning, courtesy of Kay Starr: DON’T MEDDLE IN MY MOOD:
The Henderson COMIN’ AND GOIN’:
Sid Phillips’ MAN ABOUT TOWN:
Chu Berry’s MAELSTROM:
For Billie and Lester, Laura’s HE AIN’T GOT RHYTHM:
and the classic swing tune (Carmen Lombardo, don’t you know) COQUETTE:
Find Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders on Facebook here.
“You’ll find that happiness lies / right under your eyes,” say the lyrics for BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD. I don’t have a backyard any more, but I stumbled across this performance — that made me happy in 2011 and continues to do so now — by accident. In the decade or so that I’ve had this blog, I’ve spent a good deal of energy with a video camera, recording live performances. Around six thousand of them are visible on YouTube now, and I get notified when viewers comment. Ungenerous comments from armchair critics make me fume, and if they insult “my” artists, I delete the comments. But someone saw this, felt about it as I do, and so it is Time To Share Some Joy.
This performance came from the 2011 Sweet and Hot Music Festival, held in Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend. I was fortunate to attend it in its last year, and it offered joyous music and very lovely people, not all of them musicians. (“Hello, Laurie Whitlock! Love from New York!”)
But the music was often stunningly pleasurable.
I think that I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS vied with GOODNIGHT, SWEETHEART to be the song played at the end of the evening. But Henderson recorded it as a hot dance number in 1925 (Louis on the verse) and it was picked up in the Swing Era by bands large and small — my favorite the Teddy Wilson Brunswick side.
But this 2011 live version is so dear: sweetly lyrical and rocking, balancing tenderness and Fifty-Second Street riffing. And it adds to my delight that the musicians in this video are very much alive and making music. Bless them. I single out Rebecca Kilgore as my ideal of lyrical heartfelt witty swing. Now and forever.
In his seriously masterful AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder was unkind to “IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN,” calling it “nostalgic,” but adding that “its melody simply isn’t that good.” Songs have feelings, too, and I disagree. I’ve never been jilted at the altar (or a week before) but I always find the song touching and it works well as a ballad or in medium tempo. In my mind’s ear I hear Joe Thomas playing and singing it, getting particularly impassioned in the last eight bars. I wish he’d recorded a long vocal version. And that Louis had done so also.
First, the song as a new pop hit, performed by the marvelously emotive Connie Boswell (sweet and then swung gently):
Coleman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson, 1933:
and with Sir Charles Thompson, 1945:
and from this century — September 14, 2017 — at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, a version nicely balancing melancholy and swing, by Rossano Sportiello, piano; Pete Siers, drums; Joel Forbes, string bass; Andy Brown, guitar; Dan Block, clarinet; Duke Heitger, trumpet. Keynote / Vanguard style, with split choruses, easy rocking lyricism, climbing to the stars:
Go to a jazz club, bar or restaurant that offers live music, and there is often a tip jar (tip vase, tip pumpkin, in the latest incarnation a tip brown paper bag). Very few people bother to put anything in it, and those who do often think a lonely dollar is just recompense for the hour of music — created by human beings — that they’ve just heard. I’ve been to nightspots where one of the musicians walked from patron to patron, asking for “tips for the band,” and some people look embarrassed, offer coins, or — in one case — hand the musician a five and ask for three back. And when the patron is on his or her third drink, it seems offensive to say, “I am worthy of twenty-five dollars of alcohol but the musicians are furniture that makes sounds. I don’t pay chairs when I sit on them.”
The professional who performs a valuable service (be she an ENT doctor or an estate lawyer helping you write a will) has studied for years to earn that credential, and must keep re-certifying to retain it. I think such levels of skill deserve more pay than — let us say — folding jeans at the local chain clothing store, with all respect to the folders. The musician you listen to has probably put in ten thousand hours of practice on her instrument, and keeps working. That’s worth more than a dollar.
But there’s an intrinsic problem, as Blanche DuBois found out, in relying on the kindness of strangers. Sometimes people are more strange than they are kind.
A musical interlude at an angle to this theme:
Eric Whittington, owner and spiritual Chief of Staff of Bird & Beckett — bookstore, cultural center, concert space — in San Francisco, has written cogently about this on his blog:
A healthy arts culture requires public subsidy. To us, it seems as simple as that.
