Tag Archives: Frank Newton

IN A SPIN, TWICE: CLUB BOHEMIA OFFICIALLY OPENS! (October 17, 2019) and FAT CAT MATTHEW RIVERA’S HOT CLUB!

You might be walking along Barrow Street, on the Bleecker Street side of Seventh Avenue South (all this conjecture is taking place in Greenwich Village, New York City, New York, the United States); you could look up and see this sign.

You might just think, “Oh, another place to have an ale and perhaps a burger,” and you’d be correct, but in the most limited way.

Surprises await the curious, because down the stairs is the sacred ground where the jazz club Cafe Bohemia existed in the Fifties, where Miles, Lester, Ben, Coltrane, Cannonball, Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Pettiford played and live sessions were recorded.

Here’s the room as it is now.  Notice the vertical sign?

This isn’t one of those Sic Transit Gloria Mundi posts lamenting the lost jazz shrines (and certainly there is reason enough to write such things) BECAUSE . . .

On Thursday, October 17, yes, this week, the new Cafe Bohemia will open officially.  This is important news to me and I hope to you.  So let me make it even more emphatic.

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 17, THE NEW CAFE BOHEMIA OPENS. 

That is as emphatic as WordPress permits.  I was there on September 26, for the club’s trial run (more about that below) and I was delighted to find very friendly staff, good food and drink, pleasing sight lines and a receptive crowd, so it was a nostalgic return to a place I’d never been.

But back to current events.  On this coming Thursday, there will be two shows, an early show at 6:45 and a late one at 9:30.  These shows will be, as they say in retail, “value-packed”!  Each show will feature wonderfully entertaining and enlightening record-spinning of an exalted kind by Fat Cat Matthew Rivera, bringing his Hot Club to the Village on a regular basis, AND live jazz from the Evan Arntzen Quartet including guitarist Felix Lemerle, string bassist Alex Claffy, and drummer Andrew Millar.  Although the Bohemia hasn’t yet posted its regular schedule, their concept is both ambitious and comforting: seven nights of live jazz and blues music of the best kind.

Evan Arntzen, photograph by Tim Cheeney

Buy tickets here for the early show, here for the late one.  It’s a small room, so be prepared.  (I am, and I’ll be there.)  And here is the Eventbrite link for those “who don’t do Facebook.”

If you follow JAZZ LIVES, or for that matter, if you follow lyrical swinging jazz, I don’t have to introduce Evan Arntzen to you.  And if, by some chance, his name is oddly new to you, come down anyway: you will be uplifted.  I guarantee it.

But who is Matthew Rivera?

I first met Matt Rivera (to give him his full handle, “Fat Cat Matthew Rivera,” which he can explain to you if you like) as a disembodied voice coming through my speakers as he was broadcasting on WKCR-FM a particularly precious musical reality — the full spectrum of jazz from before 1917 up to the middle Fifties, as captured on 78 RPM disks.

It isn’t a dusty trek into antiquity: Matt plays Miles and Bird, Gene Ammons and Fats Navarro next to “older styles.”  Here’s Matt in a characteristically devout pose, at Cafe Bohemia:

and the recording (you’ll hear it on this post) that is the Hot Club’s theme song:

About two weeks ago, I visited the Fat Cat in his Cafe Bohemia lair and we chatted for JAZZ LIVES.  YouTube decided to edit my long video in the middle of a record Matt was spinning, but I created a video of the whole disk later.  Here’s the nicely detailed friendly first part:

and the second part:

and some samples of the real thing.  First, the complete WHO?

DEXTERITY, with Bird, Miles, and Max:

and finally, a Kansas City gem featuring tenor player Dick Wilson and Mary Lou Williams and guitarist Floyd Smith:

Cafe Bohemia isn’t just a record-spinning listening party site, although the Fat Cat will have a regular Hot Club on Monday nights.  Oh, no.  When I attended the club’s trial run on September 26, there was live jazz — a goodly helping — of the best, with Mara Kaye singing (acoustically) blues and Billie with the joyous accompaniment of that night’s Cafe Bohemia Jazz Band: Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor saxophone; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Brian Nalepka, string bass.  Here’s their opening number, ST. LOUIS BLUES:

The first word Mara utters on that video is “Wow,” and I echo those sentiments.  Immense thanks are due owner Mike Zieleniewski and the splendid Christine Santelli as well as the musicians and staff.

