Tag Archives: Gene Bertoncini

“TAL FARLOW: A LIFE IN JAZZ GUITAR / AN ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY,” JEAN-LUC KATCHOURA and MICHELE HYK-FARLOW

Tal Farlow, photograph by Francis Wolff, 1953

Once again, I am in the odd position of writing a review of a book I have not finished.  I am a very quick reader of fiction, but books full of new information are imposing.  The good news is that I feel compelled to write about this book now because it is expansive and delightful: a gorgeous large-format 340-plus page book about Tal Farlow, in English and French, illustrated with many rare photographs and at the end, “Gifts from Tal,” a CD of rare music.  Unlike many substantial research volumes, it is splendidly designed and visually appealing, with so many color photographs, magazine covers, and priceless ephemera that one could spend several days, entranced, without ever looking at the text.

Here is the link to purchase this delightful volume.

Recently, I finally decided to take the more timid way into the book, and started by playing the CD — rare performances with Red Mitchell, Jimmy Raney, Gene Bertoncini, and Jack Wilkins, some recorded at Tal’s home in Sea Bright.  Interspersed with those performances, quietly amazing in their fleet ease, are excerpts from interviews with Tal done by Phil Schaap, edited so that we hear only Tal, talking about Bird, about technique, about his childhood.  I think the CD itself would be worth the price of the book, which is not to ignore the book at all.  (It is playing as I write this blogpost.)

And a digression that might not be digressive: here is the author speaking (in French) about his book and about working with Tal and Tal’s wife to create it:

and a small musical sample (Neal Hefti’s classic, here titled very formally) for those who might be unfamiliar with Tal’s particular magic: he was entirely self-taught and could not read music:

The book brims with first-hand anecdotes about Tal in the company of (or being influenced by) Charlie Christian, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Billy Kretchmer, Dardanelle, Red Norvo (whose extended recollections are a  highlight), Charles Mingus, Mary Osborne, Eddie Costa, Norman Granz, Oscar Pettiford, and Tal’s brothers of the guitar, including Herb Ellis, Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel.

It’s a dangerously seductive book: I began revisiting it for this blog and two hours went by, as I visited text and photographs from Tal’s childhood to his death.  For guitar fanciers, there are pages devoted to his Gibsons as well.

This book deserves a more comprehensive review, but I know JAZZ LIVES readers will happily write their own.  And I have my entrancing jazz reading for the winter to come.

May your happiness increase!

THE WORLDS OF JIMMY MAZZY (SARAH’S WINE BAR, August 28, 2016)

I had heard a great deal about the lyric troubadour Jimmy Mazzy (also a wonderful banjo player, raconteur, songhound, and more) but had never encountered him in person until late August.  It was a phenomenal experience. No, it was two phenomenal experiences.

Photograph thanks to New England Traditional Jazz Plus, http://www.nejazz.com

Photograph thanks to New England Traditional Jazz Plus, http://www.nejazz.com

Jimmy was part of the Sarah Spencer Quartet: Sarah, tenor saxophone and vocals; Bill Sinclair, piano; Art Hovey, string bass and tuba — playing a gig at the wonderful Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield, Connecticut.  (Facebook calls Sarah’s a “pizza place,” which is like calling the Mona Lisa a smiling lady.)  More about Sarah’s below.

And more about the saxophone-playing / singing Sarah Spencer  in a future blogpost, with appropriate audio-visuals.

Sometimes the finest music is created when it appears no one is paying attention: the live recordings, the music that’s captured while the engineers are setting up or in between takes (WAITIN’ FOR BENNY and LOTUS BLOSSOM are two sterling examples that come to mind).  In a few instances, I’ve brought my camera to the soundcheck or to the rehearsal because the “We’re just running this through” ambiance is a loose friendly one — shirtsleeves and microphone-adjusting rather than the musicians’ awareness of tables of expectant listeners. In that spirit, I offer Jimmy’s seriously passionate version of Lonnie Johnson’s TOMORROW NIGHT.