At Bird & Beckett, we generally ask you to put up $10 to $15 to $20 when you come to a show, and that goes a long way. And when you and your neighbors donate to our nonprofit, that supplements the money you put in at the shows and also underpins our overhead costs — so that we can stay in business as a venue and as a bookshop.
Is $10 or $20 a lot of money to hear talented performers play live music?
Not really. How much did you pay for your last burrito? How much did you tip the wait staff in that nice restaurant down the street for visiting your table several times in the course of serving you a meal that cost you $20 to $75? How much did you pay to see a movie over in West Portal? What price the popcorn?
30 people at the bookshop putting in $10 apiece comes to $300. For four musicians, that’s $75 apiece, with nothing to the venue. If there are only 12 people in the room, $15 apiece is only going to total $180 for that Saturday night quartet, though we pay out $400.
But your pockets on any given day are only so deep! Again, a healthy arts culture requires public subsidy!
As an individual, you are personally making a substantial and crucial contribution when you seek out live music and put up your cash, whether by paying a cover charge, by throwing money in the donation buckets and tip jars, by spending lavishly on a performer’s merchandise and a venue’s food & drink. Still, it’s not really enough unless you’re able and willing to pay a $50 cover instead of $15. Subsidy is necessary. How do we get there? How do we distribute it?
Jazz in the Neighborhood – a wonderful organization that’s been sponsoring performances in non-traditional venues all over the Bay Area the past several years – has just launched a fund to supplement musicians’ pay. Their efforts can’t cover all the musicians in all the venues. Nonetheless, they’re raising the bar, raising consciousness and setting a standard. $150 per show per performer is the goal they’re establishing. You’ll be reading about their efforts in the media. They’re our allies, and champions of the City’s (the region’s) working jazz musicians. Google them now! Wrap your mind around their efforts.
The problem, simply stated is this: It’s unusual for musicians to get decent pay in this city when they play live music. Some get steady work, and sometimes that work is decently paid, but that’s rare and they almost always travel far and long for a 2-3 hour gig, lugging gear, setting up, breaking down and schlepping. Practicing incessantly, working side jobs. And most find gigs only occasionally — teaching or doing what they can to stay in music. For most, pay is paltry and, we believe, insultingly low. Often a just a tip jar to split, or a percentage of the door. Playing your heart out for $35 isn’t unheard of. Playing for less happens too.
How would that sit with you if you were in their shoes?
Bay Area trumpeter Mario Guarneri is sympathetic to the plight of freelance jazz musicians. The septuagenarian has a long career performing with symphonies and for television and film, while teaching at various institutions. But in recent years he’s seen up-and-coming jazz musicians struggling just to get by.
“Most venues don’t pay a guaranteed fair wage,” he said. “Instead, they offer a percentage of the door, or ask musicians to split the tip jar.” If you do the math, he said, “the hourly wages often amount to less than the SF city minimum wage.”
Underpaid freelance musicians is nothing new. But lack of union support, the Internet’s supply of “free” music, and an abundance of talented musicians in a buyer’s market have exacerbated the problem.
Years ago, Guarneri decided to do something about it — by paying musicians out of his own pocket. But he realized his method was a band-aid approach to a systemic problem. So, in 2012 he created Jazz in the Neighborhood, a nonprofit whose goal is “to improve the economics of jazz performance in the Bay Area by presenting affordable concerts, paying musicians a guaranteed wage, and supporting the work of established and aspiring artists.”
“Suffice it to say, the music scene as we knew it in the Bay Area in the 1980s and ’90s was a very different scene than it is now,” said Jon Herbst, a sought-after composer, arranger, and audio engineer who helped Guarneri start Jazz in the Neighborhood. “We saw the whole sort of degradation of the music scene take place and were aware of it. We saw that it was affecting many, many talented players that we knew and were associated with; it hit them hard.”
Jazz in the Neighborhood took a major step in 2013, becoming a member of the Intersection Incubator, a program of the nonprofit Intersection for the Arts, which allowed it to receive tax-deductible contributions. Jazz in the Neighborhood has presented nearly 200 concerts in Bay Area venues such as Piedmont Center for the Arts, Community Music Center in San Francisco, and Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, paying $140,000 to more than 300 musicians. “There was no tip jar allowed and no splitting-the-door percentage deals,” Guarneri explained. Sponsorship comes from a variety of sources: members, grants, corporate and private foundations, local businesses, and ticket sales.
