Tag Archives: “From Spirituals to Swing”

THE THINGS YOU MISS

I am not nostalgic for my adolescence.  If you offered me time-travel back to my seventeenth year, I would rapidly although politely turn down the offer.

But the experience of encountering music in days beyond recall (before the computer, before the internet) is something I miss because of its communal nature.

I grew up in suburbia, and found perhaps a half-dozen people my age (all male) who were interested in jazz.  And when I had gotten my driver’s license, it was not difficult to go to someone’s house with a new record or a particular track one wanted to share or to hear.  Someone had bought a new Lester Young record from Sam Goody; someone had picked up a hot 78 at the Salvation Army; someone had a 12″ 78 of Whiteman and Bix; someone had tapes of everything Bing recorded between 1926. Another friend had a new rare record which he wouldn’t let out of his sight, but would make a cassette copy of it.

I heard new music, new old music, in the company of other people.  We sat on the bed or the floor, getting up to change a record or to put the needle back, saying energetically, “Did you hear THAT?!” and looking to the other person for shared joys, empathy, understanding.

I have more jazz friends in 2014 than I ever would have dreamed possible in 1974.  They are very dear to me.  Through YouTube and videos, we share music internationally.  I can send someone an mp3 of an exciting track, or get one in my email. I just came back from a jazz party in England where there was so much music I occasionally felt perforated by hot music. I do not lack for sounds; if I turn ninety degrees from this computer, there are boxes of tapes and a wall of CDs.

But the human connection — two or three people in a room, perhaps drinking soda and eating supermarket potato chips, getting into a delighted frenzy about three Jo Jones accents after Tommy Ladnier’s particularly declamatory phrase* — is nearly gone.  In the last decade, I’ve been part of perhaps four or five such listening sessions, and I miss them.  I don’t mean a formal “collectors’ group,” with everyone guessing the soloist or the like or showing off that their N- copy is more shiny than your V+; I mean friends getting together to share their musical joys.  Yes, there’s Facebook, but it isn’t quite the same.

I have had a few musical sessions at my house, where I’ve probably overwhelmed my visitors with jazz — in my eagerness to play everything delightful I could think of — and, oddly enough, have been part of a few sessions on wheels, where my driving host played music from his iPod, which is always gratifying. But it’s a rare pleasure.

That’s our century: we have an intense intimacy or faux-intimacy with constant accessibility through the internet.  Physically, we exist at immense distances, too busy to be in the same room to rejoice over the things and heroes we love.

Of course, it could just be me. But somehow I doubt it.

*I am referring specifically to WEARY BLUES from the Spirituals to Swing concerts, with Ladnier, Jo, Sidney Bechet, Dan Minor, James P. Johnson, and Walter Page. Hear it here (amidst a 49-track playlist; such are the ways of YouTube):

May your happiness increase! 

TWO HEROES AT THE KEYBOARD. ONE BEAMS. ONE LOOKS STARTLED.

You know these Masters: Count Basie and Joe Sullivan. Time, date, place, and photographer unknown:

I think that Joe’s caught-by-surprise expression might be due to the photographer’s flashbulb going off.  Or, perhaps it was, “Can it be? Can I be sitting at the same keyboard with Basie?”

I wonder if this was New York, 1940-1 (a Village Vanguard jam session or one at Cafe Society?) or — less likely — taken during the 1939 “From Spirituals to Swing” end-of concert frolic on LADY BE GOOD, or a 1941 jam session at Carnegie Hall.

BASIE and SULLIVAN

Whatever and wherever, it’s a tribute to the power of the camera — to capture such moments that would otherwise merely be the stuff of legend.

May your happiness increase!

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! 

SMILING JO JONES

As a high school student, I supplemented my intermittent jazz record purchases by listening to the records available at my local public library.  One of the librarians was hip.  Someone had good taste!  The collection included Ellington and George Lewis, Jimmy Rushing and Vic Dickenson, Benny Goodman and “The Sound of Jazz,” among others.  On those records — particularly the Vanguard sessions supervised in the early and middle Fifties by John Hammond — I first heard the sound of Jo Jones, his swishing hi-hat cymbals, his emphatic rimshots, his irresistible swing. 

I had already fallen in love with the propulsion and pure sounds of Catlett and Wettling, but Jo was a revelation: I can still hear the way he brought the band in on Vic’s RUNNIN’ WILD, or the three perfectly placed accents (all different) he used to propel Tommy Ladnier in a fast WEARY BLUES at the 1938 “From Spirituals to Swing” concert.  And, a little later, when I bought my first Billie Holiday records, the Kansas City Fiva and Six, the Decca Basie band . . . I wanted to hear every record Jo Jones had ever been part of.   

