Tag Archives: George Shearing

FOR THREE, BY THREE: ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, NICKI PARROTT, CHUCK REDD (ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY, April 17, 2015)

One of the finest piano trios ever played amazing music at the 2015 Atlanta Jazz Party — Rossano Sportiello, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Chuck Redd, drums.

ROSSANO

This lengthy performance — three moods, three interludes, three tributes — honors Erroll Garner, George Shearing, and Count Basie, with MISTY, SHE, and SHOE SHINE BOY — creating a world of melodic improvisation, moving from sweet slow rumination to Kansas City romp, Harlem stride — with beautiful string bass and drum work along the way.

Magnificent music: the sort of creative effusion that happens when one of these musicians is on the stand, and even more when the three of them get together.

May your happiness increase!

“BEAUTIFUL LOVE, YOU’RE ALL A MYSTERY”: REBECCA KILGORE / KEITH INGHAM (ALLEGHENY JAZZ PARTY, September 19, 2014)

BEAUTIFUL LOVE Bing

The haunting waltz BEAUTIFUL LOVE was composed in 1931, music credited to Wayne King, Victor Young, and Egbert Van Alstyne; lyrics to Haven Gillespie. That is an eminent group of artists.  I don’t know whether King insisted that his name be put on the music (thus, he would receive royalties) before he would perform the song.  On no evidence whatsoever, I think Victor Young might be most responsible for this melody.

I do know that I first became aware of BEAUTIFUL LOVE through one or another 1934 Art Tatum recording.  Here is his early Decca improvisation, characteristically with everything imaginable offered, including a vivid digression into RUSSIAN LULLABY:

There are, of course, many improvisations on it by Bill Evans, by Helen Merrill, Anita O’Day, Benny Carter, Joe Pass, Kenny Dorham, Lee Konitz, Shirley Horn, George Shearing, and a sweet, intent one by Bing Crosby.

What other song can you think of that has been recorded by both Donald Lambert and Chick Corea?

In this century, the song retains its popularity among improvisers, if YouTube videos are a measure of that.  Here is a sheet music cover from 1959 with the UK pop singer Edna Savage posing inexplicably:

BEAUTIFUL LOVE Edna Savage

But my new favorite performance of BEAUTIFUL LOVE is this, which took place at the Allegheny Jazz Party on September 19, 2014  —

That’s our Rebecca, Becky Kilgore, and Keith Ingham — in one of their duets in a Victor Young tribute set.  I so admire the varied textures and shadings Becky brings to individual words and to those words, made into tapestries of sound and feeling.  The most modest of stars, she is a great understated dramatic actress who seems never to act; she is possessed by the song and rides its great arching wings.

Love is of course the great mystery, whether it is gratified or if it remains elusive.  How the great artists touch us so deeply is perhaps mysterious.  But what we feel and perceive is not — whether we experience it in person or on a recording or a video performance.

To experience an unforgettable weekend of music by Becky and friends, one need only visit here to find out all one needs to know about the Allegheny Jazz Party, taking place in Cleveland, Ohio, September 10-13, 2015.

May your happiness increase!

BENDING TIME DELIGHTFULLY: THE ANACHRONIC JAZZ BAND “BACK IN TOWN”

Some listeners believe jazz can be seen as a series of grassy plots, each sealed off and protected an electrical fence.  Thus, the Bad doesn’t infect the Good, the Impure is quarantined from the Truth.

“Old school” bands play GRANDPA’S SPELLS; “swing bands” play DICKIE’S DREAM; “modern” bands play “‘ROUND MIDNIGHT.”

This artifice was created and encouraged by writers, who believed that art could be conceptualized as a straight line, a flow chart, moving towards Progress or Decline.  Pres begat Bird who begat Trane . . .

Most musicians I know smile wearily when confronted with these stifling divisions.  They know that the distance between King Oliver and Bird doesn’t even exist.  In the Forties and Fifties, players trooped into recording studios to make music under these pretenses: HOT MEETS COOL, SWING MEETS DIXIE, and DIXIELAND GOES MODERN (real titles for actual recording dates).  But they knew that the names were simply journalistic devices to package music for consumers and to sell products: the music itself was not altered or harmed by the names.

Thirty and more years ago, I saw two discs in a used record store, by a French band I had never heard of, the ANACHRONIC JAZZ BAND.