See you downstairs at Cafe Bohemia on Thursday night: come over and say hello as we welcome this birth and rebirth to New York City.

May your happiness increase!

“Signed in person from original owner, 100% authentic and lifetime guarantee. Original with Lewis Allen composer credit, Sonny White is the pianist, Commodore first edition 10″ shellac 78 rpm V/V+ condition.”

Something new and old and rare and fragile and lasting and irreplaceable.  And fifteen thousand dollars (15,000.00 USD, as they say).  This is the link.

And the label of the precious object:

And the music:

Check the jar in the kitchen where you toss the quarters.  Who knows what’s added up there?

But I wonder what Billie would say of this offering.

May your happiness increase!

“JOE BUSHKIN QUARTET LIVE AT THE EMBERS 1952: BUCK CLAYTON, MILT HINTON, PAPA JO JONES”

Jazz fans get very wistful when dreaming of scenes that were only captured in words: the twenty chorus solos young Lester would take; Louis on the riverboats; Lips Page singing and playing the blues at the Riviera.  But the recording machine has been the time-traveler’s best friend.  Because of a variety of electrical devices, we have been able to go uptown to hear Frank Newton and Art Tatum; we’ve heard Charlie Christian, Oscar Pettiford, and Jerry Jerome in Minneapolis; we can visit YouTube and hear Lester sing A LITTLE BIT SOUTH OF NORTH CAROLINA.

This new issue, explained boldly by its cover picture, is one of those time-travel marvels.  I was alive in 1952, but no one was taking me to the Embers to hear Joe Bushkin’s quartet with Buck Clayton, trumpet; Milt Hinton, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.  But now — somewhat older, thanks to this beautifully-produced disc on the Dot Time Records label — I can visit that club and hear exalted music any time I want.

This was a celebrated quartet, and for good reason.  Buck and Jo were a fulfilling pair from around 1936 for perhaps forty years; Milt and Jo were also one of the most gratifying teams in the music.  The three of them were at their peak in this period (although one could make a case that they were among the most consistently inventive musicians in Mainstream jazz).

I’ve left the leader for last, because he’s rarely got the attention he deserved — although he certainly appeared with the greatest musicians: Bing, Billie, Louis, Lester, Bunny, Tommy Dorsey, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Eddie Condon . . . a Bushkin discography is astonishing.  Musicians knew, admired, and valued him. But his glistening style has led some casual listeners to hear him shallowly, the vivid, mobile approach to the piano as a display of technique.  But when one hears Bushkin closely, there is a real lyricism underneath the facility, and an equally deep love for the blues: in the ancient argot, he is a real barrelhouse player, even in a pricey Upper East Side supper club.

And although Joe was not allowed to chat or to sing on this gig (a matter of arcane tax laws in cabarets) his bubbling sense of humor, his ebullience, comes through in every note.  With a different pianist, Buck, Jo, and Milt would have still made great jazz, but the result wouldn’t have been as much fun.  And “fun” wasn’t a matter of goofy quotes or scene-stealing: Joe was a perfectly sensitive accompanist.  (I saw three-quarters of this group: Jo, Milt, Joe, and Ruby Braff — create a ten-minute MOTEN SWING in 1975 — and Fifty-Fourth Street has never been the same.)

Unlike other reissues, this disc sparkles for another reason — explained beautifully in the liner notes by Bushkin’s devoted son-in-law, trumpeter Robert Merrill, here.  That reason is the most gorgeous recorded sound you’ve ever heard at a live gig: there are people in the room, but their presence is not intrusive, and each instrument is heard as beautifully as if this session was in a studio.  To learn more about the label’s Legends series, visit here.  (Dot Time has also issued recordings by Mulligan and Ella — and a magnificent Louis series is coming out.)