I think you see and feel what I mean about Jimmy as a passionate singer / actor / troubadour.  If a maiden had Jimmy beneath her balcony, serenading like this, she would know that he was offering his whole heart to her with no restraint and no artifice yet great subtle powerful art.  Those of us in the audience who aren’t maidens and perhaps lack a balcony can hear it too.

But Jimmy is a sly jester as well — totally in control of his audience (even though there’s a long, drawn-out “Ooooooh, no!” from Carrie Mazzy, Jimmy’s wife, at the start of this anthropological exegesis):

Jimmy Mazzy, two of a kind.  And more.  Irreplaceable.

And there will be more from this session.  Now, some words about the delightful locale: Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield, Connecticut, features world-class jazz music on the last Sunday of every month.  But that’s not the whole story: Ken and Marcia Needleman are deeply devoted to the art form, and they’ve been presenting it in style since 2009.  Ken is a guitar student of Howard Alden’s, and he decided that he wanted to bring top jazz musicians to perform in an intimate setting (with excellent food and fine acoustics).  They found kindred spirits in Sarah and Bernard Bouissou, restaurateur and chef of Bernard’s, one floor below the wine bar.

Thus the Jazz Masters Series began in February 2009, and I’ll mention only a double handful of the musicians who have played and sung to enthusiastic audiences: Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli, Gene Bertoncini, Dick Hyman, Rossano Sportiello, Mark Shane, Frank Wess, Scott Robinson, Harry Allen, Warren Vache, Ken Peplowski, Dan Levinson, Jon-Erik Kellso, Rufus Reid, Jay Leonhart, Cameron Brown, Matt Wilson, Akira Tana, Joe LaBarbera, Mike Mainieri, Cyrille Aimee, Karrin Allyson.

The food critic who writes JAZZ LIVES wants to point out that the food was wonderful and the presentation delightful.  Sarah’s Wine Bar would be a destination spot if the only music was the humming heard in the kitchen.

But right now I want to hear Jimmy sing TOMORROW NIGHT again.

May your happiness increase!

AMONG FRIENDS: MUSIC and WORDS for JOE WILDER (Sept. 8, 2014)

Joe Among Friends

Last night I spent a very touching and uplifting three hours in the company of people — many of whom I didn’t know and vice versa — united in one thing: we all loved the magnificent trumpeter and dear man Joe Wilder.

I don’t know the source of the saying, “The only thing wrong with funerals is that the one person you want to see is not present,” and that was certainly true in the filled-to-capacity St. Peter’s Church, but you could feel Joe’s gracious, easy spirit in every word and every note played.  The service was organized by Joe’s daughter Elin, Joe’s great friend and biographer Ed Berger, and the music was directed by Warren Vache.  Praise to all of them.

I couldn’t bring my video camera, so my notes will have to suffice.

I came to St. Peter’s early (I have been trained to this behavior by anxious parents, but often it pays off) and could see Russell Malone playing ballads for his own pleasure, including a soulful, precise DEEP IN A DREAM, then greeting Gene Bertoncini, who took up his own guitar.

Then the music changed to purest Wilder — MAD ABOUT THE BOY, CHEROKEE, and more.

It was clear that this was a roomful of dear friends.  Much hugging, much laughter, everyone being made welcome.  Although many people wore black or dark clothing, the mood was anything but maudlin.

Warren Vache quietly and sweetly introduced the first band: Harry Allen, Bill Allred, John Allred, Bill Crow, Steve Johns, Michael Weiss — and they launched into IT’S YOU OR NO ONE and then a medium-tempo CHEROKEE, full of energy and smiles passed around from player to player and to us.

We then saw a series of clips of an interview done with Joe (the source I copied down was http://www.robertwagnerfilms.com) — where he spoke of his experiences, both hilarious (sitting next to Dizzy in Les Hite’s band) and more meaningful (his perceptions of race).  What struck me was the simple conviction with which he said — and clearly believed — “I couldn’t have had a better life.”

Joe’s trumpet colleague from the Symphony of the New World, Wilmer Wise, told a few tales of the man he called “my big brother.”

