The bare facts: Charles Henry Christian, electric guitar (July 29, 1916 – March 2, 1942).
I’m not sure that much could be sadder than that. But Charlie had one piece of good fortune in his brief life. However you write the story of his “discovery,” he was well-known, heard by many, and captured by various microphones for our listening and that of future generations. From August 1939 to June 1941, he appeared in the recording studio, the concert hall, radio studios, and after-hours jazz clubs. Tom Lord’s standard online jazz discography lists 94 sessions on which he appears, and his recorded oeuvre can (loosely) be contained on ten compact discs.
Between 1992 and 1994, the French CD label “Masters of Jazz” attempted to present his recorded work complete on eight discs. Nearly a decade later, they issued a ninth volume which presented music that had eluded them, plus three performances that had never appeared on record . . . which it’s my pleasure to present here. The preponderance of Charlie’s recorded work was with Benny Goodman, who was generous in featuring his brilliant young sideman. (Not only that, but had Christian been working with a less-famous organization, how much of his work would have been lost to us?) Two of the three performances, alas, incomplete, are with Benny’s Sextet. But Charlie had another life, one blessedly captured by Columbia University student-archivist Jerry Newman . . . so we can follow him to Minton’s Uptown House.
The blissful music.
POOR BUTTERFLY, April 27, 1940 (Christian, Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Guarnieri, Artie Bernstein, Nick Fatool):
STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, May 8,1941 (Christian, Lips Page, Joe Guy, Don Byas, Kermit Scott, “Tex,” Nick Fenton, Kenny Clarke):
STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, June 1941: the last recording we have of Charlie, “Monte Prosser Dance Carnival,” Madison Square Garden, New York City (Christian, Goodman, Cootie Williams, George Auld, Guarnieri, Walter Iooss, Fatool):
Charlie, we miss you. Thank you for the jewels you left us: they still shine so brightly.
And if you are, like me, fascinated by Benny Goodman, you’ll want to read this. Enthralling.
I’m aware that there are far larger things to get annoyed about, and I am sure that my ire is both pointless and the result of forty years in college classrooms, where accuracy was not always evident in my students’ work. But I attempt to be accurate when it is possible. When someone offers a factual correction to something I’ve written, I might hiss through my teeth, but I change my text. So the biographical sketch of Charlie Christian that follows is irritating in many ways.
Charlie Christian December 1, 2006 Edward Southerland
It is not too far a stretch to say that everybody who plays the electric guitar owes something to Charlie Christian.
He was born in Bonham in 1916, but when his father, a waiter, suddenly became blind in 1918, the family moved to Oklahoma City. Christian began his musical career on the cornet, but soon gave it up for his father’s favorite instrument, the guitar.
The guitar took the young man to Los Angeles where he met one of the country’s most influential jazz critics and writers, John Hamilton. Bowled over by Christian’s uncompromising talent, Hamilton took the young man to the Victor Hugo restaurant in L.A. to meet Benny Goodman on August 16, 1939. Without telling the band leader, Hamilton set Christian on the bandstand. Goodman had the band play “Roseland,” a number he thought the guitar man would not be able to follow, but follow he did. After one pass, Christian took a solo, and then another and after 18 breaks, each different from the others, he had a job with the King of Swing.
Despite his success, Christian’s legacy to jazz faded after he died of TB and pneumonia in 1942 at the age of 25. When he died, Christian was brought home to Bonham to be buried. A few years ago, a Japanese jazz lover traveled half way around the world to find the grave of this all but forgotten musician, and Charlie Christian was forgotten no more. There is an exhibit about Christian in the Fannin County Historical Museum, each year Oklahoma City hosts a jazz festival in his honor, and once again, the young man with guitar is celebrated by music lovers everywhere.
Over the years, the Red River Valley has contributed more than most know to the music of the land, particularly in jazz, early rock ‘n’ roll and Western swing. Everyone knows Reba McIntire, the Oklahoma girl with the big voice, and Sherman remembers native son Buck Owens with his own section of U.S. Highway 82. Decades before these stars became icons others blazed trails of their own. Texoma has had its fair share of contributors to the world of music. These are just a few.