From “anachronism,” I knew something interesting was happening, and even though my five years of French had eroded, I could figure out that this band was doing something deliciously unusual: playing “bop” and “modern” material in older styles — taking a Charlie Parker line and playing it in the style of a 1926 Jelly Roll Morton recording.

I bought the records in the spirit of “What could possibly go wrong?” — and they were immensely rewarding.

See for yourself in this 1977 performance of ANTHROPOLOGY:

First, you can’t miss the high good spirits here and the immense expertise: the Anachronics are deeply swinging and wonderfully precise but never stiff.

Second, the whole notion is hilariously wonderful, but not in the often mean-spirited way that comedy / parody / satire often operate (think of Chubby Jackson’s DIXIELAND STOMP, where “modern” musicians play “Dixieland” as a messy amateurish creation).  And it is deeply inquisitive — asking questions of jazz and its “styles” — rather than presenting a production of KING LEAR where everyone wears jeans and speaks in rap cadences.

The Anachronics aren’t satirizing Dizzy and Bird, Morton and Henderson.  Rather, their music is intensely witty play: “What would happen if we brought this composition into this world?  How could we honor both of them and have a rousing good time while doing it?”

The AJB began in 1976 and rolled along to great acclaim until 1980.  Although they apparently were based in the past, they were thrillingly original: no one was doing what they did!  But this post isn’t a nostalgic look back at something rich and rare that is now gone.

I am delighted to write that there is a new AJB CD, just out, and it is a rich banquet of sounds, feeling, and ideas.  Recorded in January 2013, it is called BACK IN TOWN — true enough!

The repertoire comes — initially — from Parker, Rollins, Shearing, Monk, Paul Desmond, Mingus, Chick Corea, Clyde Hart, Miles, Quincy Jones — with a few clever originals by AJB members.  The dazzling musicians on this disc are Philippe Baudoin, piano; Marc Richard, clarinet / alto; Patrick Artero, trumpet; Pierre Guicquéro, trombone; André Villéger, clarinet / alto / tenor; Jean-François Bonnel, clarinet / C-melody; Daniel Huck, vocal, alto; François Fournet, banjo; Gérard Gervois, tuba; Sylvain Glévarec, drums; Göran Eriksson, recorder.  (Arrangements by Baudoin, Richard, Artero.)

The soloing and ensemble work couldn’t be better, and each track is simultaneously a series of small delightful explosions and a revelation.  More than “listening to a record,” I felt as if I were perusing a collection of short stories . . . art that reveals itself more and more, a matter of shadings and gleams, on each hearing.

It has become an invaluable disc for me, and I hope it is the first of many to come.  See and hear for yourself: the Anachronic Jazz Band is truly back in town, and we are very grateful.

Here’s a sample of their recent work, captured by Jeff Guyot in July 2013: COOKIN’ THE FROG:

Here’s the band’s Facebook page.  And their website.

May your happiness increase!

SPORTIELLO HONORS SHEARING. WE SMILE.

George Shearing autograph

First, some free verse:

We smile when he plays the piano,

The Maestro who comes from Milano,

He thinks it endearing 

To honor George Shearing,

Go hear him as soon as you can.  Oh!

— Author unknown, 2013

Rossano Sportiello, one of the most brilliant pianists (and one of the most genial of men) has put together a tribute to one of his idols, the late George Shearing.  “The Smiling Piano” will take place at the Cafe Carlyle, 35 East 76th Street, New York City — for a two-week run, June 11-15 and 18-24, 2013.  The trio features Frank Tate (bass, 11th-15th), Joel Forbes (bass, 18th-22nd) and Dennis Mackrel (drums), and the music begins at 8:45pm. For reservations: Tel. 212-744-1600.

If you’ve never been fortunate enough to hear the young Maestro play, let me remedy this immediately.  Here he is, recorded in 2012 at a concert at Dominican University in San Rafael, California, playing O SOLE MIO / A TIME FOR LOVE / CHOPIN IN JAZZ:

That would convince anyone.

Here’s what Rossano has to say about Maestro Shearing:

A Smiling Piano is what I think of as soon as I listen to any George Shearing recordings, when I hear the most beautiful piano playing that makes everybody smile.  His music is in tune with the way I felt since I became a professional performer at only 16. I felt I wanted to play music that could always be enjoyable and make people feel good.