Here is Jo — exuberant, explosive, grinning, soloing at the end of a fast blues, on a 1957 Nat King Cole television show devoted to Norman Granz and the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe.  This clip begins at the end of Roy Eldridge’s solo (in mid-scream) and at the end Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown are visible:

But that clip gives way to my own memories of Jo in person, onstage and off. 

This post is motivated by a recent conversation I had with the Beloved about the subject of retiring from one’s job, leaving a career behind.  I told her one of the stories below and she said, astonished, “You spoke to Jo Jones?  Smiling Jo Jones?” hence my title. 

Not only did I speak to Jo Jones: I took this photograph of him in 1981:

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

Jo Jones at the West End Cafe

True, the shot is amateurish: a head is in the way, my flash’s explosion is visible, the overall hue suggests Halloween . . . but Jo’s slow-motion mallet, on its ways down, pleases me greatly.  And the photo evidence that I was there, capturing this moment, which is no small thing.

Many other moments come back to me now. 

My friend Stu Zimny found out, sometime before 1972, that one could see Jo at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop.  We decided to go there, as if we were making a pilgrimage to some sacred place.  Was Jo holding court there, as befits an artist and aristocrat, or was he making a few dollars in a job unworthy of him, as I have read?  I don’t know.  I do remember buying a pair of 5B parade drumsticks from him — to practice with — and snippets of this conversation. 

In person, Jo was animated, inscrutable, vehement.  Something in his manner and approach defied easy explanation.  It felt as if we were speaking to a character in a play — and only Jo had the script.  There was also some element of unpredictability, even of danger, as if he might suddenly get furious at you in the middle of a conversation, as I saw happen with Ruby Braff.   

(Ruby, incidentally, told us a wonderful story about working with Jo at Storyville, almost twenty years earlier: Jo would never say, “Let’s play ROSETTA,” but start a rhythmic pattern and tempo on his hi-hat or snare and leave it up to the musician to guess which tune might best go with that tempo.  Ruby shook his head in disbelief when he recalled, somewhat in desperation, picking some song that he thought might be fine at that tempo, and Jo saying, “That’s it!  You got it!” as if Ruby had telepathically found the answer.  “I don’t play with him any more.  He’s nuts,” said Ruby.) 

Even when speaking to people he knew and liked, Jo had a particular tone of voice that in someone else might have been ironic verging on contemptuous.  But with him it was a form of emphasis.  You could hear capital letters, boldface, italics in his voice.  And he had a fierce energy in his speech: a conversation with him was like being strapped into a centrifuge, an untiring monologue, rising and falling. 

Spotting Jo at Ippolito’s, I imagine that we introduced ourselves as jazz listeners, fans, admirers.  And then one of us asked Jo where we could hear him play.  Was he gigging anywhere?   

He looked at us with weary resignation, two innocent Caucasian college boys who had asked a silly question.

“I’m re-ti-red,” he said, by way of explanation.  “I don’t play the drums anymore.  Leave all that to the kiddies,” he continued.  We couldn’t believe it, and asked him again.  He wasn’t playing any gigs, no festivals?  All he would say was that he was “re-ti-red.”  If we needed a drummer, he suggested that we call Buddy Rich.  Stu points out that Jo offered no contact information for Buddy.  

We went away from that encounter half grieving, half amazed.  We had gone to the mountaintop to meet one of the elders, to receive counsel and inspiration, and the elder had said he had packed it in.

The sequel to all this is that some months later we saw Jo’s name prominently advertised as one of the musicians who would appear in the Newport-New York Jazz Festival.  I think, now, that he had been putting us on.  But perhaps in his own head he had decided to retire.      

In the next decade, we had the opportunity to see him in a variety of situations: concert halls and jazz clubs.  He drove Benny Carter’s SWING MASTERS at their 1972 concert appearance (a band that included Joe Thomas, Benny Morton, Buddy Tate, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and an out-of-tune Bernard Addison) and took a long solo in the middle of SLEEP — a virtuosic exercise that stopped the song and the show.  Two years later, he appeared at the Newport “Hall of Fame,” as part of a quintet with Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Wilson, and Hinton, his playing was immaculate, sensitive, not showy — Hackett turned the last bridge in “Body and Soul” over to Jo, who filled the air with urging, whispering brush strokes and accents.  

