Tag Archives: George Frazier

JAZZ WORTH READING: “THE BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES: FACES, PLACES AND NIGHTLIFE 1937-1962”

Some of my readers will already know about Richard Vacca’s superb book, published in 2012 by Troy Street Publishing.  I first encountered his work in Tom Hustad’s splendid book on Ruby Braff, BORN TO PLAY. Vacca’s book is even better than I could have expected.

VACCA book

Much of the literature about jazz, although not all, retells known stories, often with an ideological slant or a “new” interpretation.  Thus it’s often difficult to find a book that presents new information in a balanced way.  BOSTON JAZZ CHRONICLES is a model of what can be done.  And you don’t have to be particularly interested in Boston, or, for that matter, jazz, to admire its many virtues.

Vacca writes that the book grew out of his early idea of a walking tour of Boston jazz spots, but as he found out that this landscape had been obliterated (as has happened in New York City), he decided to write a history of the scene, choosing starting and ending points that made the book manageable.  The book has much to offer several different audiences: a jazz-lover who wants to know the Boston history / anecdotal biography / reportage / topography of those years; someone with local pride in the recent past of his home city; someone who wishes to trace the paths of his favorite — and some obscure — jazz heroes and heroines.  (Vacca’s book could become the ULYSSES of jazz Boston, although we’d have to settle on a day to follow the paths of, perhaps Sabby Lewis or Frankie Newton through this vanished terrain.)

I found the proliferation of new information delightful, even though I was familiar with some of Boston’s “hot spots of rhythm” and the musicians who played there: Newton, Max Kaminsky, Dick Twardzic, Serge Chaloff, Bobby Hackett, George Wein, Jaki Byard, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Alan Dawson, Jaki Byard, Herb Pomeroy, Nat Pierce, Charlie Mariano, John Field, Buzzy Drootin, Joe Gordon, and others.  I’d known about the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, Mahogany Hall, and the various permutations of Storyville.  But on every page I read stories that were both new and illuminating (filling in gaps in the lives of musicians I had known as well as obscure ones) and learned a great deal about place and places.

And Vacca has an old-fashioned respectfulness, which is rare in this century.  True, there are stories of low life and bad behavior, for some of those night spots were run by and populated by people who gave way to their impulses — but Vacca is no tabloid journalist, savoring wicked or illicit behavior.  And his amused, gentle forgiveness makes the book especially charming.

Topography — whether substantial or vanished — has a good deal to do with experience.  When I could visit Your Father’s Mustache in New York and realize that its floor space was that of Nick’s circa 1944, it made something click: memory met tangible reality.  Knowing more about the Savoy — as a place, run by real figures in a genuine historical panorama — adds to my experience of listening to broadcasts taken from there.

The photographs — almost all of them new to me — and the maps (a delight) add to the pleasure of this book.  As well, I learned about musicians I’d never heard of, or from, who played major roles in Boston’s jazz life: Dean Earl, Al Vega, Mabel Robinson Simms, as well as places I’d heard little of — Izzy Ort’s Bar and Grille, for one.  james Reese Europe puts in an appearance, as does Sam Rivers; George Frazier, Nat Hentoff, Father Norman J. O’Connor, Symphony Hall, Symphony Sid, Teddi King, Jake Hanna, Leroy Parkins, Fat Man Robinson, John McLellan, Charlie Bourgeois, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Berklee College of Music pop in and out.

But what makes this book rise above the information and stories collected within it is Vacca’s skill as researcher, editor, writer, and presenter.  The first thing a reader will notice is his lively but not flashy writing style: I’d call it refined, erudite journalism — fast-moving but never superficial.  He is a great storyteller, with a fine eye for the telling detail but someone who leaves a reader wanting more rather than feeling as if one was trapped at a party with an Authority on some bit of arcana.  (The writer Vacca reminds me of is THE NEW YORKER’S Joseph Mitchell, and that is not a compliment I utter lightly.)  He has a light touch, so the book is entertaining without ever seeming thin or didactic.  I would hand this book to an aspiring writer, researcher, or reporter, and say, “This is one admirable way to do it.”

In addition, the book is obviously the result of diligent research — not simply a synthesis of the available books that touch on the subject, although there is a six-page small-print bibliography (and a discography, a generous touch) but much of the information here comes from contemporary newspapers and magazines and Vacca’s interviews with Bostonians who were there, whether they were musicians, fans, or interested onlookers.

I’ve finished reading it, but it remains on my desk — an irresistible distraction, a book I have been returning to often.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment — literate, vivid, accurate, and animated.

To find out more about the book, click here. I predict it will provide more pleasure, and more lasting pleasure, than its price — which is roughly that of one compact disc.

May your happiness increase!

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WHAT ED BEACH GAVE US

I’ve just learned that Ed Beach is dead.  He was 86 and had lived in Oregon (his home state) for a long time.  No service is planned, so people who recall him, love him, and love what he did will have to perform their own affectionate memorials in their heads.