Jimmy Owens stood in front of us and spoke lovingly of Joe, then took his fluegelhorn and played a very touching THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU (has Harry Warren’s song ever sounded so true?) ending with subterranean low notes, and an excerpt from NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I’VE SEEN.

Hank Nowak, another trumpet colleague (who met Joe at the Manhattan School of Music in the Fifties) spoke endearingly and then played a beautiful selection from Bach’s second cello suite — as if he were sending messages of love to us, with exquisite tone and phrasing.

Ed Berger told stories of Joe — whom he knew as well as anyone — and ended with some of Joe’s beloved and dangerously elaborate puns.

More music, all sharply etched and full of feeling: Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub duetted all-too briefly on TANGERINE; Dick Hyman and Loren Schoenberg played STARDUST, and were then joined by Steve LaSpina and Kenny Washington for PERDIDO.

Jim Czak told his own story, then read a letter from Artie Baker (swooping down gracefully at the end to give the letter to Joe’s daughter Elin);.

Jimmy Heath (who spoke of Joe as “Joe Milder”), Barry Harris, Rufus Reid, Gene Bertoncini, and Leroy Williams took wonderful lyrical paths through I REMEMBER YOU and BODY AND SOUL.

Jim Merod, who knew Joe for decades, was eloquent and dramatic in his — let us be candid and call it a lovely sermon — about his dear friend.

Wynton Marsalis spoke softly but with feeling about Joe, and then played a solo trumpet feature on JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE that (no cliche here) had the church in a joyous rhythmic uproar.

Russell Malone and Houston Person played ANNIE LAURIE with great sensitivity, just honoring the melody, and Russell created a delicate IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING; Rufus Reid and Kenny Washington joined them for IN A MELLOTONE. Ken Kimery of the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra spoke of Joe’s mastery and generosities. Warren Vache brought his horn in a wonderful duet with Bill Charlap on what he called “Joe’s song,” COME ON HOME, and then with Steve LaSpina and Leroy Williams, offered a quick MY ROMANCE.

Bill Kirchner took the stage with Bill Charlap to present a searching SHE WAS TOO GOOD TO ME.

It was nearing nine-thirty, and I knew my demanding clock radio (it shakes me awake at five-forty-five most mornings) had to be obeyed, so I stood up to go, as Warren was encouraging any musician in the house who hadn’t yet played to “jam for Joe” on SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET.  Among the musicians he announced were Bria Skonberg and Claudio Roditi, and cheerful music enwrapped me as I walked out into the night air.

I am sorry I couldn’t have stayed until everyone went home, but I felt Joe’s presence all around me — in Warren’s words, a man so large that each of us could take a little of Joe with us always.

A pause for music. Something cheerful and playful — from 2010:

Now a pause for thought, whether or not you were able to attend the memorial service.

How can we honor Joe Wilder now that his earthly form is no longer with us?

We could purchase and read and be inspired by Ed Berger’s wonderful book about Joe, which I’ve chronicled here — SOFTLY, WITH FEELING: JOE WILDER AND THE BREAKING OF BARRIERS IN AMERICAN MUSIC (Temple University Press).

We could buy one of Joe’s lovely Evening Star CDs and fill our ears and houses with his uplifting music.

Or, we could act in Wilderian fashion — as a kind of subtle, unassuming spiritual practice.

Here are a few suggestions, drawn from my own observations of Joe in action.

Give more than you get.  Make strangers into friends. Never pretend to majesties that aren’t yours.  Fill the world with beauty — whether it’s your own personal sound or a (properly room-temperature) cheesecake.  Act lovingly in all things.  Never be too rushed to speak to people.  Make sure you’ve made people laugh whenever you can. Express gratitude in abundance.

You should create your own list.

But “Be like Joe Wilder in your own way” isn’t a bad place to start.

 May your happiness increase!