Tom Piazza, then a student at Williams College, arranged a concert of the jazz elders — when such things were still possible: Milt Hinton, Roy Eldridge, Benny Morton, Budd Johnson, Claude Hopkins, and Jo.  Stu and I went there, armed with a heavy tape recorder, and (in the face of numerous obstacles: an inebriated Budd, a student running the sound board who turned the record level up and down for no reason, an over-exuberant audience) we focused on the band.  Jo traded eights and fours with Milt on a leisurely STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and did his volcanic version of CARAVAN, with every grimace, every surprise firmly choreographed. 

He smiled incessantly when he played: he glowed.  But when we saw Jo in clubs, at close range, he often appeared to be brimful of some barely contained anger.  And though we had come to the gig hoping to hear something delicate, witty — that magical hi-hat sound, those quietly insistent brushes that had levitated so many recordings — he would beat out the time loudly, indefatigably, on a brassily resonant ride cymbal.  It was clear that there were two Jonathan David Samuel Joneses: one, the player we had heard on records, lifting the band with what Donne called “gold to airy thinness beat”; the other, furious at something, wanting to control it by pure sound and pure volume.  Stanley Dance told me about producing a 1961 session that paired Jo with some Ellington alumni — Paul Gonsalves, Harold Ashby, Ray Nance, Sir Charles Thompson — and Jo being infuriated about something, then playing as loudly as he could. 

I recall several instances of this irritation-translated-into-music.  When there was a ragtag band of “Basie alumni” assembled at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage: sic transit gloria mundi), Jo walloped the ride cymbal as if wanting to drown everyone out.  At a short-lived spinoff of the Half Note, “The Onliest Place,” a venture that lasted only a few weekends, Jo led a little band one night.  If I remember correctly, it included bassist Tommy Bryant, Ben Richardson on clarinet, Skeeter Best on guitar, and one or two other players.  They embarked on a nearly forgotten Thirties pop tune, CALL ME DARLING, which was not terribly familiar, and some members of the band got lost.  I can hear Jo shouting, “The middle!  The middle!” although I am not sure that this advice averted chaos.  Irritability and delighted in-jokes always characterized his appearances with “The Countsmen,” a group that included Doc Cheatham, Benny Morton, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Chuck Folds, Franklyn Skeete, and Jo.   

Jo could play magically in clubs, though.  I remember going to Gregory’s, a tiny room, to hear Ellis Larkins and Al Hall.  That duo played splendid embroidered jazz for one set and then Jo walked in, unfurled his newspaper, took out a set of folding wire brushes, spread the paper on a chair, and played with elegance, amusement, and grace.   

At the West End Cafe, thanks to Phil Schaap, Jo had a fairly steady gig: “Jo Jones and Friends,” which was most often a quartet of Harold Ashby on tenor, a pianist (sometimes Don Coates), and bassist John Ore, who had played with Monk.  One rainy night in particular stands out.  It was time for the band to begin and Ore had not arrived.  Jo began his sets with a medium-tempo blues in G, and, muttering to himself, he set the tempo by tapping his snare drum with his fingers.  Ashby soloed; the pianist soloed, and when it came to the two or four choruses that would have been taken by Ore, Jo grimaced, muttered loudly and incomprehensibly to himself, and played choruses of accompaniment — as if Ore had been there — with the tenor and piano silent.  It was mildly eerie.  Ore came in soon after, apologized for being late (he lived in Brooklyn), but it took the rest of the night for Jo to become calmer.      

One summer on Long Island, I read that Buddy Tate would be bringing a band, including Jo, to play a free outdoor concert somewhere miles from Manhattan on the North Fork.  It may have been Southold.  We drove out there and saw Tate’s outfit play the first half of the concert, with some of their members, including Jo, missing.  Jo’s son may have subbed for his father on drums.  Eventually, much later, a fire engine drove up, with a few cars following.  Jo came out of one of them.  They had gotten lost and asked directions at a firehouse.  I would like to report that the Tate band, plus Jo, played magnificently, but that wasn’t the case.  The group reassembled itself, and Jo demanded his feature on CARAVAN.  It went on, no nuance or flourish omitted, for something like eleven minutes.  After that, there was only time for Tate to play a hasty LESTER LEAPS IN, and the concert ended.  Perhaps it was because of episodes like this that when we mentioned Jo’s name to musicians of a certain era, their expressions grew wary and guarded.  “He’s crazy, man,” was the response we got from more than one well-established player.