This article appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Texoma Living!.
Reading it, I wondered if the author had asked a friend for some facts and had heard them incorrectly through a bad phone connection. I amuse myself by writing here that “John Hamilton” played trumpet with Fats Waller, and that “Roseland” was a dance hall of note in New York City.
If I could draw, I would create a cartoon of Charlie’s magical transportation: “The guitar took the young man to Los Angeles . . . ” I do not know what to say about this assertion: “Despite his success, Christian’s legacy to jazz faded after he died of TB and pneumonia in 1942 at the age of 25.”
At least this writer didn’t “get the impression” that Charlie was a heroin addict, and he doesn’t say that he was discovered at a late-night jam session . . . both examples taken from the recent prose of a Jazz Authority, nameless here.
You might ask, “Don’t you have anything better to do, Michael, than take pot shots at someone writing in a ‘regional’ magazine about a subject they can’t be expected to be an expert on? I would tell you, “Yes, I have much better things to do: you should see my kitchen counter. I have laundry that’s piling up, and I should be walking more, blogging less.”
But we know that the internet grants permanence to assertions, and assertions become granite: so a small inaccuracy, repeated and blurred through repetition, becomes a major falsehood — and in that way, it feels like an insult to the dead, who can no longer stand up (not that mild-mannered Charlie would have) and say, “Quit making up that crap about me. It isn’t true!”
In a world where so much source material is available for people who no longer need to leave their chairs, I’d hope that more care would be taken by writers who want to be taken seriously. Had Mr. Southerland been a student in a freshman writing class of mine, had he handed this essay in, I would have written “no” and perhaps even “No!” in the margins and returned the essay with “Please see me” on the bottom and asked him to revise it — sprinkling in some facts, rather like oregano and crushed red pepper on pizza — if he wanted a passing grade.
I won’t go so far as to hypothesize that slovenly “research” indicates a laziness of perception, which is a failure of analysis resulting in a civilization’s slide into darkness. But I won’t stop you if you want to pursue that notion.
The good news is that Charlie Christian’s “legacy” is not “faded.” Consider this precious 1941 artifact, where he’s gloriously present next to Dave Tough, Johnny Guarnieri, Artie Bernstein, Cootie Williams, and George Auld:
I will paraphrase Lord Byron to say, “Southerland and his ilk will be read when Christian and Goodman are forgotten. But not until then.”
The jazz world is full of Stars — the people who attract crowds, who get five-star reviews and adoring press. But those of us who have been around for more than sixteen bars know that not every excellent musician becomes a Star. There is that really superb singer in a small town who refuses to travel; the guitarist who doesn’t want to record or to be on YouTube, the musicians who don’t end up in this or the other alphabetical reference of Famous Musicians. The locals know these people, and the musicians who travel from town to town know and admire them also.
Cleveland’s Theatrical Grill and owner “Mushy” Wexler: home to pianist Hank Kohout.
One such excellent musician who’s hardly known is pianist Hank Kohout, whose professional career spanned more than forty years. If you hadn’t heard him in person, you missed your chance, because he left us in 2006, just before his 83rd birthday. Some months ago, his brother Jerry found me and asked if I’d heard of Hank. I hadn’t — but I certainly had heard of guitarist Bill De Arango, Red Norvo, Harry James, and Bobby Hackett. And before Hank had turned twenty, he was praised in DOWN BEAT as a promising newcomer.
Jerry’s note to me suggests that not only was Hank a splendid musician but a fine person to have in your family: I miss him on a daily basis . . . . I can’t say he was the best, but he certainly could hold his own and would not embarrass himself. I’ve listened to my fair share of piano men in my time, and I’ll describe him in this way. In my full time job I traveled quite a bit, and if there was a piano player to be found, I would more often than not find him. In many cases, I would not stay long, and rarely would I find someone who would captivate my time and attention, and who actually understood my requests (usually Little Rock Getaway was way out of their league) — conversely, they would come in to hear my brother . . . and stay till closing.