Bay Area jazz guitarist Terrence Brewer has performed at several Jazz in the Neighborhood events and was recently named to the group’s artistic advisory committee. “I love what Mario is doing,” Brewer said. “He has made us realize there is a partnership to be had with young artists and professionals coming together.”
Last year, Guarneri expanded his efforts further by creating the Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund. A survey of Bay Area jazz venues by Jazz in the Neighborhood revealed that musicians were paid an average of $95 each for a three- or four-hour performance. The fund ensures that musicians earn at least $150 per performance by subsidizing up to 40 percent of that amount after the venue guarantees the initial 60 percent of their pay. During a pilot program last year, Jazz in the Neighborhood supplemented musician’s salaries by $2,000 (adding about $60 to each musician’s pay) over the course of eight concerts. This year, Jazz in the Neighborhood received a $3,000 grant from the SF Friends of Chamber Music to fund a concert next year showcasing three young professionals who have come through the nonprofit’s Emerging Artists programs. The concert will be held Feb. 16 in the SF Community Music Center.
While jazz musicians typically haven’t had the support of the musicians’ union, Guarneri hopes to change that. “The union supports the symphony, opera, ballet and theater orchestras because they bring in revenue to the union through work dues and thus have a strong voice in union policies,” he said.
David Schoenbrun, president of the Bay Area Musicians Union Local 6, is sympathetic to what he called Guarneri’s “noble quest.” But he cited several obstacles to revisiting such prosperity. “Patrons once found a value in live music and a willingness to pay for it,” said Schoenbrun. “But there’s been a cultural shift in the value of music, and people often feel it should be free. That’s been a difficulty, and it’s sure to get worse.”
There’s also been a shift in the musicians’ union membership: Most members are in their 50s and 60s. “We have fewer and fewer young people joining, which was not the case in the 1950s and ’60s, when the union could ensure the minimum number of musicians in the room, no matter what kind of music they were playing,” Schoenbrun said. “The only young people joining are fresh out of the conservatory and want to play in orchestras, which requires union membership.”
Younger jazz players are reluctant to join because there is no work for them that requires union membership, Schoenbrun continued. “And they see no reason to expend money on dues if they don’t think the union can protect what they’re doing.”
Another element in the mix is the fact that many musicians do club work “as an avocation, without expectation — or hope even — of ever being paid. It’s a labor of love,” Schoenbrun said. This development, he noted, “takes it out of the professional realm. Club owners plead poverty because they don’t get enough traffic, and only take musicians who have established a following.” Experienced jazz musicians are left to hope that a gig will provide a chance to sell a few CDs.
But there may be a warming in the relationship between Jazz in the Neighborhood and the musicians’ union. Recently, Guarneri and the Jazz in the Neighborhood staff made a presentation to the union board about his nonprofit’s accomplishments. “We’re not sure how we can partner together to help musicians, but they clearly appreciate that we’ve paid professional wages to over 300 musicians and seem to want to help,” Guarneri said.
In the meantime, Guarneri continues to scour the Bay Area, putting on shows and making a pitch to venues and promoters to sign on to the Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund model. Jazz in the Neighborhood will hold a major fundraiser at a private home in Marin on Sunday, Sept. 24, featuring jazz notables Mimi Fox on guitar and singer Clairdee.
Is it possible for Jazz in the Neighborhood to improve the lives of local musicians? Guarneri could have retired long ago. But that’s not his style. “It’s a struggle to change the dynamic, the way musicians are treated in our society,” he said. “But in trying to alter the system, I always ask, ‘Do we have to do things that way?'”
Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson were ground-breaking artists, seriously influential and much beloved. Neither of them died prosperous. If you value the music, it is logical to value the artist who creates it.
Once again, our friend, hero, and down-home Eminence, Dan Morgenstern, shares his stories with us. . . . stories that you can’t get on Spotify.
But first, some musical evidence — both for people who have never heard Sandy Williams play the trombone, and those, like me, were happy to be reminded of this “barrelhouse solo”:
Here’s Dan in a wide-ranging memory-journey that encompasses not only Sandy and Benny Morton, the Stuyvesant Casino and Central Plaza, but an astounding cast of characters, including Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Bob Maltz, Conrad Janis, Ed Allen, Cecil Scott, Floyd Casey, Clarence Williams, Bob Dylan, Carl Kendziora, Annette Hanshaw, Bernie Privin, Leadbelly, Josh White, Horace Henderson, Lips Page, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge,Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, and more.
and just so no one forgets Mr. Williams or his associates:
Or the very sweet-natured Benny Morton (heard here with Billie Holiday, Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones) — it would be a sin to forget Benny!