But he could be politely accessible to fans.  I recall approaching him at the West End, before the gig had started, with a new vinyl copy of a record, FOR BASIE.  I had bought it that afternoon and hoped that Jo would autograph it for me.  Recorded in 1957 for Prestige-Swingville, it brought together Shad Collins on trumpet, Paul Quinichette on tenor, Nat Pierce on piano, Walter Page on bass (one of his last recordings), and Jo.  The cover picture showed Jo in a heavy flannel buffalo-plaid shirt with wide suspenders over it, and he grew animated and showed the other musicians at the table.  “See that?” he demanded of them.  “That is style!” he insisted, happily.  And he autographed the back side of the cover in a large ornate hand.  When he was through signing, he said to me that he had never heard the music.  I could take a hint, and offered him this copy (I had another at home).  I hope that it gave him pleasure. 

At another, later West End gig, I had with me a new record, OUR MAN, PAPA JO! — on the Denon label, which had a picture of Jo in full glower at his drum set, on the cover.  Thinking that one can never have too many Jo Jones signatures, I asked him to autograph this one also.  He stared at the cover, held it at arm’s length.

This will keep the burglars from your house!” he gleefully told me. 

In 1981 and early 1982, he was getting more frail and having more difficulty.  Jo played with great delicacy at a “Salute to Pres” concert, offering his familiar dancing trades with Milt Hinton — but he had to be helped up on the drum throne.  At the last West End gig I recall, playing was becoming more and more arduous for him.  When I heard about him next it was the news of his death in 1985.

Photographer Richard H. Merle was at Jo’s funeral, and he caught this poignant moment of Max Roach at Jo’s coffin — the flag draped over the back because Jo had served  — with great reluctance — in the Army in World War Two. 

 

Jo Jones Funeral

Jo Jones’s body has been gone for almost twenty-five years.  Yet his sound remains, and his smile — like the Cheshire Cat’s — has never been effaced.  

Copyright 1985 by Richard H. Merle.  All rights reserved.

BASIE’S BAD BOYS: ADVENTURES IN LISTENING

In jazz, the most rewarding art combines mature technique, deep feeling, and the willingness of players and singers to become carefree children, trying new things with no censorious adults looking on.

Consider a four-song Chicago recording session that took place one day before Valentine’s Day in 1939.  In total, the results are slightly less than twelve minutes.  But what a memorable brief expression!  The players, perhaps named years later, are “Basie’s Bad Boys,” a title both accurate and inspired.  Basie played not only piano but organ (according to Jo Jones, the organ was particularly ancient, recalcitrant).

He was joined by the rest of his irreplaceable late-Thirties rhythm section: Walter Page, bass; Freddie Green, guitar; Jo Jones, drums.  Jimmy Rushing sang the blues on one number and trombonist Dan Minor accompanied him on it; trumpeters Buck Clayton and Shad Collins stood side-by-side with Lester Young, playing clarinet as well as tenor on “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Goin’ to Chicago,” “Live and Love Tonight,” and “Love Me Or Leave Me.”

I have occasionally been severe about John Hammond-as-mythologizer in this blog, but this session was one of his finest ideas, a worthy addition to “Jones-Smith, Inc.” and the 1940 rehearsal session that paired Goodman and Basie, Young and Christian.  The November 1936 session that produced “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Lady Be Good” was Hammond’s revenge on Decca, the company that had signed Basie to a restrictive contract, the payoff being $750, a paltry sum even in 1936 dollars.  I believe that the Basie band was just about to escape from its Decca servitude in early 1939, so this session might have been another naughty gesture on Hammond’s part – making recordings for Vocalion while the band was still under contract to Decca, sides that then could be issued once the band was free.  These sides were recorded in Chicago, in what Hammond remembered as a really terrible studio, making them impossible to issue.  Ironically, the studio was called United – and that the Basie small band certainly was on this date.

I first heard this music on a precious vinyl record issued in Sweden on the Tax label, “The Alternative Lester,” which contained, among other things, previously unissued takes of “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Dickie’s Dream,” and “Lester Leaps In,” heady stuff in the late Seventies.

Tidied up, all four sides then appeared on a two-record Columbia anthology, “Super Chief,” which had a color drawing of Basie’s smiling visage superimposed on the front of a locomotive (Basie, like Ellington, loved trains and the music they made).  This anthology also offered brilliantly idiosyncratic notes by Michael Brooks, a writer who took chances: some of his swooping metaphorical leaps are audacious.  Brooks had also interviewed Jones and other Basieites, and their recollections are priceless.

The four sides are now available on the Lester Young Mosaic box set (MD4-239), and they sound spectacular.  I had not heard them for a few years, having been separated from my copy of “Super Chief,” but they burst through the speakers.

