Tag Archives: George Avakian

REBUKING THE DEACON: TERRY WALDO’S GOTHAM CITY BAND: TERRY WALDO, JON-ERIK KELLSO, JIM FRYER, EVAN ARNTZEN, JOHN GILL, BRIAN NALEPKA, JAY LEPLEY at FAT CAT (January 29, 2017)

Some might know W.C. Handy’s AUNT HAGAR’S BLUES as one of the ancient classics — a multi-strain composition, hallowed through decades of performance. But the lyrics tell a deep story: here is an approximate transcription of what Louis sang on the 1954 Columbia session honoring Handy (that recording the precious gift of the far-seeing George Avakian):

Old Deacon Splivin his flock was givin’ the way of livin’ right, yes
Said he, “No wingin’, no ragtime singin’, tonight,” yes
Up jumped Aunt Hagar and shouted out with all her might
All her might.

She said, “Oh, ain’t no use to preachin’
Oh, ain’t no use to teachin’.

Each modulation of syncopation
Just tells my feet to dance and I can’t refuse
When I hear the melody they call the blues, those ever lovin’ blues.”

Just hear Aunt Hagar’s children harmonizin’ to that old mournful tune.
It’s like a choir from on high broke loose, amen
If the Devil brought it, the good Lord sent it right down to me
Let the congregation join while I sing those lovin’ Aunt Hagar’s blues.

Even in 2017, the Deacon is still waggling his bony finger at us, and even when the lyrics to AUNT HAGAR’S BLUES aren’t sung, you can hear Aunt’s triumph.  A convincing example took place downstairs at Fat Cat (75 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, New York) on Sunday, January 29, 2017, when Terry Waldo’s Gotham City Band played the song.  The hot philosophers sending the message are Terry, Jon-Erik Kellso, John Gill, Brian Nalepka, Jay Lepley, Jim Fryer, Evan Arntzen:

The message is clear.  When faced with those who would preach denial of life, always choose joy, no matter who tries to direct your course.  I’m with Aunt Hagar.

May your happiness increase!

“ALOHA.”

rich-conaty-portrait

RICH CONATY 1954-2016

In the history of jazz, people who do not play instruments do as much, in different ways, to sustain the art without getting equal credit. Think of Milt Gabler, George Avakian, Henry Sklow, Norman Granz, George Wein, Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, and other catalysts. Then there are broadcasters. “Broadcasting” meant something even before radio and television: spreading something widely, effectively: a newsboy shouting the headlines or a farmer distributing seed over a field. Jazz radio broadcasters — in previous decades Martin Block, Art Ford, Fred Robbins, Sid Torin; in our time Ed Beach, John S. Wilson, Phil Schaap, Dan Morgenstern, Alisa Clancy, Linda Yohn and many others – do more than play records. They become our friends, teachers, and benefactors. We look forward to their voices, personalities, and insights. Before there was streaming radio, we arranged our schedules around them; we tape-recorded their programs, which became sweet swinging libraries, introducing us to new artists or rare records.

Rich Conaty, who died of cancer on December 30, 2016, gave his energy and ultimately his life in the reverent and delighted service of the music he loved: the pop and jazz of the teens, Twenties, and Thirties, roughly 1911-1939. For forty-four years, he shared that music on a Sunday-night broadcast on Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV-FM (90.7). Rich’s THE BIG BROADCAST, named in homage to the 1932 film with Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, the Boswell Sisters, Arthur Tracy, Cab Calloway, and others, was a consistent pleasure.

Rich was enchanted by this music when he was thirteen or fourteen, began broadcasting as a high school student on New York’s Hofstra College radio station. When he had to choose a college, he picked Fordham University because of its radio station, and beginning in January 1973, was on the air every Sunday night, live perhaps fifty weeks every year, taping shows in advance when he went away, perhaps to visit his mother in Florida.

Early on, Rich formed an alliance with Vince Giordano, leader of the Nighthawks, and these two did more to introduce this music to a wider, younger audience than perhaps anyone. Rich said that his program was “for the old and the old at heart,” for his humor was sharply wry (occasionally painfully self-deprecating) but he was most happy to learn that some seventeen-year old was now collecting Chick Bullock 78s or had fallen in love with Lee Wiley. He had other interests – vintage Nash automobiles, cats, and other kinds of vintage pop culture – but was devoted to the music and musicians above all.