I emphasize that Dan’s stories — squatting next to the piano to hear James P. Johnson more clearly, the kindness of Benny Morton, and other bits of first-hand narrative — have a larger resonance, one not limited to hot jazz devotees.
When the music is gone, when the band has packed up, when the chairs have been upended on the tables, the memories and stories remain. I urge my readers to tell theirs — and to record the stories of older generations. These stories are priceless now; as the participants leave us, the stories are even more precious.
The people in them don’t have to be famous, and the tales don’t have to be dramatic: asking Grandma what she ate when Grandpa took her out for their first date is irreplaceable. (I nag at my students to do this — aim your iPhone at someone! — and I am fairly sure they won’t. Forty years from now, their loss will be irreparable.)
That is also why Dan Morgenstern’s generosity of spirit — taking time to share his memories with us — is a great gift, one that won’t wear out or fade.
A portrait of Eddie Lang, inscribed to Leo McConville. Courtesy of the McConville Archives.
I come from the generation of listeners who waited for the hot solo in the midst of what we were taught (by the communal listeners’ culture) was dull by comparison. And some of those solos were frankly electrifying. Here is a memorable example:
The caricature of such listeners is the people who wore out the Bix solo on the Whiteman SWEET SUE but left the rest of the record’s surface black and gleaming.
But I have come to see how limiting that was. Consider this 1931 recording of a sweet pop song. It’s a Ben Selvin group, with a vocal by the demurely named Paul Small. This record (and the other side, WHAT IS IT?) finds no mention in a jazz discography, yet it is very satisfying music. For one thing, it is beautifully played — great dance music, wonderful strains to be holding one’s love, whether any apologies have been tendered or received in the recent past.
The other reason is the deliciously subtle but pervasive guitar of Salvatore Massaro, “Eddie Lang” to the rest of us — who begins the side with an instantly recognizable introduction, and is audible behind the vocal and uplifting throughout.
And they say men don’t know how to apologize. What wonderful music, what danceable tenderness.
Yesterday, May 3, would have been Bing Crosby’s birthday. He doesn’t need to be defended, re-assessed, or re-evaluated, but it’s always a pleasure to remember his singing: his passionate ease, his swing, his beautiful dramatic sense. I first fell in love with his voice in my childhood and it continues to thrill me. Here are two (really, three) examples of how wonderfully he sang in the Thirties — and the lovely songs he was given, the first by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, the second by Al Dubin and Harry Warren.
Here is a clip from the film. Bing’s acting is broad, reminiscent of his Mack Sennett days, but it could also be the way he was directed: listen to the voice:
and the issued recording, its subtleties showing that he knew how to improvise:
Here’s I’VE GOT TO SING A TORCH SONG, where Bing’s passionate delivery might make you forget the simple scalar quality of the melody line:
The question of “influence” is always slippery, unless A has written a letter that she is listening to the newest record by B and is impressed by it. Those two songs were in the air, on sheet music, on the radio — this was popular music — so although I feel that Bing had a powerful influence on instrumentalists, I can’t prove it. However, I offer these two instrumental versions — each a beautiful creation — to suggest that perhaps the most famous jazz players were listening deeply to Bing. (We know Louis did.) It gives me an excuse to share, without ideology, glorious rhapsodies.
That’s Hawk with a small group from the Fletcher Henderson band (Red Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Hilton Jefferson, Horace Henderson, Bernard Addison, John Kirby, Walter Johnson); here he is as star soloist with the full orchestra, with brother Horace on piano, who may have done the arrangement:
Gorgeous music. Sweet, hot, White, Black — who cares? Just gorgeous.
I will indulge myself in a slight repetition of the first part of this blogpost, which you can read and hear here. It explains the beautiful image above.
Dan Block, one of the most consistently inspired creators I know, respects the music of the Swing Era and knows it deeply, but has chosen his own path through these two polarities. It’s hard to explain verbally, but it works in the same way the Möbius strip does: one reveres the original but opens it up innovatively (the artists we respect now were in some way all radical innovators) before returning home to the Palace of Swing. Dan and his comrades: Godwin Louis, alto saxophone; Adam Birnbaum, piano; Jennifer Vincent, string bass; Alvester Garnett, drums, did this ten times at an ecstatic musical evening at Smalls on February 3.
