Tag Archives: Frank Driggs

BASIE SAYS YES

Miles Davis has often been quoted as saying, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”

I would never disagree with this. I don’t wish to set up any competition, but I think everyone should give thanks to Count Basie — and not just once. And not just musicians, either.

It is fashionable, still, to affect hipness, and that is not limited to people under 30. And some intriguing theoretician has suggested that the qualities we praise as hip — subtlety, originality, a wry way of perceiving the world — were exemplified by Lester Young before Kerouac and the Beats took them as their own. I like this theory, although what Pres would have made of a Williamsburg or Berkeley or Portland hipster is not known.

But I would propose Basie as the original Parent of many virtues we prize. Singularity, although a loving reverence for one’s ancestors (as in Basie’s affectionate nods to Fats Waller), an awareness that joy and sorrow are not only wedded but interdependent (that the blues are at the heart of everything), and a deep emotional commitment to swinging one’s way through life.  Swinging, as embodied by Basie, his peers and their descendants, meant the maximum of grace with the minimum of visible labor.  The style later exemplified by Astaire with a Kansas City world-view. Passion and fun, no less powerful for being streamlined to their essentials. His playing and his approach have been characterized and parodied as “minimalist,” but I think of it more as a Thoreau-inspired simplicity. Don’t need that note, do we? Let it be implied. Unheard melodies and all that. How Basie knew what he knew is beyond us, but the evidence is there for us to hear.

Here’s an audible example of what Basie did. And does:

That’s the 1939 Chicago session, issued in the Seventies as “Basie’s Bad Boys”: Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, trumpets; Dan Minor, trombone (audibly?), Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Basie, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page; string bass; Jo Jones, drums. Yes, the studio sound is foggy and dense, but the music just flies and smiles and rocks.

These thoughts are provoked by two photographs for sale on eBay — from the Frank Driggs Collection (each one for three hundred dollars plus) — of Basie and his colleagues and friends in 1941 and 1943.  Lester had leapt out, but they seemed to be doing fine on their own.  Here’s a rehearsal session at the New York studio of Columbia Records. They are apparently listening to a playback.  Details first:

BASIE IN THE STUDIO 1941 true front

The front:

COUNT BASIE REHEARSAL 1941

What I notice first, always (this is a photograph often reproduced but also often cropped) is Basie’s dreamily unfocused expression which might be deep concentration.  Jo’s nearly angry attentiveness, his thinness (that protruding Adam’s apple), his full head of hair and tidy mustache.  Walter Page’s substantial girth. The handkerchief not quite tucked away in his back pocket.  The way his vest is strained by what’s in it.  The height of Jo’s beautiful trousers, and his suspenders.  The way Page (casually?) is listening to what handsome Buck Clayton is playing.  How beautifully everyone is dressed, in an era before jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and knapsacks.

And a more formal pose, 1943, where cake predominates:BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 back

Jimmy Rushing steals the show, and all eyes are on him (although Buck is somewhat quizzical and Basie — aware of the photographer — doesn’t turn around; Jo’s smile is world-weary).  What, I must know, is Rushing saying to that forkful? “Sent for you yesterday and here you come today,” perhaps? Or “Tell me, pretty baby, how you want your lovin’ done”?  Or perhaps the plainer, “I am going to EAT YOU ALL UP!” 

BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 front

I chose to title this posting BASIE SAYS YES because I believe he always did. Although Basie spent his life “playing the blues,” his approach to them was always life-affirming.  Even on the darkest dirge, there is a slight grin. “Look how sad I can make this music sound.  Isn’t it a lot of fun to play such sad music?”

Cool, swinging, affirmative.  We could follow him, a Sage, for life-lessons.

May your happiness increase! 

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“YOU NEED SPEND NO MORE”: DUKE, BENNY, BENNIE: TREASURES ON eBay (January 2013)

A studio photograph, a handbill for a band’s engagement in a hotel, and an autographed photo.  Where else but on eBay?

Here’s a photograph from the late Frank Driggs’ collection — showing the six-man brass section of the 1940 Duke Ellington Orchestra, with Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown, trombones; Rex Stewart, Wallace Jones, Cootie Williams, trumpets.  Presumably that’s Jimmie Blanton’s string bass and Sonny Greer’s Chinese cymbal in the foreground.

DUKE'S BRASS c. 1940

And someplace we would all like to go, if possible.  Especially since the prices are so low:

BENNY GOODMAN URBAN ROOM

And a rare remembrance of one of the nicest men in jazz, someone who should be better known today than he is:

Bennie Morton autograph

May your happiness increase.