When the possibility of performing at the Café Carlyle became real, I was asked to find a theme for the show, which would run for two weeks. Without any hesitation I came up with this idea.  A tribute to George Shearing means a tribute to jazz piano in general. Early in his career his style was first inspired by Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum. But Shearing soon became one the masters of that revolutionary music, be-bop. When he moved to New York City in 1946, Hank Jones and Errol Garner became his mentors and good friends and he absorbed their styles as well. Later he formed the George Shearing Quintet and the “Shearing Sound” became one of the inspirational elements for generations of musicians, and it still is.

A Shearing tribute is also naturally a tribute to “The Great American Song Book,” because he was one of its greatest interpreters and one of the most remarkable improvisers of all time — as well as a very prolific composer. Once he chose a song, he could improvise endless variations in any style: he could play a popular song and make it sound like Bach or Rachmaninoff or many others. He might start playing the second movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto and use it as an introduction to a ballad or the reverse! In the sixties he used to tour the USA playing classical concertos with local symphony orchestras in the first set of the show and bringing on his jazz quintet for the second half.

So stride piano, swing, be-bop, the Great American Song Book and classical music are the leading ingredients that will shape my tribute to George Shearing, pianist, composer, interpreter, and improviser.

I’ll be appearing with Dennis Mackrel on drums, Frank Tate on bass (the first week), and Joel Forbes on bass (the second week).  In 1983, Count Basie personally selected Dennis Mackrel to join his band, known for having the finest rhythm section in jazz. Dennis has been a sideman of choice for scores of jazz greats. George Shearing himself said, “If I ever have a record date coming up that calls for a drummer and Dennis is not available, I’ll postpone the session. He’s that good.” Dennis is currently one of the greatest jazz drummers and arrangers as well as the Musical Director of The Count Basie Orchestra.  Since the late 60’s, Frank Tate has been the sought-after accompanist for legendary musicians. Marian McPartland, Benny Goodman, Hank Jones, Dave McKenna, Wild Bill Davison, Teddy Wilson, Joe Venuti, Milt Jackson, Zoot Sims, and dozens of other jazz greats all have turned to Frank for his brilliant bass lines. Frank worked at the Cafè Carlyle every night with Bobby Short for the last 9 years of Bobby’s career until 2004.  Joel Forbes, currently a member of the Harry Allen Quartet and the Rebecca Kilgore Quartet, is one of New York best bass players, well known for is incredibly rich acoustic sound.

JAZZ LIVES suggests, quietly but fervently, “Go!”

May your happiness increase!

THE BRAVE JOURNEYS OF JENNIFER LEITHAM: “I STAND CORRECTED”