After his passing, I found no less than 40 autographed photos, most with glowing remarks from the likes of Eddie Heywood, Teddy Wilson, Jimmy and Marian McPartland, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Durante, Bobby Hackett, etc.
Here’s an informal sample of Hank — his playing strongly melodic, his harmonic understanding subtle yet deep, admiring but not copying Teddy Wilson.
And the full story can be found in this beautifully detailed piece on Hank from “Jazzed in Cleveland,” written by Joe Mosbrook in 2005:
For more than 60 years, Hank Kohout has been one of Cleveland’s leading jazz pianists. He is probably best remembered for playing with the Bob McKee Trio, the house band at the Theatrical Grill on Vincent Avenue, for 17 years, but Hank also played with some of the giants of jazz on New York City’s famous 52nd Street, with leading big bands, and with network broadcast orchestras as well.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Kohout graduated from West Tech High School and studied classical music for ten years before he was exposed to jazz. “One day,” he recalled, “I heard Teddy Wilson play piano and suddenly asked myself, ‘What took me so long?’” He quickly dropped classical music. “I listened to Teddy’s records.” he said, “and tried to copy what he was doing. Teddy was a very clean player and that’s what I like to hear; I like to hear every note nice and clear.”
In 1939, after studying classical music for ten years, teenager Kohout immersed himself in jazz, playing everywhere he could. “There were a lot of people playing jazz in Cleveland at that time,” he said, “and they used to have jam sessions which I attended. I learned a lot just sitting in.” During some of those jam sessions, Hank met and played with an amazing young guitarist from Cleveland Heights who had gone to Ohio State University. “Bill de Arango called me,” Hank recalled, “and wanted to put together a trio. We started playing at some of the nightclubs on Short Vincent.
Eventually the trio went on the road. One day in Indiana, Hank ran into a friend who was playing with the Red Norvo band and said Red was looking for a piano player. “I decided to take a crack at it,” said Hank. “I left the trio and went to New York.” He auditioned for the vibraphonist and bandleader, got the job, and began to tour with the Norvo big band.
They played the theatre circuit including the Palace Theatre in Cleveland. On the bill with the Norvo band were such entertainers as comedian Jimmy Durante, singer Mildred Bailey, and dancers Step ‘n Fetch It. But the Norvo big band was not a huge success. “When we got back to New York,” said Kohout, “the war broke out and the band broke up. We put together a sextet which we took into the Famous Door.”
The Famous Door was one of the jazz clubs along New York City’s fabled 52nd Street where every night for years the top jazz artists were performing. Clevelander Kohout found himself right in the middle of the action. He said, “Red hired Shorty Rogers on trumpet, Eddie Bert on trombone, Aaron Sachs on clarinet and Specs Powell was the drummer. We had Johnny Guarnieri’s brother Leo playing bass with us. And Red and myself.”
When the Norvo Sextet broke up, Kohout continued playing on 52nd Street. In 1942, he was playing piano in the house band down the street at the Three Deuces. The other members of that house band were Powell and bassist Milt Hinton. They regularly backed such saxophonists as Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Flip Phillips and Georgie Auld. Looking back, Hank smiled and admitted, “That was pretty fast company!”
In the early 1940s, there were still seven jazz clubs concentrated on New York’s 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Top jazz musicians seemed to be almost everywhere on “the street.” Kohout said, “That was an era that will never be duplicated again. There were a whole bunch of clubs and at any given time they had some of the best music in the world by some of the best players.”
For several weeks, Kohout substituted for native Cleveland pianist Al Lerner, playing with the Harry James Orchestra, including an engagement at New York’s Paramount Theatre. He also played briefly with the Bobby Byrne big band. But, he decided to leave New York City in 1943.