“DON’T LET A GOOD THING GET AWAY”: MAUD HIXSON COMES TO NEW YORK (September 4, 2103)

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I know that the delightful singer Maud Hixson is not a thing, but I trust that my Corrections Officers might still be on holiday.  The title makes sense, though, because it is one of the charming songs Maud has recorded on her new CD — the title performance — a collection of songs by Michael Leonard. Here is what I wrote about that disc when it first appeared.

Maud is coming to New York City to sing those songs, and I am looking forward to a series of great pleasures.  “One night only!” as the ads used to say.  And you can tell she has great taste — not only in the songs she’s chosen, but the musicians who will be accompanying her: Warren Vache, Tex Arnold, Gene Bertoncini, and Steve LaSpina.  Come join me!

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Don’t let Maud Hixson get away . . . at least not before you’ve heard her in person.

May your happiness increase!

MAUD HIXSON, SINGER

I don’t mean my very simple title to be taken lightly.  Many people sing.  Very few of them are singers.

Maud Hixson is one of that small group.

I’m not alone in thinking so: ask Warren Vache, Joe Lang, Will Friedwald, Sandy Stewart, Amanda McBroom . . . .

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Maud is based in Minneapolis, and so she and I had only crossed paths when I was asked to review her 2007 CD, LOVE’S REFRAIN, for CADENCE.  I was won over before the end of her first chorus.

She is sincere without ostentatiously Being Sincere; her cool voice and precise diction were only the outer coverings for a great warmth, deep feelings contained below.  She is sure without being forced, quiet without being timid.  And when she approaches a lyric, we quickly know that she knows what the words mean; she isn’t using words as steps to get from one note to the next.  A Hixson song is a small, apparently casual, fully realized offering.

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When I found out that she had a new CD, I was eager to hear it — and it is a delight: learn more here.  DON’T LET A GOOD THING GET AWAY is devoted to the subtle, often surprising songs of Michael “Mickey” Leonard.  Leonard might not be well-known, but we know his I’M ALL SMILES and WHY DID I CHOOSE YOU.  And he’s also collaborated with Carolyn Leigh and Marshall Baer.

Maud has wisely surrounded herself with the finest jazz players: Warren Vaché, cornet; Tex Arnold, piano; Steve LaSpina; Gene Bertoncini, guitar, giving the disc a modern-Basie feel.  Here’s the title track as prelude to Maud’s conversation with Twin Cities interviewer Mike Pengra.

If you don’t know Maud Hixson, you’re in for a delightful surprise.  Hear her float beautifully — offering music and lyrics with subtle mastery — with that wonderful small band.  If Mickey Leonard is new to you, there is another delight in store.  “Don’t let a good thing get away” is doubly apt in this case.

May your happiness increase!

JANE HARVEY SINGS!

Like many other listeners, I knew Jane Harvey as a wonderful singer with a singular voice (its charm immediately apparent) beginning with her 1945 recordings with Benny Goodman, later ones with Zoot Sims and Dick Wellstood, among others.  Although Jane first recorded as a very young woman in the Swing Era, she is active and vibrant — appearing at Feinstein’s in New York City less than a year ago and continuing to perform.  Here she is, appearing in 1988 with Jane Pauley on the Today Show — singing a medley of Stephen Sondheim classics with delicacy and emotional power:

and on a V-Disc with BG, showing off her beautiful voice and innate swing:

Jane’s recordings have never been that easy to find, so it was a delightful surprise to learn of five new compact discs devoted to her — including much music that no one had heard before.  This bonanza isn’t a box set — not one of those unwieldy and often costly artifacts that we crave and then don’t always listen to.  And it has the even nicer fact of not being posthumous!  The CDs can be purchased individually (at surprisingly low prices at Amazon).

Here’s the first. Originally issued in 1988 by Atlantic, this disc originally featured Jane in an intimate setting with Mike Renzi, Jay Leonhart, and Grady Tate.  In an attempt to reach a wider audience, Atlantic added a large string orchestra, overdubbed.  The CD issue presents the music as originally recorded, with a new version of SEND IN THE CLOWNS.