They represent an Edenic glimpse into what the Basie band truly was – a good-natured, intense traveling jam session made up of supremely telepathic players.  For me, the great period of that band was delineated by Lester Young’s arrival and departure.  I can still marvel at individual solos recorded from 1940 onwards by Clayton, Dicky Wells, Buddy Tate. Don Byas, Vic Dickenson, that gliding rhythm section, Rushing and Helen Humes.  But the demands or expectations of the marketplace made the band outgrow itself.  What was a small group at the Reno Club in Kansas City was compelled to become a Swing Era big band – nearly doubling in size and heft.  It gained power yet lost mobility.  Some of the early Deccas show the ghost of the Reno Club band: “Panassie Stomp” and “Out the Window” come to mind.  But as arrangers came in, capable ones, and popular tunes became part of the repertoire in hopes of a hit record, the Basie band sounds like someone who has gained fifty pounds overnight.  On the 1938 radio airshots from the Famous Door (the two versions of “Indiana”) – soloists have room to invent, to play. Behind a trumpet solo, Lester creates a background, which the reeds fall in with instantaneously.  The two dozen-plus men on the stand function as a small group, musically jostling and joking.  The best recordings of the period balance soloists, the rhythm section, and spare riff backgrounds.  But as the Basie band became identified with “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” those sliding trombones, trumpets fanning their metal derbies, saxes repeating patterns, became the norm.  What had been extemporaneous became more mechanical.  Arrangements might have been necessary as the band grew, to prevent small collisions, but no wonder Lester complained that rehearsals had become tiresome, that Vic Dickenson, legend has it, was fired for falling asleep on the stand.  The unthinkable had happened: the band had become dull.

But it had not happened yet at this session.  “I Ain’t Got Nobody” had been a favorite of both Basie and Hammond as a piano feature; on another clandestine 1938 session, Basie, Page, and Jones, strolled through that potentially lachrymose song, first as a meditative Fats Waller medium-tempo rhapsody, full of baroque excursions – a tribute to Basie’s friend and mentor.  Then, as if moving into Modern Times, away from His Master’s Voice, Basie played it in his own faster tempo, leaving spaces all along for Page and Jo to propel, to encourage.  This three-minute lesson in jazz piano history is available on the Vanguard “From Spirituals to Swing” set and the Phontastic “Lester – Amadeus” disc.

The 1939 “I Ain’t Got Nobody” from Chicago begins at the brisk tempo Basie had concluded with in 1938, yet with an unusual Basie-with-rhythm introduction: his first phrase a characteristic simple riff owing something to “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me.” I suspect that it was one of Basie’s beloved gestures, but it would have been a sly in-joke if he had been thinking of “Habit,” whose opening phrase states that the lover is addicted to the Love Object – while playing “Nobody,” whose lyrics drip lonely self-pity.  His second figure moves into an upwards chromatic run, something Basie would often use to end a number rather than begin it.  Even though Green’s guitar is deeply buried, felt rather than heard at best, the sound of the rhythm is so instantly infectious that a listener does not notice the oddity of Basie’s introduction at first.

Then he launches into the familiar melody, leaving only the most bare contours, stating the theme in widely spaced, ringing chords.  Basie casually alternates passages of embellished melody with his familiar catch-phrases: what makes this potentially threadbare style so winning is his rhythmic sense, as well as the nearly choral support the rhythm section gives, Page’s bass resounding like a reassuring heartbeat.  Even when the gesture Basie launches into (the phrase just before the bridge) is such a timeworn Waller phrase, his good humor and rhythmic delight maskits familiarity.  (Even when borrowing from Waller, Basie’s individuality is as strong as Louis’s or Bird’s: who, on hearing this, would mistake him for another pianist?)

During that bridge, I hear some talking, perhaps merely an affirmative grunt from Basie or one of the musicians?  Was Basie telling Lester that he was up next, or was Hammond directing traffic?  It’s clearly not a Fats-aside, meant to be heard, but a private nudge or reminder – teasingly audible but not decipherable, even given the clarity of the CD.  Readers with better hearing than mine — it has stumped fellow listeners! — are invited to send their conjectures for appropriate prizes.

But musicians did not give such verbal cues on record unless it was an informal session or if the take was to be scrapped.  This makes me wonder if this performance, the first one mastered that session, was originally a casual warm-up, a run-through to get a balance in this murky studio.  But I can imagine that the musicians and Hammond, at the end of this take, thought that this performance too good to discard.  Basie ends his chorus with a single repeated note, one of his trademarks (where else did Harry Edison get this ultimately irritating mannerism from?) that perhaps he used as a signal, “I’m finished.  Your turn now.”

