Tag Archives: Friday Club

CHARLES PETERSON’S VISION

This is the second part of what I hope will be a long series on the jazz photography of Charles Peterson, who mystically saw the essence of jazz.  00000005

Here’s Peterson the documentary photographer — his casual, offhanded shot of a quartet led by Sidney Bechet, who is characteristically both in command and absolutely at the service of the music he is creating, the experience ecstatic and powerful.  What I find fascinating are the expressions on the faces of his sidemen: Cliff Jackson (whom I remember seeing in later photographs as white-haired) looks up at the Master to see where the currents of music are going; Eddie Dougherty, a wonderful and little-known Brooklyn-born drummer, seems anxious, although he may have only been caught in mid-comment, and Wellman Braud is quietly gleeful, rocking in rhythm.  They seem small objects drawn into Bechet’s vortex.  The photo suggests that any cohesive jazz group forms itself into a unit, but each musician retains his or her essential personality, and in this picture we see the quiet tension between the Selves and the Community.  And this photo brings up another of Peterson’s unintended gifts to us: how many people ever were fortunate enough to be at the Mimo Club in Harlem to hear this quartet, much less at this moment on February 16, 1942?  But — with a substantial record collection, some memory and imagination — we can invent the music that this band is creating. 

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This is a new split-second capture from a famous jazz session and photo shoot: the Commodore Records session of April 20, 1939, where Billie Holiday recorded STRANGE FRUIT, YESTERDAYS, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, and FINE AND MELLOW.  The musicians are bassist Johnny Williams, trumpeter Frank Newton, altoist Stanley Payne, and tenorist Kenneth Hollon.  Billie is holding a long-noted syllable; is it the “Yes” in YESTERDAYS?  And she is very young, very beautiful, also giving herself up to the music, her hands folded, her eyes almost-shut, Peterson’s lighting capturing her mouth, chin, and throat.  What distinguishes this portrait from others at this session is Billie’s lovely and obviously-treasured fur coat.  I find it ironic, seventy years after the session, that there is such a gap between Billie in her fur — which she deserved more than anyone — and the material she sings with such deep emotion.  One song, most famous, describes lynchings in the South; another describes a “fine and mellow” lover who doesn’t treat his woman well; a third and fourth describe bygone happinesses, all gone now, and the blues one sings when one’s lover has left.  And Billie sang these four songs as if her heart would break . . . wearing that fur coat.  Later in the session, of course, she got warm and took it off.  And no doubt the irony didn’t occur to her and she would have laughed it off if someone pointed it out, “Lady, you look too good to be singing those blues!”00000010

Hard at work is all I can say.  The caption states that this is the Summa Cum Laude band — led in part by Bud Freeman, arrangements by valve-trombonist Brad Gowans — performing at Nick’s in December 1938.  The band must be negotiating some serious ensemble passage, for they all look so intent.  Bassist Clyde Newcome stares out into space, as does Pee Wee Russell; Gowans and Freeman, especially Brad, are watching the band warily, or perhaps Brad is reading the music off the stand in the center.  I would guess that the drummer is Al Sidell, but I would hope that it is Stan King* — drummers shuttled in and out of this band.  The rather somber effect of this picture suggests to me that the band is playing one of its medleys of current hits (you can hear them on the airshots in 1939-40 from Chicago’s Panther Room at the Hotel Sherman . . . grown men of this artistic stature playing SIERRA SUE, but what can I say?)  Serious business indeed.  (In his later comment, Mike Burgevin points out that I left out Max Kaminsky.  How did I do this?)  *Don Peterson confirmed that the drummer is indeed Stan King — one of jazz’s entirely forgotten men. 

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This photo lets me imagine a time before I was born when James P. Johnson could wear his pin-stripe suit and play the piano, which is what he was meant to do.  It was taken in 1946, on a “Jazz on the River” cruise organized by Rudi Blesh and Art Hodes to go up and down the Hudson River.  From left, there’s the hand of an unidentified bassist, James P., Baby Dodds, Marty Marsala on trumpet (with the appropriate handkerchief) and guitarist Danny Barker — some of the same crew who turned up on the THIS IS JAZZ radio broadcasts.   But my secret pleasure in this photograph comes from the pretty woman whose head seems (although much smaller) in the same plane as James P.’s.  She is tidily dressed; her cardigan, pulled together at the collar, reveals a neat floral blouse beneath; we sense that she wears a neat wool skirt.  Her eyeglasses gleam in Peterson’s flashbulb; her hair is demure; her modest lipstick is in place.  Her hands are decorously in her lap.  Yet it’s clear — although she is prim, restrained, the last person to whoop and knock over her highball — that she is deeply pleased by what she hears.  As much as Bechet or James P., she is in the grip of the music, wanting it to go on forever. 

