Tag Archives: Frank O’Connor

The Second Part: OH, HOW GRAND! (GORDON AU, MATT MUSSELMAN, MATT KOZA, NICK RUSSO, ROB ADKINS: May 5, 2016)

Photograph by Jessica Keener

Photograph by Jessica Keener

Here’s the first part of a wonderful concert / dance created by Gordon Au’s Grand Street Stompers at Grand Central Station on May 5, 2016.  The Stompers are Gordon (of course), trumpet, compositions / arrangements, vocal; Matt Koza, clarinet / soprano; Matt Musselman, trombone; Nick Russo, banjo / guitar; Rob Adkins, string bass.

And the second part!

Grand Central diningI CRIED FOR YOU:

CRAZY:

YOU’RE NEVER FULLY DRESSED WITHOUT A SMILE:

RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

THE SOUND OF MUSIC:

LOUISIAN-I-A:

THE BALLAD OF BUS 38:

NAGASAKI:

And for the deep explication that Gordon only hints at, here’s his wonderfully elliptical blog, THAT OF LOWLY PWUTH.  Yes, you did read that correctly.

And to think — before this, I’d thought of Grand Central Station simply as the eastern terminus of the Forty-Second subway shuttle, the “S” — not as a secret mecca for lyrical hot jazz.  That’s New York City for you: one surprise tumbling in on another.

May your happiness increase!

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OH, HOW GRAND! (GORDON AU, MATT MUSSELMAN, MATT KOZA, NICK RUSSO, ROB ADKINS: May 5, 2016)

Photograph by Jessica Keener

Photograph by Jessica Keener

On May 5, 2016, Gordon Au and the Grand Street Stompers played a free concert / swing dance session at the dining concourse of Grand Central Station in New York City. The Stompers are Gordon, trumpet, vocal, arrangements / compositions; Matt Musselman, trombone; Matt Koza, clarinet / soprano; Nick Russo, banjo / guitar; Rob Adkins, string bass.

But first, a relevant tale (impatient readers have already skipped to the videos, which is their privilege).  One of my literary heroes is the multi-faceted Irish writer “Frank O’Connor” — born Michael O’Donovan in Cork — who made a pilgrimage to James Joyce in Paris in the early Twenties.  In Joyce’s apartment, O’Connor noticed a beautiful antique print of Cork City in a frame whose material he could not recognize.  “What’s that?” he said to Joyce, pointing at the picture.  “Cork,” said Joyce.  “I know that,” said O’Connor.  “What’s the frame?” “Cork,” said Joyce.  “I had the greatest difficulty finding a French frame maker who would construct this.”

That story always amused me — although O’Connor also cited it as an example of Joyce’s peculiar associative mania — but it reverberated loudly in me when I had this rarest of opportunities to see and hear the Grand Street Stompers at Grand Central Station.  “Where are we?” “Grand.”  “Who’s playing?” “Grand,” and off into the darkness, although swinging mightily.

Grand Central dining

The Grand Street Stompers are a witty, light-hearted, versatile band.  The solos illuminate the room; the ensemble passages are charmed and charming; Gordon’s originals have the lilting energy of songs that you’re sure you’ve heard already.  At times, the GSS sounds like an ideal Louis Armstrong band — straddling 1925 and 1965 — in its sweet ebullience.  Gordon’s imagination is large and occasionally whimsical, so the band plays Fifties pop, Twenties hot tunes, Disney classics, Broadway melodies, and originals — all of them fresh yet instantly classic.

Here’s the first half of the doubly Grand Event:

Not just a twelve-bar blues, Louis’ MAHOGANY HALL STOMP has its own routines, which the GSS negotiates stylishly:

Gordon’s own hummable SUNSET SERENADE:

BELLA NOTTE, from LADY AND  THE TRAMP, music by Sonny Burke, lyrics by Peggy Lee — the image that comes to mind is two romantic canines delicately sharing a plate of spaghetti and meatballs:

Another Au hot tune, RIDGEWOOD STOMP:

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MADE, a song that everyone associates with Dinah Washington in the Fifties, but it is from 1934, originally in Spanish, by Maria Grever:

With Bechet in mind, Gordon’s SARATOGA SERENADE:

Frankie Valli’s CAN’T TAKE MY EYES OFF OF YOU:

BE OUR GUEST, from BEAUTY AND  THE BEAST:

The Stompers are a busy band — you can see and hear why — and they appear everywhere, but in New York, in May 2016, this appearance at a swing dance session in Bryant Park might truly be special.  Don’t miss a chance to hear them; as I write this, they will be lighting up the room at Radegast this very night.