“I left because they were looking for a piano player in Cleveland,” he said. “I came back to Cleveland and auditioned for a job with the WHK studio orchestra.” The orchestra, led by Willard Fox, was doing regular radio broadcasts from Cleveland to about 300 stations of the Mutual network. Kohout played for ten years with the radio orchestra, plus six or seven years on a program called The Ohio Story on WTAM. He also did TV work in Cleveland including The Mike Douglas Show which was produced at Channel 3 for a national audience. While working the studio jobs, Kohout was also playing jazz gigs at night at a variety of clubs. He said, “I think I played about every club in town.”
Beginning in 1963, Kohout was the pianist in the house band at the Theatrical Grill for 17 years. With drummer Bob McKee and bassist Ken Seifert, he played six nights a week at the popular club that featured national jazz artists. “It got to the point,” recalled Kohout, “that some of the touring musicians came in without their groups and we would play with them, people like Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson and Doc Severinsen.” When Red Norvo came to the Theatrical, Hank pulled double-duty, playing piano with both his old boss’ group and with the McKee Trio. When Jimmy and Marian McPartland played at the Theatrical, Hank joined Jimmy’s group for several numbers and then sat side-by-side with Marian, playing four-handed piano. Newspaper reports said It brought down the house.
Mushy Wexler, who ran the Theatrical, liked traditional jazz and hired a lot of dixieland bands. Kohout remembered Wilbur de Paris, Billy Maxted, Jonah Jones and many others. “There were so many that I can’t remember them all.”
The Theatrical, Cleveland’s leading night spot for more than 50 years, attracted a wide variety of customers. They included politicians, lawyers, newspaper people, and sports figures. Hank said, “We had them all, clergy sitting next to guys in the Mafia. We had strippers. They were all there and they were like family.”
Kohout finally left the Theatrical in 1979 after Wexler died and the music policy changed. The club stopped presenting live jazz in 1990 and closed a few years later. “If Mushy had lived another ten or twenty years,” said Kohout, “it wouldn’t have changed at all. It would still be today like it used to be.”
Kohout, now 81 and living quietly in Parma, teaches a little, but he is not playing piano very much. He said, “I have Parkinson’s now and it hasn’t helped my playing at all. I get disgusted. I can still do it, but if I can’t do it the way I want to do it, I don’t want to do it.”
Like his early idol, Teddy Wilson, Kohout always played with a clean, pure technique. Performing in almost every musical style, the native Clevelander, who has been heard and appreciated by millions, is still remembered as a piano player’s piano player.
Jerry also sent me an informally-recorded sample of his brother in his native habitat, obviously enjoying himself and making the audience happy. I hear a witty, playful synthesis of Wilson, Tatum, Hines, and others — fused in a gracious individualistic style.
What’s the moral to this tale? People who don’t go on the road or make records, who aren’t “known,” can really play and should be acknowledged for their talent.
The seller describes the holy relic thusly: An original 1930’s album containing 88 autograph signatures of jazz musicians, sporting figures and other personalities. The musicians represented include Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Desmond, Gene Krupa, Bid Sid Catlett, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, “Hot Lips” Page, Cab Calloway, Anita O’Day, Roy Eldridge, Woody Herman, Les Brown, and many more. The album with a two-ring binding, with some signatures signed directly onto the album leaves and others clipped and mounted, some on larger folded sheets. 31 pages of autographs, with further blank pages in the middle; on the last several pages, all the grades from the owner’s report cards from 1930 to 1943 are meticulously recorded! An inscription to the owner on the verso of the title page dates the album to 1931. Light toning and edge wear; overall in fine condition. 6.25 x 4.5 inches (15.8 x 11.7 cm).
Hereis the link, and the price is $750 plus $20 shipping. I don’t need it, but I certainly covet it: pieces of paper touched by people I have revered for half a century. (And, of course, imagine having heard, seen, and spoken to them!)
Before we get to the treasures within, I can only speculate that someone listing report cards from 1930 to 1943 was born, let us say, in 1925, and so might no longer be on the planet. But he or she was an avid Hot Lips Page acolyte, so we are certainly related spiritually.