As I wrote above, Joe ran with the best.  I’ve posted this once before, but everyone sentient in the known world needs to hear and re-hear it:

And here’s Joe being interviewed by the genial Stuart Klein in 1985:

2017 is Joe’s centennial, so there are a variety of celebrations going on, appropriately.  Recordings of the Joe Bushkin Songbook are on the way, and there’s something to leave the house and the computer for, a Highlights in Jazz (a series in its 45th year) concert: the Joe Bushkin Centennial Concert
featuring Wycliffe Gordon, Harry Allen, Eric Comstock, Ted Rosenthal, Spike Wilner, Nicki Parrott, Steve Johns and John Colliani, under the musical direction of Bob Merrill — and a surprise Guest as well.  It will take place at 8 PM, on Thursday, May 4, at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at Borough of Manhattan Community College, 199 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007.

One can purchase tickets by calling the box office [212-220-1460] or visiting www.tribecapac.org.  Those who find the Post Office more consoling can mail a check made payable to highlights in Jazz for $50 per ticket (still a bargain, for those who have been to a club recently) to Highlights In Jazz, 7 Peter Cooper Road, Apt. 11E New York NY 10010.  (Please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope).

A concert celebrating Joe Bushkin will be fun.  And the CD is a thorough pleasure.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS FRIENDS AND HEROES (Part Three: March 3, 2017)

Dan Morgenstern is a remarkable person, lively and kind, and would be so if he had been a veterinarian with only a passing interest in music.  But even better for us: he hung out with [and wrote about] some of the greatest artists we know and still revere.  I continue to feel immensely fortunate that I could visit him, and that he so generously shared some candid loving stories of people who many of us know only as a photograph or a sound emerging from a speaker.

For those of you who have been otherwise occupied, and I understand, I have posted videos where Dan speaks of Tommy Benford, Frank Newton, Al Hall, Mary Lou Williams and her friends, Donald Lambert, Eubie Blake, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Nat Lorber, Buddy Tate, Gene Ramey, Lester Young (twice for Pres).

But before you leap in, a small caveat.  Dan is soft-spoken, and my few comments from behind the camera are louder.  Friends have pointed this out, and I have been penitent, citing inexperience rather than ego and I will balance the audio better on our future encounters.  The first five videos are here.

More friends and heroes.  Eddie Condon (and I had to say a few things, given my reverence for Eddie):

Buster Bailey, Stanley Dance, Coleman Hawkins, cameos by Milt Jackson, Roy Eldridge, Joe Thomas, John S. Wilson, Billy Kyle, Louis, and Dan’s thoughts on writing about artists:

More about Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, with comments about Sir Charles Thompson, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker as well:

Notice in the second interview that Dan took an unpaid gig because “it will be good for the musicians.”  And I am touched by Coleman Hawkins’ generosities (acceptance in to the tribe) to Dan — which Dan has repaid us ten thousandfold.  More to come.

May your happiness increase!

STILL SPARKLING: JOE BUSHKIN AT 100

joe-bushkin-on-piano

I suspect that everyone who reads JAZZ LIVES has heard the magical sounds of Joe Bushkin‘s piano, songs, voice, and trumpet.  My birthday celebration for him is a bit early — he was born on November 7, 1916, but I didn’t want to miss the occasion.  (There will also be birthday cake in this post — at least a photograph of one.)

He moved on in late 2004, but as the evidence proves, it was merely a transformation, not an exit.

I marvel not only at the spare, poignant introduction but Bushkin’s sensitive support and countermelodies throughout.