Everything we might expect is transformed when Lester enters, not dancing in on a complex swooping tenor phrase, but announcing his presence on clarinet.  His announcement is a simple phrase followed by a rest, but it is arresting.  What strikes the listener is Lester’s particular tone.  Early in his career, he played a cheap metal clarinet – the kind of instrument students and band musicians, who marched outdoors, would have used instead of the more delicate wooden models.  And Lester’s particular sound is supposed to have been the result of this instrument.  Benny Goodman is supposed to have been so entranced with the way Lester played clarinet that he gave Lester a better one (one rebuttal to tales of Goodman’s stinginess).  This instrument was stolen some time during Lester’s stay with the band, but his colleagues say that he never played a metal clarinet on records.  But his tone, piping, narrow, almost shrill, forceful, is not like any other clarinetist’s, not Shaw, Bigard, Noone . . . .

A digression here.  While vacationing in Maine, the Beloved and I went twice to an open-air flea market, the most varied and intriguing one I ever saw.  There I saw not one but two metal clarinets for sale, and nearly succumbed to their lure.  Visible rust kept me from even inquiring the price.  If I could have been sure that a metal clarinet would enable me to approach Lester’s sound(s), I would have bought one happily.  But I remembered a conversation with a musician in his eighties, who said that everyone who plays an instrument inevitably sounds different, because of the shape of one’s skull and the cavities within it govern what happens when a player buzzes into a metal mouthpiece or makes the reed vibrate.  That anyone could sound like anyone else would be miraculous, and that someone like Paul Quinichette succeeded so well in copying aspects of Lester’s tone is remarkable rather than deplorable.

But back to Lester.  we hear that tone first, then his eloquent use of space, one tumbling phrase separated from the next by breathing-pauses.  Although his range is consciously limited (most clarinetists cannot resist the temptation to fill the air with ornamental notes that show off technique but destroy potential architecture) and his note choices restrained, he is bobbing and weaving over the background.  What we hear is greatly influenced by Basie’s spareness, translated into Lester’s vocabulary, sensibility, and instrument.

That background is both plain and propulsive: the muted trumpets of Clayton (left) and Collins (right)  doing four doo-wahs in succession behind him.  No doubt that phrase was a familiar one for jazz players well before Ellington popularized it in capital letters as part of the lyrics and music of the 1932 “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”  But one doesn’t notice its familiarity because it fits so well.  A listener senses only that something dynamic and irresistible has taken place, as the texture of the rhythm section (Basie’s treble line, Page’s steady tread, the whish of Jones’s hi-hat) has suddenly exploded into a much more richly textured sound, Lester’s thin, penetrating line undulating over the deeper, half-muffled choral punctuations of the horns.  Basie’s chorus was anything but monochromatic, but when the horns enter, color explodes in the listener’s consciousness.

And the dynamic contrast is not only strong but unexpected: often, recordings began with the piano or the rhythm section, then went to a chorus of a soloist over that rhythm, then (and only then) was the soloist joined by other horns in support.  Because of the time limitations of the 78 rpm record, everything seems telescoped: not overly fast, but moving at top speed with no time for elaborate transitions between one kind of display and the next.  As was common practice, the trumpets laid out during the bridge, their absence letting us hear the dry slap of Jo Jones’s wire brushes on his snare drum.  (In my mind’s eye, I see him, even late in life, boisterous, grinning, wrists and elbows in motion.) Lester remembered his childhood in New Orleans with affection, and here he offers his own version of the clarinet’s traditional place in the ensemble, dancing in arcs of notes over the brass.  The remainder of his solo, its balance between a bridge made up mostly of passages of repeated notes, the upward arpeggios that bookend that bridge (their highest note verging on the shrill) — could be committed to memory, genuinely his, simple yet inevitable.  And its tonal variations, so different from what a “better” clarinet player might have offered, and so much more rewarding. Another clarinet player might have worked up to a high note, a dazzling technical flurry to conclude his solo; Lester, making way for the next player, winds down into a sweet decrescendo, a musing figure, generously bowing out as if to prepare the way.

When he concludes, the transition is seamless and wondrous.  From clarinet-backed-by-trumpets, we have Buck backed by Lester and Shad, the two of them using another simple Swing Era convention that develops the earlier backing riff but doesn’t repeat it.  (This was the glory of the Basie “Kansas City” style that other orchestras tried to imitate but failed at, choosing instead to repeat the same riff for chorus after chorus.)  This figure seems an orchestral transcription of one of Basie’s favorite triplet figures.