REMEMBERING FRANK DRIGGS — WITH MUSIC (Oct. 18, 2011)

What better way to remember and celebrate the jazz historian and archivist Frank Driggs, who died last month at 81, than with the hot music of Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks? 

A lively “memorial service” in honor of Mr. Driggs will take place on October 18, 2011, at Sofia’s Ristorante, downstairs in the Edison Hotel (211 West 46th Street) from 8-11 PM.  Doors open at 7 PM. 

This setting and the nature of the celebration are more than appropriate, because Vince nd the Nighthawks play the music that Mr. Driggs both loved dearly and documented.  In fact, I first met Mr. Driggs and his companion, the writer Joan Peyser (she died in April 2011) at Sofia’s and saw the two of them there, enjoying the music, many times. 

I think that every musician in the Nighthawks could point to a beloved recording first issued on a compilation (record or CD) supervised by Frank Driggs or one which he annotated.  We all owe him a great deal, and I expect to be at Sofia’s to join in the celebration of a life devoted to the music we love.

If you know only a little about Frank Driggs, here is his obituary in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/26/arts/music/frank-driggs-jazz-age-historian-and-photo-collector-dies-at-81.html?_r=1

And here is a link to eleven photographs Mr. Driggs had acquired — out of the one hundred thousand photographs and pieces of jazz arcana:

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/09/25/arts/music/DRIGGS.html

Make your reservations early!  Details below:

JIMMIE NOONE, JAZZ CLARINET PIONEER

For those unfamiliar with the sound of clarinetist Jimmie Noone, here he is with his 1928 Apex Club Orchestra — Doc Poston, alto sax; Earl Hines, piano; Bud Scott, banjo; Johnny Wells, drums — playing EVERY EVENING (I MISS YOU) courtesy of “ptm51” on YouTube:

Noone (1894-1944) should be known to a wider audience today, and a new bio-discography, JIMMIE NOONE, JAZZ CLARINET PIONEER, by James K. Williams with a discography by John Wilby, is just what is needed. 

Noone did not lead a melodramatic life (jazz musician as martyr) so the narrative is a compact one — but the book is evocatively documented with photographs and newspaper clippings, and Wilby’s discography is admirably thorough.  Noone was born in Louisiana and was playing Albert system clarinet alongside Freddie Keppard as early as 1913, working with a wide variety of New Orleans bands.  Going north to Chicago, he played and recorded with King Oliver and Doc Cook.  In 1926 Noone began leading his own groups — most notably at the Apex Club — which often moved away from the traditional instrumentation to an all-reed format, sometimes augmenting his band for recordings.  During the Thirties, Noone led a variety of touring bands, and he moved to the West Coast for the last three years of his life.  At the time of his death, he was being featured on radio broadcasts hosted by Orson Welles.  Had Noone lived longer, he would have been venerated much as Bunk Johnson and Kid Ory were for their part in playing “authentic” jazz. 

Noone’s influence goes beyond this rather limited summary of his travels and club dates.  He and a very young Benny Goodman went to the same classical clarinet teacher, Franz Schoepp, who often had Goodman linger to play duets with Noone.  And I can hear the echoes of Noone’s technical facility in Goodman’s playing — as well as the songs Goodman loved, SWEET SUE, SWEET LORRAINE, and I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW, all Noone favorites.  (I hadn’t known until I read this book that Teddy Wilson had also worked with Noone.)  I think that there’s a clear line to be drawn from Noone’s Chicago bands to the Goodman trios and quartets. 

And Noone travelled in fast company: a record session for OKeh featuring a wonderful quartet of Louis Armstrong, Noone, Hines, and Mancy Carr has some fine playing.  Comments by other jazz musicians — Coleman Hawkins and Bud Freeman among them — testify to the effect Noone had on players such as Bix Beiderbecke. 

In our time, the Noone influence is clearest in the work of Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber, whose Soprano Summit and Summit Reunion owed a good deal to the hot polyphony of Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra.  Other clarinetists, such as Frank Chace, admired Noone greatly (an early private recording of Chace has him taking his time through a slow-motion APEX BLUES).

Williams’ book is admirable in its reliance on documented evidence and the clarity of its vision.  He does not make exaggerated claims for Noone as a player or a trail-blazer, but every page has information that was new to me.   The book is 120 pages including more than 80 rare illustrations — photographs from the Frank Driggs and Duncan Schiedt collections as well as historic Noone documents, rare record labels, and pages from the Chicago Defender.  The price is $20 (US) per copy plus shipping ($4 to US; 4.50 to Canada; 8 overseas).  Order from James K. Williams, 801 South English Avenue, Springfield, Illinois 62704; email tubawhip@comcast.net; phone 217.787.3089.  Paypal preferred; personal US check or postal money order accepted.