This CD finds Jane in front of Ray Ellis’ large string orchestra (which works) for a collection ranging from the familiar (MY SHIP) to old favorites refreshed (THE GLORY OF LOVE) to the little-known title tune, with music by Moose Charlap, Bill’s father:

LADY JAZZ presents Jane amidst jazz players, including Doc Cheatham, Bucky Pizzarelli, John Bunch, Gene Bertoncini, Richard Davis, Bill Goodwin, Don Elliott (a session originally supervised by Albert McCarthy for English RCA), as well as six performances from Jane’s time with Goodman, two songs with Zoot Sims, Kenny Davern, and Dick Wellstood, and a duet of SOME OTHER TIME and THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME with Mike Renzi:

TRAVELIN’ LIGHT has been even more obscure, not for any musical reasons — an album originally recorded for Dot in 1960 which pairs Jane with the Jack Kane Orchestra.  Eight bonus tracks show Jane off in front of orchestras conducted by Billy Strayhorn and others or the Page Cavanaugh trio:

THE UNDISCOVERED JANE HARVEY might have been the title for any of the preceding discs, but it truly fits the final one.  When a disc begins with two performances where Jane is backed by the Duke Ellington orchestra — Strayhorn on piano and Ellington talking in the control booth — listeners are in a magical place.  Other performances on this disc have Jane paired with Les Paul, Ellis Larkins (an eight-minute Arlen-Koehler medley), and larger studio orchestras:  

The five CDs have been lovingly produced — with Jane’s help — by her friend, publicist, and booking manager Alan Eichler.  They feature enthusiastic liner notes by Will Friedwald, Nat Shapiro, Albert McCarthy, Nat Hentoff, and James Gavin.

The time is always right for Jane Harvey.  Her energy, jazz feeling, and empathy are undimmed.  Her voice is a pleasure to listen to; she honors the melodies, and she deeply understands the lyrics: no pretense, no overacting.  The Amazon link to the CDs can be found here

And for any other matters pertaining to Miss Harvey, please contact Alan Eichler at aeichler@earthlink.com.

If you remember Jane only as the lovely voice on the 1945 Goodman red-label Columbia version of HE’S FUNNY THAT WAY . . . or if you’ve seen her in more recent times, you’ll find these new issues full of pleasures.

FOR AL and ZOOT — by HARRY and DAN (at CHAUTAUQUA 2010)

I saw Al Cohn and Zoot Sims play only twice.  Once was at Town Hall in 1969, where they were part of a stellar bill arranged by the late Dick Gibson.  The other occasion was at the last “Eddie Condon’s” on a Sunday night in 1976, and was of course tremendously impressed by their neat and joyous intertwinings, but I was most impressed when they slowed down enough to play Gary McFarland’s BLUE HODGE.  (And, yes, somewhere I still have my cassette tape of that hour-plus of music at Condon’s!)

When modern tenor players honor the late Messrs. Sims and Cohn, they often opt for the romps — THE RED DOOR, MOTORING ALONG, and others.  Harry Allen and Dan Block, appearing at Chautauqua this last September 19, did play YOU ‘N’ ME (the Cohn-Sims line on TEA FOR TWO) but they also luxuriated in two ballads — which were a high point.  Dan led off with TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS (created by the sometimes-untender Harry Woods) and Harry followed with CRY ME A RIVER:

And then they tumbled over each other like kittens in YOU ‘ N’ ME:

Sterling platying, as well, by Mike Greensill, piano; Gene Bertoncini, guitar; Frank Tate, bass; Pete Siers, drums.

THREE REEDS, FOUR RHYTHM = DELIGHT (Sept 18, 2010)

My title is particularly true when you have Dan Block, Harry Allen, and Scott Robinson as the three reed wizards, floating over and around the playing of Rossano Sportiello, piano; Gene Bertoncini, guitar; Jon Burr, bass; Pete Siers, drums.  All of this took place in front of “my own two looking eyes” at Jazz at Chautauqua this past September. 