And there’s a second eight performances from the Grand night of May 5, 2016, to come.

May your happiness increase!

IRRESISTIBLE READING: “TRAVELS WITH LOUIS” and “RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN”

I have to tell you about two jazz books that have given me immense pleasure: Mick Carlon’s TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN.  Yes, they are officially “children’s books” or “YA fiction,” but I delighted in every page.

I confess that I initially resisted both of Carlon’s books for reasons peculiar to me.  I was a precocious sort who grew up among adult readers and got into their books as soon as I could.  So I have no deep connections to children’s literature. And having seen some books “about jazz” or “about jazz heroes and heroines” for children, books that were inaccurate, oversimplified, or were unintentionally condescending, I was exceedingly wary of the genre. (Much “adult” fiction about jazz strikes me the same way, including the revered Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.”)

Because I’ve spent my life studying and revering Louis and Duke, I was ready to pick a fight with any book that didn’t do them justice. So even though both books had been praised by people I respect — Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley, even Ruby Braff — I found other things to read.

But when the books came to me, I decided to treat them fairly. Within twenty pages into TRAVELS WITH LOUIS I was hooked.  I am a quick reader, and yesterday and today you could have found me ignoring what I was supposed to be doing to sneak in a few more pages. (This, for me, is the test of fiction: do I care about the characters and what happens to them?  If not, down the book goes, no matter how respected the author.)

Both these books are heartfelt, endearing, and the jazz heroes come off true to their essential selves.  Louis first.

TRAVELS WITH LOUIS follows a twelve-year old African-American neighbor of Louis’ — little Fred Bradley — who is an aspiring trumpeter.  Louis is his neighbor, supremely kind not only to Fred but to all his neighbors (something we know to be true) and the book charts their sweet relationship as Fred grows as a young man and an aspiring musician.  I won’t give away the plot, but it isn’t all ice cream and good times: there is grief over a parent’s death, race prejudice, a sit-in in a Southern town, failure, embarrassment, danger.  But Fred’s love for the music, for his family, and for his Corona world shines through.  And Louis is a beaming avuncular presence not only for Fred but for us.  In some ways, this book is the fulfillment of what must have been the dream of many: “Suppose Louis Armstrong was my friend and I could hang out with him!”  The book is not restricted to one Corona street, and the outside world intrudes, but I will leave those episodes for readers, without spoiling their surprises.  (But Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington make appearances, speaking convincing dialogue and acting in ways that don’t seem out of character.)

Carlon is an easy, plain-spoken writer who has avoided many traps. For one thing, he has based his knowledge of Louis on first-hand real-life experience: twenty years of conversations with Jack Bradley, who loved and loves Louis deeply and followed him everywhere.  So one never feels that the author is at a distance from his subject — picking up his subject’s DNA from hours in the library.  Affection is the spine of this book, and I had tears in my eyes more than once.  Carlon also has neatly sidestepped areas of Louis’ life that would be troublesome for a YA audience.  Louis doesn’t tell dirty jokes, nor does he smoke pot in front of Little Fred, but that seems true to life.  The slippery presence of Joe Glaser doesn’t pop up here, and that’s a relief.

RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN, Carlon’s first book, is in some ways even more ambitious, because it attempts to portray Ellington (that intriguing mixture of declarations of verbal love and a deep distance from anyone) as well as his 1937-39 band here and in Europe. I was charmed by his portrayal of Ivie Anderson, both gentle and salty, of Juan Tizol, of all the Ellingtonians.  Django Reinhardt shows up here, as do the Nazis and the Swing Kids — in this tale of nine-year old Danny, an African-American Georgia orphan who finds himself nearly adopted by the whole band, especially Rex Stewart, and begins a career in Ellingtonia.  At times I thought Danny was much more eloquent and perceptive than a nine-year old might be expected to be, but then again, the young Danny is a quick study and the narrator is Danny, grown much older, who is telling his story retrospectively (a device often used by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor.)

Both books work.  I love this music and the people who create it so much that if I am taken to a film with jazz in it, I will be muttering to myself, “That record wasn’t out in 1944,” and “People didn’t use that expression in 1939,” but I had very little of that bristling in either book.  Of course the jazz scholars among us can pick at some of Carlon’s poetic license: “Louis never played POTATO HEAD BLUES in his shows.”  “Louis never played the Village Vanguard.”  “Sonny Greer wasn’t tall.”  “Billy Taylor was Duke’s bassist then, not Jimmie Blanton.”  “Where’s Strayhorn?” And the scholars would be right.