Listening to Rich for decades, I was able to trace the subtle development of a scholarly intelligence.  Years ago, his library of recordings was small (as was mine) so he played the Mills Brothers’ TIGER RAG frequently.  As he became the person and the scholar he was meant to become, his awareness, knowledge, and collection deepened.

We’ve heard earnest but ignorant radio announcers – those who call the Ellington clarinetist “Barney Biggered,” or the King of Jazz “Paul White Man,” but Rich knew his music, his musicians, and his history. Every show, he created tributes to musicians, songwriters, and other figures whose birthday he would celebrate: not just Bix, Bing, Louis, Jolson, Annette; his enthusiasm for songwriters and figures, once renowned, now obscure, was astonishing. He had interviewed Bob Effros, Edward Eliscu, Ben Selvin, and Vet Boswell on the air; he was friends with Dolly Dawn, had gotten drunk with Cab Calloway. Connee Boswell sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to him over the phone; Arthur Tracy performed at his wedding to Mary Hayes (“Manhattan Mary,” who also died too young of cancer).

Rich expanded our knowledge and our joy by playing an astonishing range of music from his own collection of vintage records. Every Sunday that I heard the program, I would say several times, “What is that? I never heard that record before!” and this was true in 2015 and 2016, where it seems as if everything is accessible on CD, download, or YouTube. He spent his life surrounded by 78s – those he had acquired at auction, those he was selling at record shows. Because the idea of THE BIG BROADCAST was not just famous, documented recordings, he would often play a record about which little was known. But he could offer an educated guess about the true band behind the Crown label pseudonym, whether the singer was Irving or Jack Kaufman, when the song had been premiered – much more than statistics gleaned from books. He took requests from his devoted audience, gave away tickets to jazz concerts, and with Bryan Wright, created a series of BIG BROADCAST CDs — I have more than a few — which are wonderful cross-sections of the period.

I should say that his taste was admirable.  He didn’t play every 78 he had found — no sermons, no organ recitals of light classics, no comedy records — but within the “pop and jazz” area I could trust him to play the good stuff, the music that would otherwise be forgotten.  He left IN THE MOOD to others, but he played Henry Burr, Bill Coleman, Jane Green, Johnny Marvin, Fred Rich, Ben Selvin, Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse, Emmett Miller, Eddie Lang, Jack Purvis, Luis Russell, The Sunshine Boys, Kate Smith, Ted Weems, early Ellington, Jean Goldkette, and on and on.

And part of the pleasure of his expertise and of radio in general (at its best, when the programmer is subtle and wise) is not just the delighted shock of one record, but of the juxtapositions Rich created in three-sides-in-a-row.  THE BIG BROADCAST was rather like being invited to an evening at Jeff Healey’s house, where you knew the music would be embracing, uplifting, and educational in the best way.  (I should also say that Rich did talk — digressing into his own brand of stand-up comedy, with little bits of slightly off-key a cappella singing — but music made up the bulk of the program.  He wouldn’t tell you the personnel of the thirteen-piece big band, by choice, I am sure, because it would mean he could play fewer recordings.)

On a personal note: I, like many others, made cassettes of the program and played them in the car.  I fell asleep to the program on hundreds of Sunday nights.  When I was young and diligent, I graded student essays to it. Although Rich and I had much of the same focused obsession with the music, we met in person only a few times (I think always at Sofia’s when the Nighthawks were playing) and THE BIG BROADCAST was his world — and by extension the health and welfare of WFUV.  So our conversations were brief, before the band started or in between sets.  But my debt to him is immeasurable, and it would not have increased had our conversations been lengthy.

rich-conaty-at-wfuv

I do not know what will happen to Rich’s recorded legacy – more than eight thousand hours of radio. Some shows have been archived and can be heard through wfuv.org, but whether the station will share others as a tribute is not yet decided. More information can be found on the Facebook page devoted to Fans of the WFUV Big Broadcast.

I think of Wild Bill Davison’s puzzled question about Frank Teschemacher, dead in an auto accident in Bill’s car, “Where are we going to get another sax player like Tesch?” Paraphrase the question to apply to Rich Conaty, and the answer is, “We never will.” But his generosity will live on.

Aloha.  And Mahalo.

May your happiness increase!

GRamercy 5-8639

rotary phone

Perhaps, for the Youngbloods in the audience, I should explain.  Older telephone numbers were patterned after words — presumably easier to remember — in the same way some business numbers are (whimsically) 1-800-BUY JUNK.  My childhood phone number began with “PE” for Pershing, the general; now it would simply be 7 3.  All clear?