“Oh, he was a Dixieland player?” Then there’s this:

and this, Joe’s great melody:

A list of the people who called Joe a friend and colleague would include Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon, Lee Wiley, Joe Marsala, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett,Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Bunny Berigan, Fats Waller, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Zoot Sims, Bill Harris, Buddy Rich, Hot Lips Page, Sidney Catlett, Judy Garland, Jimmy Rushing, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Spargo, Red McKenzie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Tough, Brad Gowans, Benny Goodman, Joe Rushton, Roy Eldridge, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Ruth Brown, June Christy, Barney Kessel, Pearl Bailey, Gene Krupa, Stuff Smith, Chuck Wayne, Jake Hanna . . .

Here’s a sweet swinging tribute to Irving Berlin in 1951 that segues into Joe’s own homage to Miss Bankhead, PORTRAIT OF TALLULAH:

He’s on Billie’s SUMMERTIME and Bunny’s first I CAN’T GET STARTED; he’s glistening in the big bands of Bunny, Tommy, and Benny.  He records with Frank Newton in 1936 and plays with Kenny Davern, Phil Flanigan, Howard Alden, and Jake Hanna here, sixty-one years later:

But I’m not speaking about Joe simply because of longevity and versatility.  He had an individual voice — full of energy and wit — and he made everyone else sound better.

A short, perhaps dark interlude.  Watching and listening to these performances, a reader might ask, “Why don’t we hear more about this wonderful pianist who is so alive?”  It’s a splendid question.  In the Thirties, when Joe achieved his first fame, it was as a sideman on Fifty-Second Street and as a big band pianist.

Parallel to Joe, for instance, is Jess Stacy — another irreplaceable talent who is not well celebrated today.  The erudite Swing fans knew Bushkin, and record producers — think of John Hammond and Milt Gabler — wanted him on as many record dates as he could make.  He was a professional who knew how the music should sound and offered it without melodrama.  But I suspect his professionalism made him less dramatic to the people who chronicle jazz.  He kept active; his life wasn’t tragic or brief; from all I can tell, he didn’t suffer in public.  So he never became mythic or a martyr.  Too, the jazz critics then and now tend to celebrate a few stars at a time — so Joe, brilliant and versatile, was standing behind Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, then and now.  He was also entertaining — someone who could act, who could do a television skit with Bing and Fred, someone who could fill a club by making music, even for people who wouldn’t have bought a Commodore 78.  Popularity is suspect to some people who write about art.

But if you do as I did, some months back, and play a Bushkin record for a jazz musician who hasn’t heard him before, you might get the following reactions or their cousins: “WHO is that?  He can cover the keyboard.  And he swings.  His time is beautiful, and you wouldn’t mistake him for anyone else.”

One of the memorable moments of my twentieth century is the ten-minute YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY /  MOTEN SWING that Joe, Ruby Braff, Milt Hinton, Wayne Wright, and Jo Jones improvised — about four feet in front of me — at the last Eddie Condon’s in 1976.  “Memorable” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Consider this: Joe and his marvelous quartet (Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton or Sid Weiss, and Jo Jones) that held down a long-running gig at the Embers in 1951-2:

Something pretty and ruminative — Joe’s version of BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL:

And for me, and I suspect everyone else, the piece de resistance:

For the future: Joe’s son-in-law, the trumpeter / singer / composer Bob Merrill — whom we have to thank for the wire recording (!) of SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY —  has organized what will be a stellar concert to celebrate his father-in-law’s centennial.  Mark your calendars: May 4, 2017.  Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Ted Rosenthal, John Colianni, Eric Comstock, Spike Wilner, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Steve Johns, drums; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Adrian Cunningham, clarinet; Bob Merrill, trumpet; Warren Vache, cornet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; and of course a surprise guest.

Here’s the promised photograph of a birthday cake.  Perculate on THIS:

louis-birthday-cake

Thank you, Joseephus.  We haven’t forgotten you.

May your happiness increase!

“SOUNDS LIKE”

apples-and-oranges-708686

If we would generally agree that jazz is an art form where individuality is prized, why is so much praise expressed in terms of one musician’s likeness to a more famous one?  Or, a living musician to a dead one?