But Carlon is writing fiction, not a discography, and it is much easier to criticize someone’s efforts for their imperfections than it is to create them.

And the poetic license ultimately isn’t the point.

These books aren’t written to please adults who have spent their lives figuring out what ever happened to the Hot Choruses cylinders, but for new audiences. Heaven knows jazz needs new audiences!  Carlon is writing for the next generation who might, let us hope, be stirred by these fast-moving, varied human stories here to check out what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington sounded like.

And who knows?  Conversion experiences have happened with less inspiring encouragement than these two books offer.  All I can say is that I am looking forward to Mick’s next book, GIRL SINGER, which will have a female protagonist (hooray!) and be set in 1938 with a band out of Kansas City led by a pianist named Basie.  It should swing.

Rather than keep these books on my shelf, I’m giving them away to jazz friends I know who have young children: it couldn’t hurt.  I encourage you — even if you think you know all about Louis and Duke — to buy copies of these books, read them, savor them, and then give them away to the youngbloods we know. Something good could happen.

You can purchase the two books in the usual places, and you can find out more about Mick Carlon here.

May your happiness increase!

RYAN TRUESDELL PRESENTS “CENTENNIAL: NEWLY DISCOVERED WORKS BY GIL EVANS”

Most tribute recordings or projects labor under several burdens.  The musicians who made the original recordings are, in most cases, no longer alive and playing . . . .although one could make the case that Louis playing POTATO HEAD BLUES thirty years after its issue, Ellington revisiting IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE, Billie singing WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO in 1952 . . . are all paying tributes to their earlier selves.

But, in general, artists who choose to “play old records live” in the studio or in concert have the towering presence of those accessible sounds to deal with.

Some tribute projects attempt to impose a modernist sensibility on established repertoire and style . . . with results that require equal parts love, understanding, and daring to pull off — STRANGE FRUIT remixed over techno rhythms wins points for novelty, but to me it feels blasphemous.

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project has none of these self-created burdens to carry up the mountain.  For one thing, Truesdell, a composer and scholar, did not — as others have chosen to do — assemble an orchestra to reproduce recordings everyone knows well.  Rather, he took as his starting point ten compositions — only three of them Evans’ originals — that Evans had arranged but (in most cases) had not recorded.  The details of Truesdell’s discoveries and research are contained in the intriguing and immensely readable booklet for the CENTENNIAL CD. (In my life as a literary researcher, I spent many hours filling in the gaps and appreciating the warmth of otherwise unread first-hand materials — unpublished manuscripts of Frank O’Connor’s short stories and Yeats’ poetry, letters between O’Connor and William Maxwell, between Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner . . . and I immediately saw that Truesdell was honest and searching in his investigations.)

For a number of sessions, he assembled a series of dream orchestras, featuring saxophonists Steve Wilson, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson; brass players Greg Gisbert, Laurie Frink, Ryan Keberle, Marshall Gilkes, rhythm section players James Chirillo, Joe Locke, Frank Kimbrough, Jay Anderson, Lewis Nash; singers Kate McGarry, Wendy Gilles, Luciana Souza, and many other brilliant musicians.

Initially I was intrigued by the project because I so admired the Evans arrangements for Claude Thornhill and the work he did for Miles Davis, most memorably MILES AHEAD and PORGY AND BESS.  The Evans sound I cherish suggests floating clouds, many-hued, that are ever-changing,never static, leaving impressionistic traces as they move across our consciousness.  About the Evans who organized lengthy electric-flavored orations devoted to Jimi Hendrix compositions, I know little.

But once the disc arrived, I was initially delighted by the perceptive diligence Truesdell showed in the research that got him and his orchestras to perform these otherwise “unheard” works.  Some might say that his efforts are no different from a conductor faced with a score of a “new” work, but Truesdell has managed to balance the pull of individualism — assembling an orchestra of mature soloists and section players who can create appropriately within an idiom without offering pastiches of others’ solos — and staying faithful to what is written in the score.