In some ways, what one realizes in this performance is the strength and pervasive durability of Basie’s personality.  Although he was a modest, reticent man, his artistic identity was so strong that his soloists seem to share his most characteristic thoughts, shapes, and utterances, as he is drawing upon theirs.  This record is of course the triumph of individualists, having their instantly recognizable time to say their piece, but it is also the triumph of a completely integrated artistic community, where ideas have become generously-shared communal property.  And the two kinds of expression balance.  Soloists step forward, testify, and then take their place in the congregation so that the next person can speak.

Clayton’s solo is another triumph of what Louis called “tonation and phrasing,” Buck’s sound, his way of attacking his notes.  Like Lester, he announces himself – his choice being a punchy, staccato phrase reminiscent of the spare closing riffs of “Every Tub.”  Although the trumpet style of the late Thirties was often commanding, insisting, Clayton’s sound (his horn cup-muted as it often was) asks rather than demands, hitting some notes precisely, bending and slurring others.  But his originality is paramount.  Even when he fills his second phrase with one of the oldest motifs in jazz, a direct reference to Bolden’s “funky butt, funky butt, take it away,” the borrowing does not intrude.  The listener, again, doesn’t think, “Oh, that old thing?” because the notes tumble on, one of Clayton’s talents being in rhythmic placement, instinctively knowing how many notes would fit neatly in a scalar phrase.  His solo is not made of a series of ascents, but a progression of descending phrases, somewhere between Bill Robinson dancing down the stairs and a waiter with a full tray of dishes making his way, carefully but rapidly.  And Buck seems to improvise on his own ideas: the beginning of his bridge contains a clearly articulated descending figure, which he later turns into a half-comedic slide down an imagined slope.  At times, the solo uses repeated notes (not as Lester did) in a way that players like Muggsy Spanier would flatten into predictable pounding of simple ideas.  What makes Clayton’s work pleasing is his vocalized tone, his rhythmic subtleties.  And, as Basie had signaled the end of his solo by playing with one note, Clayton earnestly turns the same figure over and over as his thirty-two bars come to a close.

On a more predictable recording, with everyone given a turn, the next soloist would have been Collins, but that would have courted the monotony of one trumpet following another.  What comes next is a brilliant offering, something that didn’t happen often: Lester coming back for another solo, this time on tenor.  (It happens on the Kansas City Six recording of “Them There Eyes” and on the Glenn Hardman session, on “China Boy” and perhaps elsewhere.)  With feline grace, Lester doesn’t “leap in” immediately, but there is the pause of a short breath, the silence heightening our expectations: what will happen next?  And instead of a horn or horns backing him, there is only the rhythm section – but Basie has become his own orchestra, his simple bell-like rhythmic figures (new ones this time) urging Lester on.  Behind him, one must marvel at the supple, pulsing time that Jo, Walter, and Freddie grant – a rhythmic wave that could sustain a weaker soloist and push a strong one to creative heights.  Again, in Lester’s solo, one hears those arpeggios, up and down, his turning melodic lines into a blues.  This second solo seems to encapsulate all of his style.  It could be sung; it is full of unexpected pauses; it has its own wandering yet logical shape.  On tenor, he purrs, cajoles in a more mellow way.  I would love to hear his two solos on this recording played simultaneously, Lester as one-man band, playing counterpoint with himself.  I’d be nearly as happy to see the two solos notated in parallel, to see their shapes over the same chords.  Until then, I will simply play this record over and over.

Records made for issue on the expected 10″ 78 discs were planned to be somewhere between three and three-and-a-half minutes long.  Studios had clocks, but experienced musicians had to know how many choruses could fit at a particular tempo.  After Lester’s chorus, one way to conclude the record – with time for one chorus – would have been a collective improvisation, or a riff beneath another soloist leading to a final four bars of jamming.  (Think of the Holiday-Wilson “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and how it ends, for instance.)  This record’s final chorus is an egalitarian one, audibly something worked out in progress, which completes the circle that records were.  In the first instance, Clayton’s chorus came between Lester’s two solos, affording him time to put down his clarinet and clip his tenor on to his neck strap – something that big-band reed players were expected to do with ease, even in the middle of an arrangement, although photographs show them having stands for their instruments on the job.  However, after Lester’s tenor chorus is concluded, there is a brief space, not quite strictly delineated, where all one hears is Basie responding with punctuations to the initial two-trumpet riff, Jones’s accents moving the music along.  It takes Lester four bars, more or less, to get his clarinet into play, and then we hear him begin to dance over the background again.  The listener who is prepared for another clarinet-with-rhythm bridge is in for a surprise, as that bridge is given over to trumpeter Shad Collins, a new member of the band whose style came out of the same roots as Clayton’s – but one would never mistake one for the other.  Jo Jones said that Shad made each note pop out as if he were making spitballs, but there is more to his style than a simple percussive attack.  As Clayton’s tone is beseeching, fragile, Collins’s tone is nearly derisive, needling, a buzzing that is, in some way, insect-like.  Yes, there is a stylized bit of Armstrong declaration, but also the teasing sonic play of Rex Stewart.  His solo goes by so fast but deserves a rehearing.  And, in the last eight bars, everything coalesces precisely because the band seems willing to go on forever, happily unchecked – Lester singing his wry song over the trumpets, Basie commenting and urging everyone on, and the rhythm pulsing without strain or exhaustion.  Everyone pedals happily off into some imagined swing paradise.