The three performances I’d already posted were HARLEM CONGO, NIGHTFALL, and BUGS PARADE. And here are four more uplifting explorations. I thought these performances were explosions of sensory pleasure when I heard and recorded them on the spot; they reveal more each time I listen.
Mary Lou Williams’ WALKIN’ AND SWINGIN’:
And the 1934 Henderson romp, which I think featured Red Allen, among others:
Edgar Sampson’s BLUE LOU:
and, finally, for this segment, a masterful reconsideration of DON’T BE THAT WAY that, to me, owes more to Lester’s 1938 solo than to any big-band (possibly industrial) version:
A wonderful musical intelligence and deep feeling here, for which I am immensely grateful.
One way to answer the questions “Who was Chappie Willet, why haven’t I heard of him, and why does he deserve a book?” can be found here:
That was recorded in 1937 and is notable — to some — for solos by a young Dizzy Gillespie and others as members of Teddy Hill’s NBC Orchestra. But if there were no solos to concentrate on, keen listeners would notice the depth and complexity of Willet’s composition and arrangement, full of surprises.
An extended BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY, performed by Gene Krupa:
We are trained by the “star system” in jazz to listen for soloists, to disregard the orchestral textures of a performance for the brief passages where Our Person improvises. More erudite listeners will recognize the “charts” created by Mary Lou Williams, Bill Challis, Eddie Durham, Don Redman, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Ellington and/or Strayhorn — distinctive expressions of the writer, as recognizable as an individual soloist. John Wriggle’s superb book — a rewarding study of one brilliant arranger, his music, the world in which he operated, and the implications of Wriggle’s research — does a good deal to begin resetting the balance.
Francis “Chappie” Willet (1907-76) was a great arrangers and composer: we have heard his work for Hill, Krupa, Goodman, Armstrong, Lunceford, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and Norvo. Yet he is almost unknown and the wonderful settings he created are taken for granted. Consider his arrangement of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE for Louis Armstrong, heard here in a 1938 performance. But here I ask the reader / listener to consider only the first fifteen seconds of this performance. I know it’s nearly impossible to consider anything but Louis, but try:
In two pages (123-24), Wriggle provides a transcription of what is happening in that opening, and then analyzes it. The reader need not be a musicologist to follow and enjoy this book because Wriggle writes so clearly.
The experience of reading this book — well-organized and exquisitely documented but with beautiful control (some writers, unlike Wriggle, think every dust mote is equally important and thus overwhelm a reader) — is concentric.
Were it simply a biography of Willet, it would be a thin, perhaps limited study. But Wriggle is fascinated by context — “the economic, political, and professional landscape of popular music arrangers working during the Swing Era,” so we learn about the intersection of race and visibility; how arrangers learned their trade and the various rates of pay; Willet’s “Broadway Music Clinic,” music for nightclubs, Broadway shows and theatrical revues; the various clubs and venues themselves. Wriggle examines — I oversimplify here — how Swing Era arranging worked, with close analysis of excerpts from various scores and recordings, and how each arranger had a particularly recognizable identity. He looks closely at the fluid relationships between jazz and the Western classical canon.
The book’s scope is refreshingly broad; at one point, Wriggle analyzes Willet’s elaborately dramatic score for the Lunceford version of YESTERDAYS; a few pages later, we learning all there is to know about a new dance, THE HICKY RICKY — novelty numbers, ballads, and jazz exotica are all considered with particular enthusiasm and research.
Rare photographs add a great deal to the experience, and the collaboration of Wriggle and the University of Illinois Press is a happy one: the book is carefully presented and well-edited. I found no misprints or errors, rare in this century. The paper edition (a manageable 320 pages) is $30.
Reading this book over the past few months, whether I proceeded chronologically or opened it at random, I was always enlightened, ever bored: a great tribute to Wriggle from an impatient and often irritable reader. His background explains a good deal: he is a trombonist, composer, arranger, and scholar, who has transcribed period jazz repertoire for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, and served as music editor for Oscar-winning Hollywood film scores.
As a writer and scholar, he is thoughtful without being pedantic or theoretical, without a confining ideological bias. To get a sense of his and the book’s virtues, I offer excerpts from his interview (from the publisher’s blog) about this work.