I knew I had to write this post when there were certain tracks on the CD –THE MAIDS OF CADIZ, HOW ABOUT YOU, DANCING ON A GREAT BIG RAINBOW, BARBARA SONG, and — most memorably, WHO’LL BUY MY VIOLETS? — that I wanted to play over and over.  I had been hesitant at first — did I know Evans well enough to appreciate this music?  Would I find it too outre for my well-nourished narrowness?  I need not have worried: the music’s beauty broke through any imagined walls.

This CD honors Evans’ essential spiritual brilliance without getting confined within an idea of “repertory” that is ultimately imprisoning.  I found much to love in this music . . . and I will keep and replay this disc into the future.

For more information about the project, the CD, and future appearances by Truesdell and his master musicians, click here.  Many pleasures await!

May your happiness increase.

THIS WONDERFUL WORLD

I have just finished reading the galleys of Ricky Riccardi’s WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS (Pantheon).  I am a very severe critic of biographies — where odd things happen.

Sometimes the writer gets so caught up in him / herself that the book becomes self-referential, an unintentional autobiography, the writer gazing lovingly in the mirror.  Some biographies end up rancorously, with the writer deciding that after all the Great Man or Woman was really rotten.  And some biographies are unoriginal compilations of what everyone else has written.

I was ready to love Ricky’s book because I love both the subject and am very fond of the author, but I was not prepared for how superb it is.

It is full of original research, new first-hand tales and evidence on every page.  It is beautifully written, casual without being flippant.  It is splendidly annotated but never academic.  It is full of light and joy without being idolatrously adoring.

As I write this, I am surrounded by biographies of Louise Bogan and of Henry “Red” Allen, of Frank O’Connor and Pee Wee Russell.  Riccardi has written a book worthy of the best ones on my shelves or on yours.

It won’t be officially published until late June, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from ordering it.  It made me laugh a good deal; it made me think; it made me cry.  And the energy and soul of Louis shines through every page.

http://www.amazon.com/What-Wonderful-World-Magic-Armstrongs/dp/0307378446/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1299530493&sr=1-1

WHAT WOULD LOUIS DO?  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS: CLICK HERE!

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=VBURVAWDMWQAS

HIDE AND SEEK (IN IRELAND)

The Beloved and I just returned from a week in Ireland.  Our itinerary included University College Cork and Dalkey (a suburb of Dublin where Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy, Maeve Binchy, Bono, Van Morrison, and other notables live).   And the sun shone for all but one day. 

When I first visited Ireland, continuing my work on the short-story writer Frank O’Connor, I didn’t expect to find jazz.  In fact, in those pre-iPod days, I brought pounds of CDs, trying to prevent the deprivation that I was sure would befall me.  But jazz kept on popping up to surprise me.  I heard CDs by guitarists Louis Stewart and Hugh Buckley, and was invited to jam sessions featuring Toddy’s Hot Stompers and other congenial assemblages.  

So I shouldn’t have been surprised this time when I stumbled onto my favorite art form.   

But I was.  People who love this music are forever lamenting dwindling audiences, the closing of clubs, the names in the obituary pages . . . . with very good reason.  And the sweet ubiquity of jazz in my childhood — Louis and Duke on television, Jimmy McPartland playing a free concert in a Long Island park, Bobby Hackett on the radio — is surely nostalgia rather than current reality.  These days, I can expect to hear Ben Webster as dinner music only if I’ve put his CDs on while the chicken is roasting. 

ireland-for-blog-001

And yet . . . . there was Denise Connolly’s fascinating Cork bookshop.  It was a sweet, enlightened disorder of books of all kinds, opera records, and more.  But what caught my attention was the music coming out of Ms. Connolly’s mini stereo system: Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly playing “Limehouse Blues,” then “I’ve Had My Moments,” and more — vintage 1937.  When I told her how delighted I was by her soundtrack, she smiled and said that, yes, Django, Lionel Hampton, and Thelonious Monk were her favorites.  Visit Connolly’s Bookshop, not only for the jazz, but the books! 

And the HMV store on Grafton Street has sections devoted not only to Louis and Duke, but also to Bix Beiderbecke and Humphrey Lyttelton.

ireland-for-blog-0021 

It did my heart good.  Just when I thought jazz had gone into hiding, it poked its head out of the shadows and gave me a big wink.

JULIE FOLLANSBEE, MANNY FARBER, AND KID ORY

kid-ory-78As much as I love jazz, I love the stories that attach themselves to the players, the records, the places the music inhabits.  Earlier today, on WNYC-FM, Leonard Lopate spoke with Kent Jones and Philip Lopate about the flim critic and painter Manny Farber, who celebrated subversive “termite art.” I never met Manny Farber, so my connection to him, perhaps tenuous, exemplifies two or perhaps three degrees of New York separation.