Ezra Pound, always writing manifestoes, had a simple one: MAKE IT NEW.  This 2:55 of recorded time is a true embodiment of that principle.  Take ideas going back to Economy Hall and make them ardent, emotionally strong, by blending individuality and community.  Synthesize without ever seeming synthetic.  All this in a badly-designed recording studio in Chicago one day in February nearly seventy years ago.

The other three sides will reveal their beauties with repeated listening, but I will suggest only these.  The sound that Basie got from the organ on “Goin’ to Chicago,” his familiar piano gestures transfigured by that instrument, and the beautiful depth of Page’s bass.  The way Basie and Jo accompany Clayton’s lovely open blues chorus; the sound of Lester’s clarinet behind Jimmy Rushing’s voice, veering in 1939 between entreaty and delicacy; Dan Minor’s plainer version of Dicky Wells’s familiar phrases behind Jimmy, and Shad’s commentary, which gives way to another rocking episode of Lester, on clarinet, riffing over the two trumpets in what was the simplest of blues riffs.  (Where was Dicky?  Had he misbehaved, or was Minor finally being given a chance to have a solo – a mere twelve bars of traditional blues accompaniment?  Hammond must have approved of Minor’s playing, because Minor stands alongside Bechet, Ladnier, James P. Johnson, Page, and Jo – some band! – on the 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert.)  On “Live and Love Tonight,” a 1934 movie song – recorded by the Ellington band and who else in a jazz context, and whose choice was it? – Basie’s organ introduction is melodramatic, suggesting the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Bijou, his volume nearly overwhelming the microphone, before it settles down into a marvelous Clayton melodic statement.  Listeners who don’t quite understand the reverence musicians had for Basie might listen closely to his accompaniment – on a bulky and balky instrument – behind Clayton.  It is a graduate seminar on how to guide, cheer, and raise a soloist and the band.  And Basie’s solo chorus that follows is anything but a solo – in fact, the soloists who should get our attention are Page and Jones.  February in Chicago might have been brutal, for someone coughs quietly during that bridge, too.  And the Waller-Basie trill that he can’t help inserting near the end of the chorus is hilarious: given the bulk of the organ’s sound, it is like Oliver Hardy on point, executing a pirouette.  Lester’s chorus is emotionally and rhythmically moving, apparently a series of easy ascents and descents through the chorus – but his tone is earnest and unfulfilled, as if whatever request he was making was, he knew, not going to be granted.  The ending is more pious than one might have expected, but I suspect it was a combination of time running out and no one having anything to say after Lester’s exposition.  Jo Jones said of “Love Me Or Leave Me,” happily, that he could be heard now, which is true, and we hear him closing his hi-hat cymbals decisively rather than keeping them part open, but the sound is crisp, especially considering the murk which dominated the previous three sides.  This version of Donaldson’s edgy lament predates “Dickie’s Dream,” but it suggests that these chord changes were meat and drink to this Basie band much as “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” also by Donaldson, pared down to “Moten Swing,” was for the 1932 band on into 1937 or so, as broadcast openings and closings show.  This, one feels, is what the band must have sounded like when everyone was fully warmed up: hear how Clayton manages to turn a phrase over and over in the middle of his solo, how Lester dances in to his, followed by a full Collins chorus, and then an abbreviated chorus, the sound of a band running out of time.  This recording – a simple series of solos over rhythm with a get-it-all-in final sixteen bars – is a banquet, even though it leaves us wanting more.

Artists at play, blessedly and brilliantly.

POSTSCRIPT: Both Dan Block and Doug Pomeroy, whose opinions I trust, feel that Lester was probably playing a metal clarinet on the 1938 Kansas City Six recordings.