When one is new to a certain art, like jazz, one instinctively gravitates to certain sounds, certain personalities, as those sensations offer great pleasure.  Early in one’s aesthetic / critical development, one might assess each new experience by how closely it comes to the great ideal, the source of pleasure. Years ago, deeply in thrall to Louis (this hasn’t stopped) I remember listening to a particular Buck Clayton or Joe Thomas solo among other enthusiasts, and we would shout or cheer when Buck or Joe was most Louis-like.  As a youthful pastime in private, it harmed no one.  But as a formalized kind of appreciation and analysis, it would have serious, even damaging limitations.

When this impulse emerges into public speech or prose, it’s most often attached to the phrase “sound[ing] like.”  Not long ago, I posted a video featuring a young brass player, not well known but superb.  And the response to her was strongly positive.  But more than one jazz fan and musician wrote, “Wow! She sounds just like [insert Famous Name here]!”

I understand that unsophisticated but sincere reaction.  Famous Name always made me  happy; New Person makes me happy, too.  But I wonder if the praisers are able to hear the New Person at all, or only the memory of the pleasure brought by Famous Name.

I can imagine the thoughts passing through the head of an artist who has been thus praised, “Gee, don’t you love ME at all?”  — as if improvisers were impressionists who had spent decades perfecting their Jimmy Stewart.

Another anecdote: a friend of mine has made a deep study of certain New Orleans instrumental styles that not everyone is familiar with.  She could explain chapter and verse the origins of her style, its antecedents, its heroic figures.  But she’s been on gigs where other musicians, assuming that her style was a matter of ignorance, not choice, have asked her, “Excuse me, have you ever heard of [another Famous Name}?  You really ought to listen to Famous Name?”  That takes aesthetic oppression to new heights: “You play in a way I don’t quite like.  If you knew better, you would play differently.”

Over such offenses we draw the veil.

When I was young and socially raw, I believed that the highest praise one could give a living musician was by comparing him to the dead.  Yes, I know, phrased that way, it sounds deeply foolish, but how many liner notes and CD reviews and Facebook postings do just this?  In my defense, I was sincere, assuming that everyone felt as I did.  If I told a trumpeter, “You really sounded like Frank Newton on that blues,” it was the greatest compliment.  [To jump ahead, I now say, “That blues was really moving,” and that’s it.]

I’ve even heard the wonderfully silly extension of that, “You must have been thinking about Mouse Randolph in that last chorus,” which, translated, says, “Your playing made me think of something I heard Mouse Randolph create on a record.  You and I must have been thinking of the same thing.”  Musicians have practiced their best vacant polite smiles in the face of such adoration.

Now, when I assess an artist’s work in print, I work to avoid the simple and ultimately demeaning equation: X’s ballad chorus on DANNY BOY sounds just like Ben Webster . . . because I really should be praising the individual for herself.  If your stated goal is to sound exactly like Ben or Billie, then the rules change.  But how many artists strive to be exact copies?

Moreover.

We have no problem going to a new restaurant, ordering, and sinking into a happy swoon, mumbling through food, “My goodness.  Doesn’t this fennel salad remind you of the wonderful one we had at that little taverna years ago?” and we know we are not only eating today’s fennel but the emotional memory of an experience.  But the fennel salad, as far as I can tell, is long past finding such comparisons demeaning.

Imagine, though, that one meets a new Love and falls into a first entrancing embrace.  Consider the effect of saying, “Oh, my God — you kiss just like the _____ I was in love with in eleventh grade!”  Such an utterance would seriously impede the flow of future kisses.

I think of Barbara Lea’s wry salty wise comment in the liner notes for the Dick Sudhalter / Connie Jones recordings, “If you want to talk about Sounding Like, you’re on your own.”  And I take that second clause as a polite way of stating, “Don’t do it here, please.”

Jazz cherishes and celebrates the individual.  Let us not lose the individual in our eagerness to place wreaths on the statues of the Great Ones.

May your happiness increase!