Fittingly, for a man who spent his life as a voice coming through the speaker, there is no picture of Beach on Google Images.  But that voice — cavernous, drawling, amused, dragging out certain syllables — is here in my memory, and when people like myself who grew up listening to Beach speak of him, one of them will bring forth his cherished phrases and start laughing.

What I know of his biography is limited.  Oregon-born, he was a capable West Coast jazz pianist who admired Tatum and the early bop players.  How he got into radio I don’t know, but my first awareness of him began in 1969, when I saw in the New York Times that there was a two-hour program called (rather flatly) JUST JAZZ on the then reigning non-commercial New York jazz station, WRVR-FM, 106.7, broadcasting from the Riverside Church. 

That in itself was interesting: it was on two hours every weekday and for four hours on Saturday night.  In this age of digitized music and internet streaming, those hours may not seem like a great deal, but it was a boon even then.  And what caught my attention was the listing of a two-hour show on Lee Wiley, someone I’d read about but hadn’t heard.  (I’d read George Frazier’s love-besotted liner note reprinted in EDDIE CONDON’S TREASURY OF JAZZ.  More about that book and that piece sometime.)  So I found a new box of reel-to-reel tape and sat in front of the speaker while Ed Beach played Lee Wiley’s recordings and spoke in between them. 

I didn’t know at the time that I had uniwttingly encountered one of the great spiritual masters, someone who (along with the musicians themselves and Whitney Balliett) would teach me all that I needed to know about jazz.

Beach’s show began with his chosen theme — Wes Montgomery’s BLUES IN F — played softly as connecting-music in between the performances he wanted to share with us.  Then, that deep voice, introducing himself and the show, and offering a very brief sketch of the artist who was the show’s subject . . . and into the music.  He didn’t overwhelm with minutiae; he didn’t teach or preach.  (Yes, I am comparing him with the Phil Schaap of today, but defenders of Phil need not leap to his defense.  This is about Ed Beach.) 

Beach wasn’t terribly interested in full personnels, in the best sound quality, in the original label of issue, presenting alternate takes in sequence, arranging an artist’s career chronologically. 

Rather, his was an eclectic, human approach — as if you had been invited to a listening session with someone who had a large collection, was eager to share his beloved treasures, moving from track to track as delight and whim took him.  So his approach was personal, apparently casual — as one selection reminded him of another, not just for their apparent similarity, but for the juxtapositions and the range of an artist’s work he could show in two hours.  Someone like Lee, whose recorded career was compact (this was in 1969, before all those versions of LET’S CALL IT A DAY surfaced) could be covered well in two hours.  Other artists, with longer careers, got multi-part shows: four hours on Louis in the Thirties.  Beach’s range was wide: I remember shows on Rollins and on Johnny Dunn.  And — given his format — he didn’t replay his favorite recordings.  Ed Hall today, Hank Mobley tomorrow, and so on. 

In hearing and recording and rehearing those shows I was not only learning about performances and performers I hadn’t heard of (because much classic jazz was out of print and my budget was limited) but about a loving reverence for the music, a point of view that could shine the light on the ODJB and on Clifford Brown, without condescending to either.  He mixed reverence for the music and irreverence for things outside it (he was powerfully funny in an understated way).  He tried to teach us all what to listen to and how to listen to it.

Now, when we can buy the complete recordings of X — going for hours, with unissued material, arranged in sequence — a Beach show might seem a fragmentary overview.  And I remember the mixed feelings I had, perhaps thirty-five years ago, when my collection (in its narrow intense way) began to expand past what he had played — or, even given new discoveries — what he had known.  I had that odd sense of a student discovering something that his much-admired professor hadn’t had access to . . . mingled emotions for sure. 

(Beach also had a program, for some brief time, BEACH READS, where he did just that — in that resonant voice, purling his way in hilarious deadpan through S.J. Perelman.  I can hear those cadences now.  And he was just as articulate off the air.  I remember having a small dialogue with him through the mail.  Powerfully under the spell of Mezz Mezzrow’s REALLY THE BLUES, I had written something negative to him about Red Nichols, accusing Nichols of being in it for the money.  Forty years later, I remember Beach’s sharp response: “Jazz musicians don’t play for cookies and carrots.”

All things, even Golden Eras that no one recognizes at the time, come to an end.  JUST JAZZ started to be aired at odd hours.  I set my alarm clock to get up at 7 AM on a Saturday morning to tape a two-hour Sidney Catlett show.  Pure jazz, without commercials, was not a paying proposition.  WRVR changed its programming schedule, putting Ed “in drive time,” airing brief jazz-related commercials (one of them was for the Master Jazz Recordings label — MJR of sainted memory) and then the station was sold.  I heard him again only on my deteriorating tapes and then only in my imagination.       

I hope that others who had the precious experience will share their memories of Ed — and perhaps this post will make its way to his family, so that they will know even more of how “Uncle Gabchin” or “Sam Seashore,” of the firm of “Wonder, Blunder, and Thunder,” some favorite self-mocking personae — how much Ed Beach was loved.  And remains so. 

Few people gave us so much, with so little fanfare, so generously.