Tag Archives: George Berg

“CONTINUOUS ENTERTAINMENT”: MR. WETTLING GOES TO WASHINGTON AND PLAYS A GIG (March 1953)

If you’ve been wondering about George Wettling’s whereabouts in the first week of March 1953, all will be revealed to you.  A few days ago, I posted this portrait:

GEORGE WETTLING 3 53

The first urban sleuth to point out that the site was the Washington Monument was Eric Elder. Others agreed.

A second photograph, appearing here for the first time, has this identification on the back:

GEORGE WETTLING

AL SIMMONDS

MARCH 4, 1953

BROWN DERBY

WETTLING AL SIMMONDS March 4, 1953 BROWN DERBY

The picture shows that George was gigging there — see the photograph on the wall behind him, underneath a sign ending with “DIXIE BEAT” and “NOW PRESENTING.” I do not recognize the man portrayed in the second picture but some mysteries related to the other man, smiling at the camera, will be untangled below.

I assumed that these photographs were taken in Massachusetts because they came from a drummer Walt Gifford’s collection, and he was based there at this time. Boston, like other cities, did have a nightclub / restaurant called the Brown Derby — perhaps emulating the Hollywood landmark.

But “Al Simmonds” was still unidentified.  Was he a Boston jazz fan? Only when I began to search without preconceptions (a lesson here?) did I find the threads connecting Wettling, Washington, Simmonds, and the Brown Derby.  Whether the two men were friends before 1953, I can’t say. But George and Al had a show-business link, explicated (not surprisingly) through an artifact for sale on eBay in characteristic eBay prose:

“Wonderful Vintage feature and display type matchbook for The Brown Derby, Washington D.C. / matches with the picture of a brown derby and dancing nude women”:

BROWN DERBY matchbook outside

Peek behind the matches and one would read, “The Brown Derby in the Nation’s capital, where Al Simmonds and George Berg, the two international mad monks of buffoonery cavort with all the cash customers.”  (It appears that George played the piano and Al sang . . . but that is mere conjecture.)

BROWN DERBY matchbook inside

And the seller explains, as one must, that the matchbook “is in VG condition, all 21 matches intact / unstruck.”

What has this to do with George Wettling, drummer?  Now it’s clear that he went down to Washington to play at the Brown Derby and he might have taken in the sights or visited an auto show during the day.  He and Al were photographed outside the club in daylight, presumably before their appearances, but their unrecorded dialogue is lost for ever.

And if the Brown Derby’s advertisement for nude women suggests that Wettling’s career had suddenly plunged, photographs by William P. Gottlieb show that the club featured famous jazz musicians in the Forties.  In May 1946, he photographed John Kirby and Buster Bailey performing there. And I believe that prestigious nightclubs might have offered patrons drinks and dinner, a jazz band, comedians, and pulchritude in profusion.

So now you know it all, or as much as two candid snapshots can reveal.

If anyone asks, “What are you spending so much time looking at that thing — that JAZZ LIVES — for?” you might reply, “It provides continuous entertainment.”  We do our best.

May your happiness increase!

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HEROIC FIGURES IN THE SHADOWS

A friend recently asked me about a valued musician, now gone, who never seemed to get the honors he deserved. “Why doesn’t anyone pay attention to X?”  I recalled that X was always working in groups led by A Star, a powerful personality.  I have no idea if X wanted to lead a group and couldn’t, but he never said in public that he felt the opportunity had been denied him.

It made me think again about “being a leader” in jazz.  We celebrate the musicians whose names appear on the record labels and the marquees, in boldface in discographies.  Theirs are the sounds we know, and they do deserve our attention and our love. Think of a universe without Count Basie — the sky suddenly grows dark at the mere statement of such a void.

But the Stars rely on the often semi-anonymous players who keep the great ship’s rhythmic engines humming.  Consider Ed Lewis, Joe Muranyi, Fred Guy, Leo McConville, Bobby Tucker, Wendell Marshall, George Stafford, Tommy Thunen, Curley Russell, Dave Bowman — players who didn’t chafe to be center stage.  There is a special cozy corner of Paradise for those who didn’t have the urge to solo, but who created backgrounds and section sounds that delight us, that made the Stars sound so fine.

Although he was a famous leader and a notable Personality, I think of Eddie Condon in this respect, as someone who cared more about how the band sounded than whether he soloed. Dave Tough, Freddie Green, also.

Musicians will tell you that “being a leader” brings what we call “fame,” but this public place can be a nuisance.  Visibility brings recognition: no longer are you third alto in the reed section, one of the Wisconsin Skyrockets, you are THE Skyrocket, and people know your name and recognize you.

But that recognition also means that fans want to talk with you when you are on your way to the bathroom.  People who “just love your music” grab your upper arm.  Some have their own ideas about songs you should be playing, in what tempos, and who you should Sound Like.  Play the clarinet, and you are told about an admirer’s favorite Benny Goodman record.  Sing, and you hear all about Billie Holiday (“Tsk, tsk.  Those drugs.”) or perhaps Diana Krall.

If you are leading a group in a club, the club-owner heads directly for you when something goes wrong.  You have to get the gigs.  You have to handle the money.

You have to deal with the personalities in the band (A, late again; B, grimy again; C, in despair; D, texting when not playing; E, a model in all things but eager to point out the flaws of A, B, C, and D.)

You have to talk on the microphone.  You must encourage the crowd to put money in the tip basket or buy CDs.  You deal with requests, with people who drink too much and talk too loudly.

Often, when your musicians are upset, frustrated, or angry, they blame you, or they simply mutter. “Sixty bucks?  Is that all?”  “My shepherd’s pie is cold.”  I hate that song.  Do we have to play it?”

To paraphrase Judy Syfers, “My God, who would want to lead a band?”

So let’s cheer for the Invaluable Near-Anonymities, the wonderful professionals in the String section of Charlie Parker with Strings, the baritone wizard Charlie Bubeck, who anchored the Ozzie Nelson band — reed players talked of him reverently, but he never led a date; the fellows strumming behind Django and Stephane.  They may have looked deeply into “the music business” and said, “I’d rather drive a cab than lead a band.”

A brief, wholly improvised list:

Zilner Randolph, Les Robinson, Buzzy Drootin, Mary Osborne, Nick Fatool, Ed Cuffee, Bill Triglia, Danny Bank, Dick Vance, Max Farley, Frank Orchard, Bob Casey, Red Ballard, Mickey McMickle, Jimmy Maxwell, Cliff Leeman, George Berg, Al Klink, Lee Blair, Leon Comegys, John Simmons, Les Spann, Allan Reuss, Don Frye, Kansas Fields, Louis Metcalf.

And a thousand more.  And certainly their living counterparts.  (I’ve limited my list to the Departed because I thought that no one I know would like to see their name on a list of the Brilliant Shadowy Underrated.  You and I know the people who make jazz go . . . !)

These people don’t win polls.  They don’t have to stand still for autograph hunters.  But where would we be without them?

May your happiness increase! 

MEL POWELL REMEMBERS: CHARLIE CHRISTIAN and the UNITED STATES ARMY; BENNY GOODMAN at REHEARSAL

charlie-christian-01

“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 1941

“[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:

May your happiness increase!