As an aspiring composer-arranger, I first took notice of Willet’s music in the mid-1990s, when I was co-hosting a pre-stereo themed jazz program on college radio station WKCR. I heard the 1937 Mills Blue Rhythm Band session he arranged, including a version of “Blue Rhythm Fantasy.” The combination of musical adventurousness and balanced logic in those arrangements is beautiful, and I was an immediate fan. In 1999, I composed and presented a series of “Variations on Blue Rhythm Fantasy” for a new music ensemble I was leading. But as I tried to find more about Willet through standard jazz history sources, it was always a dead end. When I applied to the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program in 2003, I decided I would see if I could make a thesis project of it. A telephone book cold call led me to a musician named Chico Hicks, who had performed with Willet during 1933-34, and the pieces finally began to fall into place.
The more I was able to discover in newspapers and archives, the more I realized what a fascinating figure Willet was. His career reflects so many aspects of the music industry during that period that it made perfect sense to build a book around him. He was really tied into the Swing Era stage entertainment scene, which is something that jazz historians have attempted to ignore for decades as too “commercial.” Willet was also involved in music publishing, home recording, talent booking, and a music school—all the stuff that professional musicians still to do today in order to eke out a living.
Similar to music performers working in recording studios during the 1920s and ‘30s, swing big band arrangers were able to cross lines of racial segregation simply because no one could see them. As long as they weren’t appearing in mixed company on the public stage, it didn’t bother the establishment so much for white bandleaders to hire black arrangers, or vice versa. Whether or not these shrouded work opportunities actually helped to break down inequality is an interesting question—and one that was debated in the African American press at the time. On the one hand, arrangers could be considered pioneers of integration; on the other hand, these less-publicized instances of black writers working for white bands could also be interpreted as another form of exploitation. Some black bandleaders even worried that black arrangers were providing unfair advantage to their white competitors, as concerns regarding music and jazz authenticity were often tied to race. The popular success that white bandleaders enjoyed while playing the music of black arrangers like Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, or Chappie Willet certainly highlighted issues of racism and segregation that America was struggling with leading up to the civil rights era. Willet himself was embraced as a “race man” in the African American press: a role model for economic success in an entertainment industry that was just beginning to consider strategies for integration.
This book attempts to provide a window into the broader world of professional arranging in jazz and popular music: What were these musicians trying to do with their music? How were they trained? Where did they work? How much were they paid? And looking in more detail, I also hope to highlight the artistry involved. Audiences of arranged music are being provided more sonic information than just the song lyrics or featured solos. And a good arranger can transmit a lot of information very effectively.
BLUE RHYTHM FANTASY is a wonderfully enlightening experience. It is readable but dense with information — an old-fashioned book not especially suited for reading on one’s phone — a splendidly-documented exploration of an artist and his musical world that will both answer and raise many questions. I hope John Wriggle will write many more books equally wise and appealing.
I think of Dan Block as the main character in a Ray Bradbury story. Friendly but mysterious, he comes to a small town in the Midwest and puts up a banner advertising his TRANSFORMATIONALISTS: “Time Is But The Stream We Go Fishing In / Come With Us!” A middle-school trombonist hesitantly approaches the Magical Transormationalist, falls under the spell of the music, and when the band leaves town, she goes with them, entranced, on to glories yet undiscovered.
When Dan has led his “Harlem in the Thirties Updated” group at Fat Cat and other venues, I’ve not counted the audience members to see if anyone went missing. But we were certainly entranced and remain so.
A version of Dan’s magic troupe performed a brief set at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party in September 2016: Dan, alto saxophone / arrangements; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Ehud Asherie, piano; Jon Burr, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums. The repertoire came from famous bands (Andy Kirk, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter) and was written by Mary Lou Williams, Carter, and others — but it sounded fresh, rather than being a distillation of famous records.
The opener, associated with Chick Webb, HARLEM CONGO:
Mary Lou Williams’ composition (I believe Puddin’ Head was trumpeter Edgar Battle):
another Mary Lou creation:
Something for and from Benny Carter:
And, finally, an early version of climate change from the 1934 Henderson band:
Inventive and wholly satisfying. Another version of the Block Transformationalists will be playing at Smalls on West Tenth Street on February 3, 2017, with the group that performed this music at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Mark your perpetual calendars, please.