VINCE, GREAT NEWS, HOT MUSIC, SWING DANCERS! (May 24, 2010)

Last night, Monday, May 24, 2010, I went to Club Cache, which is part of Sofia’s Ristorante, in the lower level of the Hotel Edison, 221 West 46th Street, New York City — to hear Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, who play there every Monday from 8-11. 

The GREAT NEWS is that beginning June 1, Vince and the boys will be playing at Sofia’s not only Monday but TUESDAYS . . . giving us two chances to hear their wide repertoire.  Double your pleasure, double your fun . . .

The HOT MUSIC and SWING DANCERS follow below.  The first was provided, lavishly, by Vince himself, Jon-Erik Kellso, Mike Ponella (trumpets), Harvey Tibbs (trombone), Dan Levinson, Mark Lopeman, Andy Farber (reeds), Andy Stein (violin), Pater Yarin (piano and celeste), Ken Salvo (banjo and guitar), and Arnie Kinsella (drums).  And the accompanying dancing was made possible by Scott McNabb and Cheryll Lynn; Eric Schlesinger and Joan Leibowitz; Ruthanne Geraghty and James Lake — as well as other stylish sliders whose names I didn’t get.  I was in the back of the room amidst Jackie Kellso and Molly Ryan; other notables scattered around included Rich Conaty, Lloyd Moss, Joan Peyser, Frank Driggs, Sandy Jaffe, Barbara and Dick Dreiwitz.

Here are four performances, recorded from the back of the room to capture the entire ambiance, both frisky and musically immensely rewarding:

SAY YES TODAY is an even more obscure song — circa 1928, summoning up the sound of the Roger Wolfe Kahn band in an Arthur Schutt arrangement:

What would a jazz evening be without a little Morton?  Here’s LITTLE LAWRENCE, one of Jelly Roll’s later Victor efforts, transcribed by Jim Dapogny, a peerless Morton scholar and pianist himself:

LAZY RIVER, written by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin, is an opportunity for some hot small-band improvisation by Jon-Erik, Harvey, Dan, and the rhythm section:

And I HEARD (a mock-stern sermon about the wickedness of gossip) is taken twice as fast as the original Don Redman chart:

Irreplaceable, wouldn’t you say?  (And on Tuesdays, too, Toto!)

TRAVELING BLUES: TOMMY LADNIER

Ladnier 5For the second time this season, a jazz book has so astonished me that I want to write about it before I take the time to read it at the leisurely pace it deserves.  This book is published in a limited edition of 500 copies, so I hope that someone might be moved sufficiently to order a copy before they are all gone.  TRAVELING BLUES: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF TOMMY LADNIER, byBo Lindstrom and Dan Vernhettes, is a lively yet scholarly study of the life and music of the short-lived trumpeter.  Many jazz books are enthusiastic but lopsided; books that collect beautiful photographs sometimes have minimal or unsatisfying text; scholarly books are often not appealing to the eye.  This book strikes sparks in every way: the diligent research that has gone into it, the expansive prose; the wonderful illustrations.  I have been reluctant to put it down.  Each page offers surprises.    Ladnier 1

Tommy Ladnier isn’t widely known: he has been dead seventy years.  The fame he deserved never came, even though he had enthusiastic champions in Mezz Mezzrow, Hughes Panassie, and Sidney Bechet.  But a brief list of the people Ladnier played alongside will testify to his talent: Bechet, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkins, Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Noone, Fletcher Henderson, Clarence Williams, Sam Wooding, Doc Cheatham, Noble Sissle, Chick Webb, James P. Johnson, Teddy Bunn, Walter Page, Jo Jones.  He was known as a “sensational” trumpeter in Chicago in 1921: he appeared in Carnegie Hall in 1938.   

The reasons he is so little known have nothing to do with the quality of his art.  Ladnier did not enjoy the high-pressure urban scene, and he occasionally retreated from it (in 1934-8, when he could have been playing more often in the city, he he lived upstate); he also spent a good deal of his playing career in Europe (including a sojourn in Russia) before it was fashionable.  And in a period when hot trumpet playing was fashioned in splendidly extravagant Louis-fashion, someone like Ladnier — quieter, even pensive, choosing to stay in the middle register — might have been overlooked.  (At times, he makes me think of a New Orleans version of Joe Thomas, Shorty Baker, or Tony Fruscella.) 