I love Eddie Condon’s music and everything relating to it.  I wan’t of an age to visit West Third Street, nor the club on Fifty-Sixth, although I spent some delightful evenings at the posthumous version on Fifty-Fourth (one night in 1975 Ruby Braff was the guest star and Helen Humes, Joe Bushkin, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Brooks Kerr and a few others sat in).

This delightful artifact just surfaced on eBay — from 1958:

CONDONS front

The English professor in me chafes at the missing apostrophe, but everything else printed here is wonderful: the names of the band and the intermission pianist.  The reverse:

CONDONS back

I didn’t buy it — so you might still be able to — but I did have fleeting thoughts of taking it to a print shop and ordering a few hundred replicas, more gratifying than the glossy cards with pictures of Tuscany on them.

We don’t need a time machine, though, because a version of that band (with Vic Dickenson, Billy Butterfield, and others) did record, in glorious sound.  Don’t let “Dixielan” Jam or the CD title keep you away.  Savor the sound of Eddie’s guitar.  The music here was originally issued as THE ROARING TWENTIES, and the sessions were produced by the amazing George Avakian:

I did buy something, though — irresistible to me —  that struck a far more receptive chord.  Whether I will use it or frame it has not yet been decided.  I’ll know when it arrives.

SWIZZLE STICK

If you have no idea what this is, ask Great-Grandma, who used such a thing to stir her whiskey sour.

May your happiness increase!

I KNOW THIS ONE’S AUTHENTIC: G.W., APRIL 2, 1945

A long time ago, my friend (and expert collector) David Weiner and I had a discussion about autographs and the proliferation of forgeries.  I remember him saying, “If something is too neat, there’s always the possibility that the bandleader’s secretary signed it.  Real autographs, done when the star is leaning against a building, are always messy.”

(This is especially true for artists whose calligraphy wasn’t Palmer-perfect, such as Louis Armstrong.  If the signature is all graceful loops and swirls, it’s fake.)

Here’s a lovely example: one of my heroes, drummer (and painter) George Wettling, signing a fan’s autograph book on April 2, 1945:

GW 1945 auto

Without the identifying picture, I wouldn’t have recognized this as a Wettling autograph.  But it’s clearly authentic because it is so unclear.  And it’s valuable because of that.  Here is the eBay link — in case you want something genuine to remember one of the greatest (and least celebrated) jazz percussionists ever.

And here’s some sonic evidence:  

The other heroes are Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison, Bob Wilber, Gene Schroeder, Leonard Gaskin — supervised for Columbia Records by George Avakian.

George Wettling continues to uplift and propel my imagination.

May your happiness increase!

JAMMIN’ AT VINCE’S: VINCE BARTELS, DAN BARRETT, DAVE STONE, ALLAN VACHÉ, RUSS PHILLIPS, JOHNNY VARRO at SACRAMENTO (May 25, 2014)

Slightly less than a year ago I was a happy member of the throngs at the 2014 Sacramento Music Festival. I couldn’t make it there this year, but that’s no reason you and I can’t savor some wonderful music I recorded there. All but one performance is emerging from the JAZZ LIVES vaults (deep and extensive) for your listening, dining, and dancing pleasure.

Vince Bartels

The band here is led by drummer Vince Bartels — his All Stars — and they are accurately named.  Dan Barrett, cornet; Allan Vaché, clarinet; Russ Phillips, trombone; Johnny Varro, piano; Dave Stone, string bass.  The ambiance, for the most part, is an unabashed lovefest for the music Eddie Condon and friends made in the Fifties.  Not all the selections were in the Condon repertoire, but the band kicks along splendidly without any imitations.

SWING THAT MUSIC:

THE ONE I LOVE:

Condon Jam Session

THE SELFIE MEDLEY (which requires a little commentary. First, I think the selection of ballads — a beautiful thing — draws seriously on the Columbia recording of JAM SESSION COAST-TO-COAST, one of George Avakian’s nicest ideas.  I hadn’t known that Vince had a M.A. in improvisational theatre, but he puts it to good use here, asking the audience to come up, surround the band, take selfies of themselves and the band, put them on Facebook, send them to relatives overseas, or what you will.  Thus the visual is often a little obscured, but the music is delicious):

OH, BABY!:

CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS? (a heartfelt duo-feature for Russ and Dave):

MOTEN SWING:

JUBILEE:

Oh, joy was certainly spread in abundance.  More to come.