Jennifer Jane Leitham by Garth Woods

Jennifer Jane Leitham by Garth Woods

I first encountered the virtuoso jazz string bassist Jennifer Jane Leitham at the Sacramento Music Festival a few years ago — and was impressed by her eloquent improvisations.  Not only did she have technique, but she was a powerfully focused musician. Although I had never encountered the jazz string bassist John Leitham in person, I had heard him on recordings with Mel Torme, George Shearing, and other jazz notables. I STAND CORRECTED is a marvelous film documentary that traces the transition from John to Jennifer.  It is a deeply felt collaboration between Jennifer and filmmaker Andrea Meyerson. You don’t have to be a jazz fan to admire the film or its subject. It chronicles  the life-long journeys of Jennifer Leitham, who courageously exists in two simultaneous realms.  One story — more familiar — is how a young person born in Pennsylvania (not New Orleans, New York, or Kansas City) becomes a jazz musician in a time and place not all that hospitable to jazz.  Or perhaps not to larger kinds of improvisation. But I STAND CORRECTED is about much more than “becoming a musician”: early inspirations, good teachers, learning one’s craft, breaking in, getting a nationwide reputation, working alongside famous players and singers — with heartbreaks that keep the story genuine, not an unbroken climb to the top. I STAND CORRECTED is about a young woman born into a boy’s body who, early on, knew she was in the wrong place, in a society that would not admit such things might be possible.  It is a record of how John became Jennifer while not letting her essence be destroyed in the process.  For  John Leitham was a wondrous musician before Jennifer emerged in the public eye, and one of the sweetest aspects of this saga is Jennifer’s awareness and acceptance of both selves: this isn’t a film about an enraged, wounded adult trying to obliterate her younger self, but an adult who wants to emerge as the person she knows herself to be. I STAND CORRECTED offers that human story and more in a most moving film. For one thing, Jennifer is an exceedingly likable guide, honest but not pompous nor didactic or narcissistic.  I STAND CORRECTED is not a sermon telling us that we should all be tolerant.  There are no scientific or academic talking heads, no instant revelations. The film is a casual but strongly felt journal of one woman’s struggle to be the person she was meant to be.  Jennifer is both candid and light-hearted without ever undercutting the seriousness of her quest.  The film touches on emotional crises (a divorce, family members unable to accept Jennifer when they knew only John) and medical catastrophes, without becoming bleak. Of course, it helps that an audience has seen Jennifer onstage, ebullient and serious at the same time, playing at the highest level of her art, testing herself while having the time of her life.  And the film is generously leavened with musical performances where Jennifer shows off her prodigious talents as improviser, composer, singer. But the real story is more than a music video. Along the way, John-in-the-process-of-becoming-Jennifer is forced to be a spy in enemy country.  But she finds allies, friends, and supporters.  Some of them are genuinely unaffected noble people: Doc Severinsen is someone you would always want in your corner — gentle yet unwavering, both parent and friend to someone who strongly needs both.  “I hired a bass player, not a man or a woman,” he tells her.  Bless him.  Ed Shaughnessy is not far behind.  (Jennifer’s younger brother is a prize, too.) I was reminded that Doc and Ed were born n an era of drinking fountains labeled COLORED and WHITE outside train stations in many states.  But they and other jazz musicians learned quickly that it didn’t matter what you looked like on the outside.  It didn’t matter who your life-partner was.  Black, white, gay, straight?  Could you play?  What was your heart like?  How well did you love? Meeting these gracious, generous people is one of the film’s pleasures.  But they are only reflecting back something shining out of the film’s heroine.  Jennifer Leitham is gently making her way, as we all must.  Her courage is admirable, for she made the transition at the height of her career, when “coming out as a woman” could have ended her life as a performing musician. I STAND CORRECTED introduces us to a person for whom making music was a way to save herself, to define herself . . . and her music is a great loving gift to all of us.  The salvation young John found while playing the electric bass left-handed (a conscious choice, perhaps an early sly way of saying “I am different”) radiates through this film — a gift Jennifer gives to us.  And as she trusts herself, we trust her. We are all trying to become the person we feel we are meant to be, and some get close to that goal.  Jennifer Leitham’s quest didn’t end when she came out of the hospital after surgery.  It continues every time she performs or tells her story — a story that will give some other young person courage to be him or herself. I STAND CORRECTED is beautifully yet unobtrusively presented: the film shifts back and forth from the early life of John Leitham to the music of Jennifer Leitham to her voyage of self-discovery, the situations she must face and the oppositions that result — as well as the emotional rewards. At the end of I STAND CORRECTED, we feel privileged to have met a happy, realized, creative human being: a woman with four birthdays. And as we are slowly — too slowly — leaving behind the world where skin color or sexual preference determines identity and worth, I STAND CORRECTED will be understood as a small milestone on the way to a world where the idea of MAN or WOMAN is put aside as irrelevant in favor of PERSON, of BEING. It is a rewarding film both musically and spiritually.  Make every effort to see it.  Its heroine’s courage and perseverance are inspiring.  In a world where many people make judgments based on someone’s external presence, we need to be reminded that the truths lie within. Here is the film’s website — where you can see trailers and find out where it is being shown. May your happiness increase.

BOB WILLOUGHBY’S REMARKABLE PORTRAITS

Because they give themselves to what they are creating, jazz musicians make splendid photographic subjects.

Bob Willoughby, who died in 2009, wasn’t the first to capture their intensity, lack of self-consciousness, and energy on camera.  But his beautiful volume of photographs and recollections, JAZZ: BODY AND SOUL, shows on every page that his work is superbly moving.  (Evans Mitchell, 2012, 192 pages, hardbound.)

Since musicians — in the act of creation — aren’t standing still, some photographs begin to look like versions of poses we have already seen a thousand times before: the horn player, face distended, sweating, looking like a runner just before crossing the finish line; the intimate relationship between the singer and the vertical microphone; the drummer, moving so quickly that the sticks blur.  Other photographs entrance us because they are the only visual evidence we have that an otherwise obscure musician was ever seen.