Ladnier 3

I first came to Ladnier’s music indirectly, by way of his most enthusiastic colleague, reedman, pot-supplier, and proseltyzer Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who saw Tommy as someone with pure jazz instincts.  Mezzrow idolized Tommy as a quiet prophet of soulful New Orleans jazz, music not corrupted by the evil influence of big-band swing.  My youthful purchase of the RCA Victor record THE PANASSIE SESSIONS (circa 1967) was motivated by my reading of Mezzrow’s autobiography, REALLY THE BLUES.  But Mezzrow played and improvised so poorly, never stopping for a moment, that I could hardly hear Ladnier properly.   

Ladnier 4

Eventually I heard the 1932 New Orleans Feetwarmers session, where Ladnier and Bechet were effectively the front line, and too-brief live performances from John Hammond’s 1938 FROM SPIRITUALS TO SWING concert where Ladnier, Bechet, Dan Minor, James P. Johnson, Walter Page, and Jo Jones roared through WEARY BLUES.  Finally, I understood what it was that others admired so in Ladnier’s work.  A terse, nearly laconic player, he placed his notes and phrases perfectly.  His solos never overwhelm; his forthright earnestness is convincing; he doesn’t care to shout and swagger, but he is intense.  

As is this book.  Other scholars might have rearranged the easily accessible evidence: the recollections of Mezzrow, Bechet, and Panassie, written admiringly of Ladnier’s recording career, and left it at that.  Some writers might have brought melodrama to the facts of Ladnier’s life — his ambitious wife jeopardized a number of opportunities for him (one possible drama).  Ladnier died of a heart attack at 39, and could perhaps have been saved (another drama).  One could cast him as a victim of a variety of forces and people including the recording supervisor Eli Oberstein.  But the authors avoid these inviting errors.

They succeed not only in examining every scrap of evidence they could find — their research has been cautious, comprehensive, and lengthy — about Ladnier as a musician, born in Louisiana, migrating to Chicago, taking on the life of a jazz player in the Twenties and Thirties, dying in Harlem. 

But there’s more.  These scholars are also thoughtful historians who delight in placing the subject of their loving scrutiny in a larger context.  “What did it mean?” I can hear them asking.  So that their inquiry broadens beyond the simple chronological tracing of Ladnier’s life.  When we learn (through a beautiful reproduction of Ladnier’s draft card) that he worked for the Armour meat-packing company — so justly excoriated in Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE — we can read about Armour and what it meant to Chicago and Chicagoans.  What did it mean to be an African-American musician traveling overseas in the Twenties?  The appropriate footnotes are easily accessible on each page.  The book also concludes with a detailed discography — noting not only the labels and issues, but on which performances Ladnier has a solo, a break, accompaniment, and the like. 

And the book is also visually quite beautiful.  A large-format book (the size of a 12″ record, appropriately) it is generously illustrated in color, with fine reproductions, nicely varied.  I was happily reminded of a beautifully-designed history or biology textbook, where the book designers had sought to set up harmonious vibrations between print and illustrations.  Indeed, one could spend an afternoon immersed in the illustrations: maps, a handwritten letter from Ladnier, record labels, photographs of individual players and of bands.  One illustration I particularly prize is an advertising handbill for a dinner-dance, “A Night At Sea,” to be held at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights, New York, on January 22, 1939.  In part, the music was provided by “Milton ‘Mez’ Mezzrow and his Bluebird Recording Orchestra featuring Tommy Ladnier.”  Even better: heading the bill were Henny Youngman and Molly Picon.  Without this book, I would never have known.

The music?  Well, the authors have taken care of that, too.  As part of the complete Ladnier experience, they have created a CD containing all 189 of Tommy’s recordings in mp3 format.  I don’t entirely understand the technology, but the CD is certainly the ideal companion to the book — containing the equivalent of eight CDs of music. 

I urge you to visit http://www.jazzedit.org/Traveling-blues.html and see for yourself.  In this era of deeply discounted books, the initial price of this one might seem serious, but its beauty, thoroughness, and devotion make it a masterpiece.

As a coda: the noted jazz scholar and collector of rare photographs Frank Driggs wrote an introduction to the book.  Here’s its closing paragraph: “This remarkable book is loaded with details on the lives of Tommy Ladnier and most of the people he played with.  There are hundreds of illustrations, photos of people I’ve never even seen before and I’ve seen most of the photos of jazz musicians over the last fifty years.  The depth of research is I believe unparalleled.  God bless these two fanatics who have devoted so much of their time and energy to bring this work of love to fruition.”

My sentiments exactly!