May your happiness increase!

LOUIS, LOUIS, BUNNY, MILDRED, WINGY, and GEORGE

Rarities and delights and eBay.  Oh my!

Someone saved this ticket stub — but went to the dance to hear LOUIS ARMSTRONG, N.B.C. Orchestra (with Red Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Luis Russell, and Sidney Catlett).  I wonder who was admitted to a dance in Texas in 1940, but it doesn’t bear thinking about:

LOUIS November 15 1940Ten years later, up north in Chicago, at the Blue Note.  The All-Stars.  But who was Bunny West? I thought — perhaps ungenerously — that she might be a vixen with a stage name, but no leads online.

(This one was purchased for $113.50 in the last seconds it was available.)

LOUIS 1950And . . . for something marvelous and never-before-imagined.  Sometime during the Second World War: a young man, Larry Bennett, unknown to me, Mildred Bailey, Wingy Manone, and George Avakian (blessedly, still with us!).  The location?  A supper club or a USO canteen? Wingy is equipped, so he was one of the headliners; George is in uniform. And Mildred?:

MILDRED WINGY AVAKIANWonderful mysteries.

May your happiness increase!

“A CONTROLLED, FEVERISH LYRICISM”: COLUMBIA AND RCA VICTOR LIVE RECORDINGS OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND THE ALL STARS

A musician friend of mine who is listening to this new set of rare Louis Armstrong music from 1947-58 wrote me that he has been waiting for this set for ten years. Without being competitive, I can say that I have been waiting for this Mosaic box set — a glorious and rewarding one — for almost fifty.

louis-armstrong-mosaic-records

Yes, I was introduced to Louis and his music through the sessions with Gordon Jenkins and THE FIVE PENNIES, but I treasured my copy of TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS and (later) AMBASSADOR SATCH, playing those records over and over. (When I bought my first Hot Five compilation — the Louis Armstrong Story, Volume One, with a bow to George Avakian — it sounded strange and distant, as did the Creole Jazz Band sessions.  But Thirties – Fifties Louis came to me like a vibrating force of nature.)

There are still too many listeners — and writers, unfortunately — who hold to the great myths we so love in this century — the great narrative of Early Promise and Later Stagnation.  Louis has been a true victim of such mythography: people who don’t listen think that he stopped being creative in 1929, that the All-Stars’ performances were simply crowd-pleasing note-for-note repetitions of perhaps a dozen tunes.

I do not write what follows casually: the music contained on these nine compact discs (over eleven hours of music) will be a revelation.

My title comes from Whitney Balliett’s review of Louis’ concert at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, and it is so very true.  Louis plays, throughout this set, like a man on a fierce mission of joy. Forget the cliche of the small, stocky, tired man, sweating and grinning and mopping his face while he grins his way through some paper-thin song about what a wonderful world it is or some woman named Dolly or Mame.  What you hear on these discs is not tired, not ever.

Indeed, if you were able to take one of the performances on this set and play it for someone whose ears were open, whose mind and heart were wiped clean of stereotype and assumption, I guarantee that my imagined listener would be in awe at the powerful energies to be experienced here.  The Mosaic set is not a loving tribute to a failing Elder; it is an explosive package of evidence showing that Louis was truly powerful and energized in his forties and fifties, playing and singing wonderfully — full of life.  Although a well-known reviewer in a well-known jazz publication called Louis’ performances with his chosen band a “cage,” and others have created platitudes about “antebellum” music, the sounds on this box set transcend all such shallow reportage.

Here is some musical evidence.  And for those of you who might say, “Oh, gee, another version of BLUEBERRY HILL?  For goodness’ sakes, I’ve heard Pops do that song a thousand times,” I would ask only that you sit still, put the iPhone or other distractions at a safe distance, and listen.  Listen anew.  Listen once again. What you hear is not routine, not repetition, not rote — but subtle creations, music springing to life for the millionth time, a piece of metal tubing and a human voice sending gifts of love and wisdom to all of us.

Listening to Louis Armstrong is not only a pleasurable experience but a transformative one, because Louis reminds us to not get weary, to never say, “You know, I am bored with doing, with making, with being.”  Louis never tired of that “show,” of letting music pass through him so it could be aimed like a caress at every member of the audience.  And even though Louis’ mortal body is no more, those vibrations are still able to rattle us in the nicest ways.