Willoughby’s work goes well beyond these formulas, although some of his images have been reproduced so widely that they are now the way that we mentally identify the subject.  But even his most famous pictures have something to offer us, a half-century after they were created.

The book is divided into two sections: one of Wlloughby’s West Coast photographs from 1950 to — Billie Holiday, Wardell Gray, Miles Davis, George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Ventura, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Ray Nance, Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, Peggy Lee.  Particularly absorbing is a series of dramatic photographs catching the emotional interplay between saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and a crowd in hysterical rapture.  Willoughby photographed Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Buck Clayton, Martha Tilton and friends during the recording sessions for the soundtrack of THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY.  An extended photo-essay on Frank Sinatra tells us more than any biography.

The second section of the book offers photographs Willoughby created in Germany in 1992 and 1994 — fascinating portraits of Lee Konitz, Marcus Roberts, Jon Faddis, Art Farmer, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, John Lewis, Mulligan much transformed by the years, and many others.

Having purchased many volumes of photographs of jazz musicians, I tend to look at the book with fascination immediately after their purchase . . . but not often after.  Willoughby’s book has proven itself an exception.  In tne month that I have had a copy, I have come back to it over and over, drawn by what his eye captured — tantalizing wordless dramas that open deeper each time I stare into the pages.

And the appeal of the book is wider than the allure of the musicians portrayed there.  Without being precious or coy, Willoughby created small paintings full of feeling, emotion coming through the lovely blacks, greys, and whites.  He was a master of seeing, of shaping line and angle, shape and focus.  I look at these portraits and I can feel Louis’ happiness, imagine the words passing between Bing and Frank on the set of CAN-CAN, hear Billie’s voice.  In addition, Willoughby’s photos are idiosyncratic master classes for photographers: what to emphasize, what to leave out. . . all the more remarkable because he captured his subjects in the moment.

Marc Myers, of JAZZ WAX, knew and spoke with Willoughby, and the essays Marc has created about the man and his work are rewarding (with photographs that will astonish): read more here and here.   The book’s website — with even more beautiful pictures — can be found here.  Willoughby’s photographs reward the eye.

May your happiness increase.

SWING IN PARADISE (The Second Set): ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, STEPHANIE TRICK, NICKI PARROTT, HAL SMITH at FILOLI (July 29, 2012)

The only mournful thing about the music that follows is that it’s the last set of two divine concerts by this happy group — Rossano and Stephanie, piano; Nicki, vocal and string bass; Hal, drums — that took place at Dominican University, San Rafael (July 28) and at extraordinary Filoli, Woodside (July 29).

Rossano and Nicki began this set with a patented Sportiello – Parrott Extravaganza, which took in SCENES FROM CHILDHOOD, a bit of Bach, LULLABY OF BIRDLAND, and more.  I’ve called it JAZZ MEETS THE CLASSICS, and it’s a wondrous ride:

For something more familiar by this stellar group, Henri Woode’s ROSETTA:

And that 1930 celebration of love found at last, EXACTLY LIKE YOU:

Stephanie is the least threatening of mortals, so it’s amusing that she plays Pete Johnson’s ominously-named DEATH RAY BOOGIE (had Mr. Johnson been reading Thirties science-fiction in pulp magazines, I wonder?):

She goes to town on Fats Waller’s MINOR DRAG:

Who knew Nicki was so deeply involved in Yiddischkeit?  Hear for yourself — BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN:

And the question remains — posed with such insouciant swing by Nicki — IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN’T MY BABY?:

The appropriate finale was AFTER YOU’VE GONE:

But the wise crowd didn’t want to let these four players out of their sight, so the quartet baked a delicious two-layer cake of an encore, TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE- LIZA:

Now, who among us will begin to book the global concert tour for this group?  They and the rest of the world surely deserve it.

May your happiness increase.

A ROSSANO SPORTIELLO RECITAL at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 16, 2011)

Friday afternoon, before Jazz at Chautauqua “officially” begins, is given over to a series of solo recitals in the Hotel Athenaeum — around a grand piano.  I will be posting music by John Sheridan, Keith Ingham, James Dapogny, Howard Alden, and Maestro Sportiello, who embarked on an unbroken solo recital that began with pop classics — WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER and LUCKY TO BE ME — then segues into Schumann’s SCENES FROM CHILDHOOD and more:

Here’s the second part, featuring George Shearing, Bach, Chopin, and Don Lambert:

All I could say, then or now, is, “Beautiful, Rossano!”