The only name unfamiliar to me in this rich collection was Mart Kenney, whom I learned was a well-known Canadian jazz musician and bandleader (his “Western Gentlemen”) and long-lived, 1910-2006. Did our autograph collector visit Canada?
In general, the signatures collected here suggest a wealth of bands seen and heard in 1941: Lips, Dave Tough, and Max Kaminsky with Artie Shaw; Mel Powell with Goodman; Anita O’Day and Roy Eldridge with Krupa.
Here’s a peek.
Artie Shaw, with two Lips Page signatures!
Benny Goodman, with Mel Powell, Billy Butterfield, and John Simmons!
My favorite page. And Page (with equal time for Walter)!
I wonder how many of these pages Gene signed in his life.
Others in Gene’s band, including Sam Musiker and Roy Eldridge.
Anita O’Day and Joe Springer.
Hi-De-Ho, on a tiny label.
Bob Higgins and Les Brown.
Mart Kenney and musicians.
And I presume more members of the Western Gentlemen.
For once, this seems like a bargain: 88 signatures plus thirteen years of the owner’s report cards. Who could resist?
Just because no JAZZ LIVES post should be completely silent, here (thanks to Loren Schoenberg) is a 1941 airshot from the Steel Pier of Artie Shaw’s band featuring Hot Lips Page, Dave Tough, and George Auld on THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE:
Some Swing fan had very good taste in his / her autograph quest, getting our heroes to sign their names on the same piece of paper:
That assemblage comes from the Benny Goodman Orchestra in early 1941 (February – March): Charlie Christian, electric guitar; Jimmie Maxwell, trumpet; Mike Bryan, guitar; Skippy Martin, alto saxophone / arranger; Pete Mondello, tenor saxophone; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Dave Tough, drums.
I first saw this browning piece of notebook paper as part of the Larry Rafferty Collection: someone no doubt has bought it by now but there’s no reason JAZZ LIVES can’t share the image with the Faithful.
And some of my favorite music of all time (I think I first bought the record of this in 1972): an excerpt from a Goodman Sextet without Benny, warming up in the studio: Charlie, Cootie, Dave, Johnny Guarneri, George Auld — working on what would be called A SMOOTH ONE:
I don’t hear the string bass of Artie Bernstein, but do I hear the voice of John Hammond early on? “Mop!” is our man Cootie Williams. This is music — like a deep pool — that one could descend in to for a long time. Bliss that it was recorded at all, and even better that the whole rehearsal / informal session did survive, was issued in several formats (Meritt Record Society and Masters of Jazz, vinyl and CD).
A year after he signed this paper, Charlie Christian (1916-1942) was dead.
Any documentation of an artist’s work may be distant from the day-to-day reality of the work. In the case of the noble trumpeter Bunny Berigan, many of his admirers understandably focus on those record sessions where he is most out in the open — aside from the Victor I CAN’T GET STARTED, the small-group recordings with Holiday, Norvo, Bailey, the Boswell Sisters, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, and so on. Some, rather like those who listen to Whiteman for Bix, delve into hot dance / swing band sides for Bunny’s solos: I know the delightful shock of hearing a Fred Rich side and finding a Berigan explosion when the side is nearly over.
But the Berigan chronology — on display in Michael Zirpolo’s superb book, MR. TRUMPET — as well as the discography shows that Bunny spent much of his life as a player and (too infrequently) a singer with large ensembles: studio groups, Whiteman, Hal Kemp, Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, before forming his own big band for the last six years of his very short life.
Ignoring Berigan’s big band records would be unthinkable, even for someone not choosing to hear everything. Goodman’s KING PORTER STOMP and SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY, the Dorsey MARIE and SONG OF INDIA; Berigan’s own Victors. Of course, like other bandleaders of the time, he was required to record a fairly substantial assortment of thin material. Almost always, Berigan bravely transcends what the song-pluggers insisted he record.