I’ve seen same-instrument extravaganzas slide into machismo, but it didn’t happen with these improvisers, who know how to play softly, with feeling, with intensity.  Dan Block certainly knows how to program a set — some Fifties Basie (composed by Freddie Green, I believe), a less-played Irving Berlin composition from CALL ME MADAM, and a sweet Ellington classic.   

CORNER POCKET (or UNTIL I MET YOU) started things off in a properly rocking groove: Rossano easily gets that Basie glide without copying the most tired trademarks of the Count’s style.  Pete Siers and Jon Burr rock without raising the volume, and even when you don’t quite hear what Gene Bertoncini is doing, the musicians do — he’s in there, as they used to say:

And the sweetly swaying conclusion (I was so delighted by what Gene had played and by the smiles on the musicians’ faces that I missed the start of Rossano’s solo):

THE BEST THING FOR ME (WOULD BE YOU) is often mis-announced as THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE, but we know that the first title is sometimes truer than the second.  I first heard the song on a wonderful Vanguard session led by Mel Powell, with Ruby Braff, Skeeter Best, Oscar Pettiford, and Bobby Donaldson, all masters.  Here the first chorus is For Saxes Only, then with the rhythm section joining in, Scott, Harry, Dan, Rossano, and Gene — each one his own brilliant shooting star:

And the best thing for us is more (beginning with an energetic conversation among the horns and ending at such a high level of collective improvisation, those lines weaving and swirling masterfully):

I associate IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD with Vic Dickenson and the sound of the early-Thirties Ellington band (Otto Hardwick singing out the lead): here, the eloquent melody statement and embellishment is handled nobly by Jon Burr, before the horns have a quietly rueful conversation backed by the whispering rhythm section:

More than enough inspiration for anyone!

JAZZ CASUAL: BOB BARNARD at CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 17, 2010)

No muss, no fuss.

For a too-brief period at the close of September 17, 2010, the great trumpeter Bob Barnard and poet-friends John Sheridan (piano), Jon Burr (bass), Gene Bertoncini (guitar), and Arnie Kinsella (drums) took the stage at Jazz at Chautauqua.

And they could have convinced anyone that making beautiful music is the easiest thing in the world.  Bob tossed off sky-climbing melodic phrases as if playing the trumpet was something you could do in your spare time; John laid down just the right chords and spun out dancing lines; Gene created chiming melodies and ringing single notes; Jon gave everyone a solid foundation for their own ballets and then spun and pirouetted by himself; Arnie made sounds that propelled everyone (musicians and listeners alike) closer to jazz bliss. 

Easy, right?  Try it sometime (in a safe place at home).

Bob began by calling RAIN — which is what it was conveniently doing outdoors — to honor not only the weather but this pretty tune that Bobby Hackett used to play:

And here’s IT’S BEEN SO LONG, a Walter Donaldson song from 1936 that has a long line of heroic brassmen in its history: Bunny Berigan, Bobby Hackett, Buck Clayton, Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson . . . but Bob and friends had their own stories to tell us:

DON’T MISS JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA 2010!

There are still seats available for the September 2010 Jazz at Chautuaqua.

That means plenty of hot music, rhythm ballads, lesser-known but beautiful songs from Tin  Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood . . . all performed by a celebrated cast of musicians and singers.   The party begins on Thursday, September 16, 2010, at the Hotel Athenaeum on Lake Chautauqua, New York. 

The heroes and heroines on the bill are Bob Barnard, Randy Reinhart, Joe Wilder, Andy Schumm, Randy Sandke, Dan Barrett, Bob Havens, Bobby Gordon, Harry Allen, Chuck Wilson, Scott Robinson, Bob Reitmeier, Dan Block, Marty Grosz, Gene Bertoncini, Ehud Asherie, John Sheridan, Keith Ingham, Rossano Sportiello, Mike Greensill, Vince Giordano, Jon Burr, Frank Tate, Andy Stein, Pete Siers, Arnie Kinsella, John Von Ohlen, The Faux Frenchmen, Rebecca Kilgore, and Wesla Whitfield.