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Berenice Abbott told Hank O’Neal that most of photography was having the patience to wait for the right moment.  I’ll end this series with a superbly right moment — with only two musicians, Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett, playing at the “Friday Club” jam sessions held at the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan — this one on February 17, 1939.  Hackett here is much as I remember him, up close, in 1972: a small, slender man, neatly dressed, dark eyebrows, thin wrists with black hair on them.  Here he is all of 24, and so small that while standing he is only inches taller than Condon, sitting.  The expression on his face might be a smile or it might be that he is working hard to bring off a particular nuanced phrase.  But our attention is drawn to Condon, also young and healthy.  Condon called Hackett “The Impostor,” because — with his peculiarly ornate wit, he said “Nobody can be that good.”  The teasing compliment almost slips away, but you get the point.  What is more important in this picture — more than Condon’s neat attire — is his grin, his head turned in delight and pleasure and admiration towards Hackett, who is clearly playing something marvelous, inimitable, lovely.  Condon is astonished by what he’s hearing, but he’s expected no less from Bobby.  This photograph captures the joy (and the labor) of this music better than any prose. 

Thank you, Charles Peterson!

P.S.  It didn’t surprise me that Peterson’s offspring were particularly talented in music, film, and writing.  His daughter, Karen Yochim, a successful country-and-western songwriter, lives in Louisiana, has written extensively about Cajun culture for newspapers and magazines — and is branching out as a crime novelist.  Peterson’s granddaughter Schascle “Twinkle” Yochim (her name is Cajun, pronounced “Suh-Shell”) is a professional singer with several CDs, concentrating on soul, rock, and to a limited extent, country-and-western. She’s also a songwriter, with songs accepted in feature films currently in production.  

After a career in the Navy, Peterson’s son, Don, worked for the Navy Department in Washington, DC, doing motion picture & television scriptwriting.  Don also wrote scripts for many film and television productions.  He retired in 1986 and now concentrates on marketing his father’s photographic legacy, most lavishly accessible in the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.

NO JAM TODAY (AT SYMPHONY SPACE)

symphony-spaceI opened the January 26, 2009, issue of The New Yorker to the advertisement that sits contentedly between pages 32 and 33.  It describes, in brief, events taking place throughout February at Symphony Space in their month-long “1939 Project: American Arts At A Turning Point.”  The full schedule is available at www.symphonyspace.org/1939. On this page, one can see programs devoted to 1939 cinema, popular and classical music, fiction, “American culture in context,” “the pulse of 1939,” and more.  Kirk Nurock, Marion Cowings, Eisa Davis, Sara Laimon, Robin Aleman, Dawn Clement, Jody Sandhaus and others will play and sing.  Famous names — E.L. Doctorow, Robert Dallek, Dick Cavett, and Leon Botstein — will speak, moderate, and direct.  And there’s more.

But I have to say that before I saw this advertisement, I had heard intriguing rumblings about these programs: the names of Ellington and Basie had been invoked as artists central to the culture of 1939.

But no Ellington or Basie did I see on this program.  I looked closer, and found something . . . .

“JITTERBUG DANCE JAM

FEB 7 AT 7 PM    FREE

Kick up your heels to the sounds of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and other big band favorites at this community dance-along on the stage of the Peter Sharp Theatre.”

Forgive me if I seem ungrateful.  I know that pop music of the Swing Era was transmitted for free — recordings and live broadcasts — on radio coast-to-coast in 1939, so I suppose this evening is someone’s idea of “Juke Box Saturday Night.”  But to me it seems cheap and inadequate.  The absence of live 1939-tinged jazz on such a program is annoying, to put it politely. I mean no disrespect to the singers and musicians Symphony Space has already hired and advertised; I am sure that they will sing and play with abandon and ambition.  But . . . .

Were the project directors at Symphony Space unaware that 1939 was a watershed year in live jazz?  Charlie Christian joined the Benny Goodman band; Jimmy Blanton joined Ellington; Lester Young was electrifying listeners in the Basie reed section.  Eddie Condon was creating jam sessions at the Friday Club; Alistair Cooke was announcing other sessions for the BBC; a young Charlie Parker was finding his wings; Dizzy Gillespie was already surprising musicians; Art Tatum already had intimidated everyone; Coleman Hawkins returned from Europe and recorded “Body and Soul”; Louis Armstrong was at one of his many artistic peaks.  An underfed singer from Jersey named Sinatra made his first recordings.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

I know, of course, that such projects are broad in scope and often narrow in budget.  But I have seen jazz concerts put on by the Sidney Bechet Society at this very Symphony Space, so I would guess that such an event was within the realm of possibility. And, to loosely paraphrase Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL, “I saw the best musicians of my generation playing for the tip jar, playing fifty-dollar gigs all over town.” I’m no impresario, but if you gave me a five-hundred dollar budget, I could put on the finest impromptu 1939 jam session you’d ever seen or heard.  (No music stands, by the way.)  I could think of twenty-five imensely talented and under-utilized instrumentalists and singers, each of whom could embody the creative pulse of 1939 in sixteen bars.  But they’re not on the program.

Did the famous names on the program eat up all the funds?  Did the producers decide that it was important to have live classical music and live singers, but assume that jazz could be taken care of by someone with a well-filled iPod?  I don’t know.

Once again, live jazz has the door shut in its face.  And, ironically, jazz of this era is often dismissed as “no longer representative of American culture,” the outdated music of white-haired folks deep in nostalgia.  Surely some place could have been found for it during a month-long project.

How very disappointing.