THE TRIUMPHS OF JAMES P. JOHNSON

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Baby Dodds, 1946, by Charles Peterson

James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Danny Barker, 1946, by Charles Peterson

When the Student is more dramatically visible than the Teacher, even the most influential mentor and guide might become obscure.  James Price Johnson, pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, has become less prominent to most people, even those who consider themselves well-versed in jazz piano.  He was a mentor and teacher — directly and indirectly — of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum. “No James P., no them,” to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie. But even with memorable compositions and thirty years of recording, he has been recognized less than he deserves.

CAROLINA SHOUT eBay OKeh

 

Fats Waller eclipsed his teacher in the public eye because Waller was a dazzling multi-faceted entertainer and personality, visible in movies, audible on the radio.  Fats had a recording contract with the most prominent record company, Victor, and the support of that label — he created hit records for them — in regular sessions from 1934 to 1943.  Tatum, Basie, and Ellington — although they paid James P. homage in words and music — all appeared to come fully grown from their own private universes.  Basie and Ellington were perceived not only as pianists but as orchestra leaders who created schools of jazz composition and performance; Tatum, in his last years, had remarkable support from Norman Granz — thus he left us a series of memorable recordings.

Many of the players I’ve noted above were extroverts (leaving aside the reticent Basie) and showmanship come naturally to them.  Although the idea of James P., disappointed that his longer “serious” works did not receive recognition, retiring to his Queens home, has been proven wrong by Johnson scholar Scott Brown (whose revised study of James P. will be out in 2017) he did not get the same opportunities as did his colleagues.  James P. did make records, he had club residencies at Cafe Society and the Pied Piper, was heard at an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert and was a regular feature on Rudi Blesh’s THIS IS JAZZ . . . but I can look at a discography of his recordings and think, “Why isn’t there more?”  Physical illness accounts for some of the intermittent nature of his career: he had his first stroke in 1940 and was ill for the last years of his life.

There will never be enough.  But what we have is brilliant.  And the reason for this post is the appearance in my mailbox of the six-disc Mosaic set which collects most of James P.’s impressive recordings between 1921 and 1943.  (Mosaic has also issued James P.’s session with Eddie Condon on the recent Condon box, and older issues offered his irreplaceable work for Blue Note — solo and band — in 1943 / 44, and the 1938 HRS sides as well.)

JAMES P. Mosaic

Scott Brown, who wrote the wise yet terse notes for this set, starts off by pointing to the wide variety of recordings Johnson led or participated in this period.  And even without looking at the discography, I can call to mind sessions where Johnson leads a band (with, among others, Henry “Red” Allen,  J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett — or another all-star group with Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Lionel Hampton on drums, Artie Bernstein, Ed Hall, and Higginbotham); accompanies the finest blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, is part of jivey Clarence Williams dates — including two takes of the patriotic 1941 rouser UNCLE SAMMY, HERE I AM — works beautifully with Bessie Smith, is part of a 1929 group with Jabbo Smith, Garvin Bushell on bassoon, Fats Waller on piano); is a sideman alongside Mezz Mezzrow, Frank Newton, Pete Brown, John Kirby, swings out on double-entendre material with Teddy Bunn and Spencer Williams. There’s a 1931 band date that shows the powerful influence of Cab Calloway . . . and more.  For the delightful roll call of musicians and sides (some never before heard) check the Mosaic site here.

(On that page, you can hear his delicate, haunting solo BLUEBERRY RHYME, his duet with Bessie Smith on her raucous HE’S GOT ME GOING, the imperishable IF DREAMS COME TRUE, his frolicsome RIFFS, and the wonderful band side WHO?)