BLUES FOR BOYCE

Boyce Brown (1910-1959) is a tantalizing, elusive figure.  Although he played hot jazz with the great Chicagoans, he was not one of them — hard-living and hard-drinking.  The picture above shows him in 1956, surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Eddie Condon, and George Wettling, at his final recording session.

Scott Yanow calls Boyce “eccentric,” “outlandish,” “an erratic individual,” although those characterizations sound ungenerous.  I think of the famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s THE FAMILY REUNION, “In a world of fugitives, it is those that turn away that appear to run away.”

In the case of Boyce Brown, it is difficult to know if he chose to turn away from the world of musicians and gigs for the world of the spirit, or if the earthly world scorned him.  All we know are the facts of his short life.  He became a professional musician at 17 and recorded with some of the greatest Hot players — but his path was an unusual one outside the clubs and recording studios.

Boyce loved marijuana and what it could do, but it didn’t contribute to his death.  He didn’t die of tuberculosis or freeze on a Harlem doorstep, but prejudice and sorrow seem to have shortened his life.  He is certainly underrated and not well-known or well-remembered.  I agree with Jim Denham (of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST) who thinks that Boyce should be both remembered and celebrated.  And although I’ve never met Jeff Crompton (of HELLO THERE, UNIVERSE) I and other jazz fans are indebted to him for his generosities.  (You can find the blogs written by Jim and Jeff on my blogroll.)

What facts I have collected seem at first an assortment of weird personality traits, but viewed lovingly, they are the markings of a rare bird.

Boyce was someone who “saw” musical notes as colors.  He nearly died at birth; the midwife saved him by reshaping his unformed skull.  His parents encouraged him to take up the saxophone in hopes that it would strengthen his weak chest.  When he played, he had a habit of stretching his neck out like a bird — causing him to be rejected at an audition for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

Eddie Condon said Boyce was “a slow reader,” Condon-speak for partial blindness.  Boyce lived with his mother, wrote poetry, listened to Delius.  Condon’s SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ contains Boyce’s whimsical poem about ROYAL-T (slang for the best marijuana), hilarious and tenderly decorated by Boyce himself — a Hot illuminated manuscript.

He named his alto saxophone Agnes, and thought deeply about her personality and moods; if a recording disappointed him, he blamed himself for not being in harmony with his instrument.  All of this might seem freakish on first perusal, but other musicians have spoken of their synesthesia (Marian McPartland, whom no one considers an eccentric, told Whitney Balliett that the key of D was daffodil yellow), and Ben Webster, hardly an introvert, called his saxophone Betsy or Ol’ Betsy.

But before we get caught up in the debris of habit and personal history, let us — as Al Smith used to say — look at the record.  Or listen.  Two, in fact, from 1939: CHINA BOY and JAZZ ME BLUES:

Boyce sounds like himself.  Those rolling, tumbling figures are the playing of a man on a mission, someone with a message for us in the eight or sixteen bars allotted him.

The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing his volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker.  I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat.  More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis and Frank Teschemacher.  Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”

(Boyce’s descendants in this century might be Michael McQuaid and John “Butch” Smith — players who know that the alto saxophone needs a great deal of punch to keep it from sounding like a polite older relative.)

Here is a link to Jeff Crompton’s excellent, generous survey of Boyce’s life — where he shares with us a rare disc, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, where Boyce and Wild Bill Davison are the front line:

http://jeffcrompton.blogspot.com/2010/05/brother-matthew.html

The Boyce Brown discography is brief — his recordings could fit on three compact discs — but it is choice.  His better-known associates surely valued the reticent altoist.

I apologize for the onslaught of data, but in trying to explain something about Boyce Brown, the details of his recording sessions are valuable when we have so little else.  As far as I can tell, no one interviewed him during his playing career, and the press coverage he received at the end of his life emphasized (however gently) his uniqueness: the lady preacher with an alto saxophone.