It was, however, my privilege to know the actress and entrancing personality Julie Pratt Shattuck, born Julie Follansbee.  Julie died on August 16 of this year.  She was 88.  I  was introduced to her by her dear friend Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy (widow of the great Irish writer Frank O’Connor — and my benefactor as well).

Julie wasn’t tall, but she seemed regally so — without being stuffy.  Her diction was elegant,  but she delighted in delivering tiny hilarious shocks.  I was standing next to her at a downtown art show when, for whatever reason, she turned to me and recited the limerick about the young man from Madras.  I still haven’t recovered.

Her blue eyes would flash and she would laugh uproariously.  She was one of the most vividly alive people I have ever met; she loved a party, and until her final illness, the word “Whee!” punctuated her talk.  Lucky me! — to have been invited to 242 East 68th Street for tea, the occasional tiny glass of bourbon, dinner — and wonderful stories.

Julie knew that I was immersed in jazz.  I gave a party at her brownstone where the great guitarist Craig Ventresco played and awed everyone.  I also remember a wonderful evening when a trio of Julie, myself, and her friend Roseli Olivera went to the Cajun to hear Kevin Dorn’s band play, where Julie sat, awash in the music, her eyes closed, her head swaying, her face a portrait of bliss.  Once, she mentioned that she had a small collection of 78 rpm records.  Would I like them?  Yes, I said, I would.

Sometime in 2007, then, I went to her brownstone and Julie gave me these 78 rpm records:

Jack Teagarden (Brunswick): Ol’ Pappy / Fate-thee-Well to Harlem

Duke Ellington (Victor): Jubilee Stomp / Black Beauty

Gene Krupa’s Swing Band (Victor): I’m Gonna Clap My Hands / Mutiny in the Parlor

Bessie Smith (Columbia): Empty Bed Blues, Part I and 2

Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers (Victor): Shake It and Break It / Wild Man Blues

Old Man Blues / Nobody Knows the Way I Feels Dis Morning (as printed on the label)

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven / Five (UHCA): Potato Head Blues / Put ‘Em Down Blues

Sister Ernestine Anderson acc. Bunk Johnson’s Jazz Band (Disc): Does Jesus Care / The Lord Will Make A Way Somehow

Kid Ory’s Jazz Band (Crescent): Creole Song / South

J.C. Higginbotham / Frank Newton Quintets (Blue Note): Weary Land Blues / Daybreak Blues

Boris Rose acetate disc: Body and Soul (Hawkins) / I Can’t Get Started (Berigan)

Dizzy Gillespie (Manor): I Can’t Get Started / Good Bait

Bob Wilber’s Wildcats, with Dick Wellstood at the Barrelhouse Steinway (Rampart): Chimes Blues / Old Fashioned Love

I was thrilled: Julie had always been generous to me, and she saw the joy on my face of even having these precious artifacts to leaf through.  The records had been well-played, which I found touching, and they, taken together, suggested someone’s deep love and understanding of jazz in its many manifestations.

“Did you collect jazz records?” I asked Julie.

“Oh, no, these weren’t mine,” she said.

I looked at her quizzically.

manny-farber“Do you know of Manny Farber?” she continued, and I was happy to say that I did.

“Well, when I was living in the Village, sometime in the late Forties, he came around to call.  I don’t recall how I met him.  But he brought these records with him, and he left them behind.”

Sensing that there was some bit of narrative hidden under that calm surface, I just looked at her.

Julie said cheerfully, “Oh, he wanted to sleep with me.  But I wasn’t interested in him.  And he never came back for the records.”

At that time, Manny Farber was still alive, 90 or 91years old.  Julie and I discussed, whimsically, whether I should write him a note and say, “By the way, would you like your records back?  Julie has been keeping them for you,” an idea that never took shape.  For those who savor coincidence, Manny Farber died on August 17, 2008, one day after Julie did.

I miss her.  I’m sorry I didn’t visit her more often.  And I’m sorry that when I looked for a picture of her on Google, none came up — although the many DVDs of the films in which she appears did.  I say “Whee!” in her honor, and thank her for this story and this gift, one of so many.

P.S.  And my hero Eddie Condon signed people’s autograph books with “Whee!”  Great minds think alike, exuberantly so.