I fell in love with James P.’s sound, his irresistible rhythms, his wonderful inventiveness when I first heard IF DREAMS COME TRUE on a Columbia lp circa 1967.  And then I tried to get all of his recordings that I could — which in the pre-internet, pre-eBay era, was not easy: a Bessie Smith accompaniment here, a Decca session with Eddie Dougherty, the Blue Notes, the Stinson / Asch sides, and so on.  This Mosaic set is a delightful compilation even for someone who, like me, knows some of this music by heart because of forty-plus years of listening to it.  The analogy I think of is that of an art student who discovers a beloved artist (Rembrandt or Kahlo, Kandinsky or Monet) but can only view a few images on museum postcards or as images on an iPhone — then, the world opens up when the student is able to travel to THE museum where the idol’s works are visible, tangible, life-sized, arranged in chronology or thematically . . . it makes one’s head spin.  And it’s not six compact discs of uptempo stride piano: the aural variety is delicious, James P.’s imagination always refreshing.

The riches here are immense. All six takes of Ida Cox’s ONE HOUR MAMA. From that same session, there is a pearl beyond price: forty-two seconds of Charlie Christian, then Hot Lips Page, backed by James P., working on a passage in the arrangement.  (By the way, there are some Charlie Christian accompaniments in that 1939 session that I had never heard before, and I’d done my best to track down all of the Ida Cox takes.  Guitar fanciers please note.)  The transfers are as good as we are going to hear in this century, and the photographs (several new to me) are delights.

Hearing these recordings in context always brings new insights to the surface. My own epiphany of this first listening-immersion is a small one: the subject is HOW COULD I BE BLUE? (a record I fell in love with decades ago, and it still delights me).  It’s a duo-performance for James  P. and Clarence Williams, with scripted vaudeville dialogue that has James P. as the 1930 version of Shorty George, the fellow who makes love to your wife while you are at work, and the received wisdom has been that James P. is uncomfortable with the dialogue he’s asked to deliver, which has him both the accomplished adulterer and the man who pretends he is doing nothing at all.  Hearing this track again today, and then James P. as the trickster in I FOUND A NEW BABY, which has a different kind of vaudeville routine, it struck me that James P. was doing his part splendidly on the first side, his hesitations and who-me? innocence part of his character.  He had been involved with theatrical productions for much of the preceding decade, and I am sure he knew more than a little about acting.  You’ll have to hear it for yourself.

This, of course, leaves aside the glory of his piano playing.  I don’t think hierarchical comparisons are all that useful (X is better than Y, and let’s forget about Z) but James P.’s melodic improvising, whether glistening or restrained, never seems a series of learned motives.  Nothing is predictable; his dancing rhythms (he is the master of rhythmic play between right and left hands) and his melodic inventiveness always result in the best syncopated dance music.  His sensitivity is unparalleled.  For one example of many, I would direct listeners to the 1931 sides by Rosa Henderson, especially DOGGONE BLUES: where he begins the side jauntily, frolicking as wonderfully as any solo pianist could — not racing the tempo or raising his volume — then moderates his volume and muffles his gleaming sound to provide the most wistful counter-voice to Henderson’s recital of her sorrows.  Another jaunty interlude gives way to the most tender accompaniment.  I would play this for any contemporary pianist and be certain of their admiration.

I am impressed with this set not simply for the riches it contains, but for the possibility it offers us to reconsider one of my beloved jazz heroes.  Of course I would like people to flock to purchase it (in keeping with Mosaic policy, it is a limited edition, and once it’s gone, you might find a copy on eBay for double price) but more than that, I would like listeners to do some energetic reconstruction of the rather constricted canon of jazz piano history, which usually presents “stride piano” as a necessary yet brief stop in the forward motion of the genre or the idiom — as it moves from Joplin to Morton to Hines to Wilson to Tatum to “modernity.”  Stride piano is almost always presented as a type of modernized ragtime, a brief virtuosic aberration with a finite duration and effect. I would like wise listeners to hear James P. Johnson as a pianistic master, his influence reaching far beyond what is usually assumed.

JAMES P. postage stamp

I was happy to see James P. on a postage stamp, but it wasn’t and isn’t enough, as the Mosaic set proves over and over again. I would like James P. Johnson to be recognized as “the dean of jazz pianists”:

jamesp-johnsongravemarker

Listen closely to this new Mosaic box set six compact discs worth of proof that the genius of James P. Johnson lives on vividly.

May your happiness increase!