As always, the music will begin with a series of informal jam sessions on Thursday night, and continue from Friday afternoon to Sunday around 2 PM.  In the past five years, some of my most exultant musical experiences have taken place there, and I am looking forward to more of the same — plus tables of rare sheet music and CDs, books and photographs (the latter department presided over by the venerable Duncan Schiedt) — good food, an open bar, friendly conversation and a chance to meet old friends who love Hot jazz.

I picked this rendition of IF DREAMS COME TRUE from last year’s party in case anyone is still wondering whether the jazz is worth the trip.  Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, Ehud Asherie, Andy Brown, and Arnie Kinsella show that Jazz at Chautauqua is indeed a place where dreams do come true.

For more information on pricing, weekend lodging, and ticket order procedures, contact the Athenaeum Hotel at 1-800-821-1881 or athenaeum1881@hotmail.com.

SANTA’S ALCHEMICAL SECRET

As is her habit, the Beloved is listening to Jonathan Schwartz’s Christmas show on WNYC-FM, where his guests include Mandy Patinkin, Charles Osgood, Jay Leonhart, Steve LaSpina, Harry Allen, John Pizzarelli, Tony Monte, and Gene Bertoncini.  When the chatter comes to a graceful halt, Jonathan offers high-quality seasonal music, including tenor saxophonist Harry’s romp through “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” 

The Beloved, quite properly, was delighted with Harry’s performance.  But she asked me, “Do jazz musicians really enjoy playing such silly songs?” 

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is well-established in the American cultural landscape, ubiquitous, even.  I used to roll my eyes whenever it was played.  However, when I found out that it had been composed by J. Fred Coots, composer of “You Go To My Head” and “For All We Know,” I was able to feel more kindly towards the song.  Somehow it appealed to me that Coots should have made a fortune on this musical shred — enabling him to live comfortably and write far better songs.   

I answered the Beloved’s question by invoking the Sage of Corsicana, Texas, Hot Lips Page, who, when asked a similar question, reputedly said, “The material is immaterial.”  And Django Reinhardt, who surely knew something about improvisation, asked for the simplest theme from “Tiger Rag” as material to improvise on at a jam session. 

Like alchemists, jazz musicians inhabit a miraculous universe, turning junk into gold, often enjoying the vapidity of a piece of music because its three-chord structure allows them to improvise freely while the F, G7, and C are endlessly returning.  Think of the twelve-bar blues as the perfect example.  The freedom to create as one wishes — what a blessing!

But back to seasonal matters.  Between now and Christmas, I am always tempted to equip myself with a pair of earplugs when I go out in public.  I would be thrilled to hear Bing’s “White Christmas” once a day, but “The Little Drummer Boy” performed with funk underpinnings raises my blood pressure alarmingly.  So I propose two aesthetic alternatives for the season.

mark-shane-santaOne is the best, most jubilant jazz Christmas CD I have ever heard: Mark Shane (and his X-mas All-Stars, including Jon-Erik Kellso) on the Nagel-Heyer label, WHAT WOULD SANTA SAY?  It’s a CD I enjoy all through the year.    

The other piece of music is accessible online, as I found to my delight.  It’s a 1944 record made for the Savoy label, featuring the delightfully accomplished pianist Johnny Guarneri and the irreplaceable bassist Slam Stewart.  A truly irrepressible pair! 

The song — apparently improvised impromptu in the studio — is called SANTA’S SECRET, a jolly evocation of Fats Waller, who had died less than a year before.  It answers the pressing question, “What makes Santa so jolly?”  Whether Johnny and Slam were Tall when they recorded this I leave to scholars more erudite than myself. 

If you visit http://www.musicalfruitcake.com (which bills itself as offering the worst Christmas songs ever recorded — a position I don’t hold) and search for “Guarneri,” all should be revealed.  The link is genuinely troublesome, but it is alive and worth pursuing.      

In this holiday season and beyond, I hope that you are as happy as Johnny and Slam seem to be on that record.  And that you get to display your very own alchemical wizardries, even if you don’t play an instrument.