Even the bands that came through well on records sounded better in live performance. There is something chilly about a recording studio, especially when there are more than a dozen people trying to play arrangements flawlessly, that occasionally holds back the explorer’s courage. So if one wants to hear what a band was capable of, one must rely on recordings of radio broadcasts (and the much rarer on-location recordings from a dance date, such as the Ellington band at Fargo, North Dakota — itself a miracle). Radio was consoling in its apparent evanescence; if you made a mistake, it was there and gone. Who knew, fluffling a note nationwide, that someone with a disc cutter in Minneapolis was recording it for posterity?
Up to this point, there has been a small but solid collection of Berigan “live” material on vinyl — a good deal of it issued by Jerry Valburn and Bozy White in their prime. I cannot offer my experience as comprehensive, but I recall listening to many of those recordings and enjoying their rocking intensity, but often waiting until Bunny took the solo. But there were worlds of music I and others were unaware of.
A new CD release on the Hep label, “BUNNY BERIGAN: SWINGIN’ AND JUMPIN'” is a delight all through. It collects seventy-one minutes of material from 1937-39, nicely varied between well-played pop tunes and jazz classics. An extensive booklet with notes by the Berigan expert Michael Zirpolo (and some unusual photographs) completes the panorama. Eleven of the nineteen selections have never been issued before, and there is a snippet of Bunny speaking. The sound (under the wise guidance of Doug Pomeroy) is splendid.
Listening to this music is an especially revealing experience. Stories of Berigan’s alcoholism are so much a part of his mythic chronicle that many listeners — from a distance — tend to think of him as helplessly drunk much of the time, falling into the orchestra pit, a musician made barely competent by his dependence on alcohol.
No one can deny that Berigan shortened his life by his illness . . . but the man we hear on these sides is not only a glorious soloist but a spectacular leader of the trumpet section and a wonderful bandleader. The band itself is a real pleasure, with memorable playing from George Auld (in his energetic pre-Ben Webster phase — often sounding like a wild version of Charlie Barnet), George Wettling, Johnny Blowers, and Buddy Rich, Ray Conniff and others.
One could play excerpts from these recordings — skipping Berigan’s solos — and an astute listener to the music of the late Thirties would be impressed by the fine section work and good overall sound of the band. The “girl singers” are also charming: no one has to apologize for Gail Reese, for one.
Did I say that Berigan’s trumpet playing is consistently spectacular? If it needs to be said, let that be sufficient. A number of times in these recordings, he takes such dazzling chances — and succeeds — that I found myself replaying performances in amazement. Only Louis and Roy, I think, were possessed of such masterful daring.
And we are spared RINKA TINKA MAN in favor of much better material: MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, THEY ALL LAUGHED, BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, BIG JOHN SPECIAL, LOUISIANA, TREES, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, SHANGHAI SHUFFLE, HOW’D YOU LIKE TO LOVE ME?, and some hot originals.
This disc doesn’t simply add more than an hour of music to most people’s Berigan collection: it corrects and sharpens the picture many have of him. Even if you care little for mythic portraiture, you will find much to like here. It is available here. To learn more about the wonderful story of how this music came to be in our hands and, even better, to hear an excerpt from ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, click here.
Music is so pervasive that I wonder that we ever hear any of it. For this post, I am even ignoring the phenomenon of everyone-wearing-earbuds-all-the-time.
But when we tell ourselves we are listening to music, what are we really doing?
The act of listening — immersing myself in — a particular recording has been a salvation for me for the past five decades. And people who were dead years before I was born, people whom I never got to encounter, have become familiar friends. Sitting down and doing nothing else but hearing what’s there is a deep pleasure.
But even I have to remind myself to slow down and focus on the sound, rather than playing the CD while driving, while writing emails, while cooking.
Even when we get rid of the pretense of multi-tasking (for the neurologists tell it is nothing but pretense) listening is not something we are accustomed to.
When I sit down to listen to a cherished recording — say, the 1940 Benny Goodman – Charlie Christian – Cootie Williams – Count Basie – George Auld – Artie Bernstein – Harry Jaeger ROYAL GARDEN BLUES — all sorts of unrequested associations come into my mind.