Larry Eanet, pianist, trombonist, creative thinker, once said that a gift (1940 or 41) of a set of Louis Armstrong 78s changed his life.  “It hit me,” he said, “like Cupid’s arrow.”

The Mosaic set has the loving power of a whole quiver of such arrows.  They stick but they never wound.

The recordings that changed Larry Eanet’s life were produced (and in some cases unearthed) by the man who, next to Louis and his musicians, is most responsible for this joy: producer and jazz-lover extraordinaire George Avakian.  When Louis was signed by Columbia Records, his record dates were supervised, shaped, and imagined by George — still with us at 95.  It’s clear that Louis trusted George to help him get his message across to as many people as possible, and the idea of AMBASSADOR SATCH owes much to George’s expansive, playful imagination. Almost seventy percent of the music in this set was overseen by George, and the box is a vibrant testimony to the power of someone who never played an instrument to create art that will outlive us all.

There are other figures to be thanked: Mosaic guardian angel Scott Wenzel; heroic engineer Andreas Meyer, and Louis Armstrong scholar and enthusiast and biographer Ricky Riccardi, who first had his encounter with Cupid’s arrow some years back. (Ricky’s is a particular triumph, because he wrote the eloquent notes; he worked to get this project moving into reality for more than a few years; this music was his entrance to the Universe of Louis as well.  The set, not incidentally, makes the perfect soundtrack to his book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS.)

It is tribute to all of these men that this set exists, and to Ricky’s dogged loving persistence that we can hear HOURS of previously unheard music in beautiful sound, exquisitely annotated, with rare photographs.

incidentally, in the name of candor, I contributed a rare photograph to the set and its liner-note writer thanks me.  I was honored to be even a small part of the effort — and the glowing result.

I could not leave out the Victor recordings on this set. And though the Columbia material pairs Louis with his most powerful front-line friends, Trummy Young and Edmond Hall, I have a personal delight in the 1947-9 All Stars because of the otherworldly playing of Sidney Catlett and Jack Teagarden — also the too-brief appearances of Dick Cary. The Mosaic set offers the twenty performances from the life-changing Town Hall Concert (it changed mine, so it’s not hyperbole) in the best sound, and then — an entire and previously unheard All Star concert (ninety minutes is all, but that’s a plenty) from Carnegie Hall that same year. And although the same songs are performed, don’t think for a minute these are identical performances.

I know that it is a critical commonplace to look down upon Louis as someone who traded in his vital jazz creativity for “showmanship.”  Louis thought that “pleasing the people” was a good thing, giving them soaring melodies, hot rhythms, and hilarious comedy was what he was on stage for.  I can listen to improvised music that goes in different directions, but the snobbery that puts Louis down is frankly inconceivable and intolerable to me.  Miles Davis, the enduring icon of cool disdain for the audience, loved Louis and was not ashamed to say so.  James Baldwin, too.  Louis had so deeply mastered the art of multifaceted and multilayered art that when he looked like he was “clowning,” he was delivering very subtle music and very deep performance.

A few candid words about Mosaic sets in general.  In my long experience of purchasing and listening, I think they have no equal. Rare material, issued legitimately for the first time, beautiful thorough documentation, wonderful sound. I know that box sets like this seem costly.  $149.00 plus shipping. But there are more than one hundred and sixty performances and interviews here. And I would propose that one purchases a Mosaic set in the same way one buys a new edition of Proust, of the complete Shakespeare, the Mozart symphonies. One is not expected to listen to the nine discs all at once, in one continual immersion, on the bus, while eating, and so on.  The music blurs and may even cloy.  One purchases such a set as a long-term investment: a wise listener would play ONE Louis track a day — that would take half a year — and savor each moment.  And then one could take a brief rest and begin in 1947, all over again.  This set has been produced in a limited edition of 5000 copies, and I can guarantee that when they are all purchased, they will appear on eBay for much much more.

And if you really want to say, “Well, I have heard enough (later) Louis Armstrong for my life,” I am afraid you will get no sympathy from me.  It’s rather like saying, “I don’t feel like laughing any more.  Been there, done that.”  And I am someone who, this last Friday, when a Louis record came on over the sound system at Cafe Borrone, I stood up and put my hand over my heart.  I wasn’t exaggerating my feelings at all. I don’t exaggerate them here.

Just for inspiration: Louis signs someone's telephone book in France.

Just for inspiration: Louis signs someone’s telephone book in France.

May your happiness increase!