Personal: recalling the feel and heft of the original recording; what it was like to be in my upstairs bedroom listening to this; memories of discovering Charlie Christian’s music.
At the same time, there is a clamor of anecdotes and personalities: Goodman, scrambled eggs and catsup; Christian, tuberculosis, the rumor of odd clothing, eyeglasses; John Hammond, and so on.
Then there is the mind classifying and “analyziing”: how this ROYAL GARDEN sits in the long history of performances of this blues; its tempo; how Basie shapes it into one of “his” performances; Auld’s absorption of Ben Webster, and more.
It’s remarkable that the music — remember the music?— has a chance of getting through this amiable mental clamor, the “thought” equivalent of the puppy room at the animal shelter. Can we actually hear what Charlie Christian is playing, given the amount of yapping and frisking around that the mind is doing at the same time?
So I would propose an experiment. It isn’t a Down Beat Blindfold Test, because so much of that “test” was based on Being Right, as if listening was a quiz show.
I would ask JAZZ LIVES readers, whenever they can, to actually do the unfamiliar: to take a recording that they believe they know well and sit down and listen intently to it as if they had never heard it before. If what we call “thoughts” come in, push them away and start the recording over. I think I can guarantee that the experience will not simply be familiar, but deep and in some ways new, that layers and aspects of that recording, subliminally taken in but never really heard before, will spring to life.
Here’s ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, if you’d like to try it out:
(I purposely picked the video of the spinning red-label Columbia 78 for sentimental reasons. Of course you can listen to it in the highest fidelity possible . . . )
If we could actually listen to the music we so love, as opposed to trotting out our familiar associations, what wonders might we hear?
“Charlie Christian turns out to be–according to many of the historians–one of the generating forces of bebop, and certainly we knew that Charlie was very special and playing very beautifully. He and I were quite good friends . . . . I took Charlie down to the draft board and — now, I should tell you now, because he’s been gone for so many years, Charlie had virtually every disease in the world. I think I now have them, but he had them at a very young age. And they were kind of ugly. You know, tuberculosis, and syphillis, and God knows what else. And so we went down to the draft board. He asked me to come along with him, down at the Armory someplace. We went down there and I remember the doctor saying, ‘Well, Mr. Christian, is there any reason why you should not be drafted?’ Well, Charlie thought for a minute and said, ‘Well, I wear eyeglasses. I’ve never forgotten that . . . soon enough they found out there was no reason to draft him, but I loved that, thinking about wearing eyeglasses!”
“[Benny Goodman’s band] was a tremendous ensemble. I think Benny was a very, very fine band leader who was inarticulate. Words were not the thing. It was ‘do it again,’ and then he would demonstrate what phrasing he wanted for this or that part of the piece. He knew exactly what he wanted. It was very clear in his mind. He did not make it clear except by doing it again and doing it himself.
I remember one day I was in Chicago, and I had something to do — probably a girl to meet or something — in the afternoon. This was 8:30 in the morning when we were rehearsing, and [when] I looked at the clock it was noon; we’d been at it for three-and-a-half hours, maybe two or three pieces. And I said, ‘Benny, do you know when we’re going to wrap up this?’ Well, he was furious at me for the question. He said, ‘When something happens!’ Well, it’s a very good picture of him, you see. When something happens.”
Excerpts from Mel Powell’s oral histories (c. 1994): questions by Alex Cline. Reprinted by kind permission of Kati Powell.
And a little aural evidence: the 1941 CAPRICE XXIV PAGANINI, arranged by Skip Martin, with wonderful playing from Benny, Mel, Sidney Catlett, and George Berg:
Because I couldn’t resist, here’s the Goodman Sextet with Charlie, Count Basie, George Auld, Cootie Williams, Jo Jones . . . I FOUND A NEW BABY:
In jazz, the Infant Prodigies become the Youngbloods, Established Heroes, and Elder Statespersons in what seems like sixty-four bars. Tempus fugit rapidly in 4 / 4!
Here are two CDs by young fellows — with the gracious assistance of a Senior Sage — that I commend to you. The first features American brothers Peter and Will Anderson; the second UK pals Jamie Brownfield and Liam Byrne.
Most often, Will and Pete, superb players, have been found in situations I would call lovingly retrospective — recreating the music of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, sitting in the reed section of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. But they aren’t repeater pencils; their range is both broad and deep. Their latest CD, MUSIC OF THE SOPRANO MASTERS, (Gut String Records), shows how easily and comfortably they move in expansive musical worlds. There is a great deal of swinging brotherly love on this CD (no fraternal head-cutting), and each selection seems like its own small improvised orchestral cosmos.
Another delight of this disc is the way in which the Andersons have dug into the repertoire to offer us beauties not so often played, by reedmen not always known as composers — Lucky Thompson, Roland Kirk, and the ever-energetic Bob Wilber, who is represented here by his compositions and his vibrant playing. The rhythm section of Ehud Asherie, Mike Karn, and Phil Stewart couldn’t be nicer or more attentive, and the recorded sound is a treat. Sweetly sculpted liner notes by Robert Levin complete this package . . . a present ready for any occasion.
The songs are Home Comin’ (Lucky Thompson) / A Sack Full of Soul (Roland Kirk) / Vampin’ Miss Georgia (Bob Wilber) / Caressable (Thompson) / Jazzdagen Jump (Wilber) / Bechet’s Fantasy (Sidney Bechet) / My Delight (Kirk) / Warm Inside / Haunted Melody (Thompson/Kirk) / Lou’s Blues (Wilber). It’s available in the usual places, but the best way to get it (if you can’t come to the gig) is here.
Some months ago, a friend passed along a YouTube video of youthful trumpeter Jamie Brownfield and saxophonist Liam Byrne, and I was delighted. They, too, didn’t exactly copy the past, but they swung mightily in an idiom I would call post-Lestorian with dashes of Tony Fruscella, Harry Edison, George Auld. With the addition of guitarist Andrew Hulme, Nick Blacka, string bass, Marek Dorcik, drums, and Tom Kincaid, a special guest pianist, they sound wonderful — as if the Kansas City Six had time-traveled forward to meet Barney Kessel and Jimmy Rowles in the ether.
Their new CD is appropriately called B. B. Q. for the Brownfield // Byrne Quintet, and although they don’t perform the Hot Five classic, there is a good deal of unaffected joyous strutting on this disc.
Here is a selection of videos (posted on trumpeter Jamie Brownfield’s blog), and here is the band’s Facebook page. The repertoire on the CD might make it seem to some listeners that the band is looking in the rear-view mirror, but their performances are fresh, personal, and lively — on Wynton’s HAPPY FEET BLUES, Liam’s own IVEY-DIVEY, and a variety of classics, each with its own sweet deep associations: TICKLE-TOE, SINGIN’ THE BLUES, BOUNCE OF THE SUGAR PLUM FAIRY, NOSTALGIA / CASBAH, WEST END BLUES, JOAO, WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS, 9:20 SPECIAL.
Jazz isn’t dead, dear readers; its hair isn’t even graying.
The photograph below comes from Helen Ward’s collection, courtesy of my friend Sonny McGown. It’s amazing — an onstage jam session from one of the 1953 concerts that began with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. After Benny chose not to go on with the tour, Gene Krupa led his band — and obviously a good time was had by all. See who you can identify:
From the left, I see George Auld and three other saxophone players, Steve Jordan (guitar), Israel Crosby (bass), a Goodman trombonist and bespectacled Vernon Brown, Trummy Young behind Vernon, a short fellow in a light suit whose name escapes me, Cozy Cole behind him, Ziggy Elman, an unidentified trumpeter and Charlie Shavers in front of Arvell Shaw.
I think I hear an uptempo blues . . . but whatever it is, the sound I imagine is angelic. Wow!
P.S. Sonny pointed out to me that Willie Smith (on left) has his back to the camera, Al Stewart is the unidentified trumpeter . . . and the closing jam session was typically THE SAINTS. So now I know what I’m hearing.