Boyce was first recorded as a member of a working band, Paul Mares And His Friars Society Orchestra (a John Hammond idea?) : Paul Mares (tp) Santo Pecora (tb) Omer Simeon (cl) Boyce Brown (as) Jess Stacy (p) Marvin Saxbe (g) Pat Pattison (b) George Wettling (d).  One session, the results unissued in the 78 era, took place on January 7, 1935.  (The music came out on Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society # 6, twenty years or so after Boyce’s death.)  The same four songs were re-recorded on January 26, and were issued on two OKeh 78s that I imagine were quite hard to find even in 1935: NAGASAKI, REINCARNATION, MAPLE LEAF RAG, THE LAND OF DREAMS (the last based on BASIN STREET BLUES).  These four (and a MAPLE LEAF RAG from the first date) have been issued on the 2-CD Retrieval set of the complete New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  Theoretically all eight titles have been issued on “Chicago 1935,” a CD on the Gannet label, but I’ve never seen it.  REINCARNATION, possibly a composition of Boyce’s, was named for one of his spiritual beliefs — unusual but not unknown in 1935 Chicago.

On March 11, 1935, Boyce returned to the studios with Charles LaVere And His Chicagoans : Johnny Mendell, Marty Marsala (tp) Jabbo Smith (tp,vcl) Preston Jackson (tb) Joe Marsala (cl,ts-1) Boyce Brown (as) Bud Taylor (ts-2) Charles LaVere (p,vcl) Joe Young (g) Leonard Bibbs (b) Zutty Singleton (d) The Chicagoans (vcl) for BOOGABOO BLUES and UBANGI MAN, neither title issued on 78. On April 5, the LaVere band tried again, without Jabbo Smith;  Joe Masek (ts) Israel Crosby (b) replaced Bud Taylor, Leonard Bibbs.  They recorded I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU, SMILES, ALL TOO WELL, and BOOGABOO BLUES.  Again the sides were not released on 78, but several lp issues exist — one of the strangest issues a later dub (a copy given to me by Ralph O’Callaghan) — a 16 rpm 7″ record labeled “Black Diamond.”  On the other side was a 1933 Reuben Reeves session.

Four years later, on October 11, 1939, Boyce was recorded again, and these sides had wider distribution; he was a member of Jimmy MacPartland’s band: Jimmy McPartland (cnt) Bud Jacobson (cl) Boyce (as) Floyd Bean (p) Dick McPartland (g) Jim Lannigan (b) Hank Isaacs (d).  These sides have been made possible by the Friend of Jazz George Avakian and Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft and George Avakian, and they appeared in the Decca CHICAGO JAZZ album:JAZZ ME BLUES, CHINA BOY, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, and SUGAR.

Hank O’Neal tells me that Boyce joined in on the private sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house in the late Thirties, and that one track from these sessions was issued on a 1965 collection called MORE INFORMAL SESSIONS AT SQUIRREL’s, a recording worth searching for.  Hank also recalls that Squirrel, thirty years later, characterized Boyce as gifted but troubled.

Boyce’s most hard-to-find session (also in Chicago, February 12, 1940) was as a member of THE COLLECTOR’S ITEM CATS, which featured the then also little-known Wild Bill Davison, cornet; Boyce; Mel Henke (a pianist who gained later fame on the West Coast); Walter Ross on bass; Joe Kahn on drums.  Two sides, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, came out on Collector’s Item 102: a 78 issue — shared with us by Jeff Crompton.

Boyce also worked in the “ideal” band co-led by cornetist Pete Daily and pianist-composer Frank Melrose.  A good deal of their privately recorded music has been released on the Delmark CD BLUESIANA.  (The thought of Boyce and Kansas City Frank on gigs — creative individuals who did not fit the stereotypical idea of the hard-drinking Chicago jazz musician — is intriguing, and it makes me regret, not for the first time, that few fans at that time carried stenographer’s notebooks to interview these men.)

The late Bob Thiele spent some time in Chicago (where he recorded a band with clarinetist Bud Jacobson and Frank Melrose, something to bless Thiele for).  An unissued 1945 session for Bud Jacobson and His Hot Club Orchestra includes Bill Stapleton (cnt) Jacobson (cl,ts) Boyce (as) Mel Grant (p) Dick McPartland (g) Pat Pattison (b) Lew Finnerty (d), playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE, WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING, INDIANA, and HOT CLUB BLUES.  Does anyone know who or where the Signature masters are held, and have any of my readers ever heard this music?

Also in 1945, the jazz scholar / collector / recordist John Steiner held a series of concerts at the Uptown Playhouse Theater in Chicago.  His Jimmy Noone Memorial Concert (in August) featured Darnell Howard (clarinet), Boyce, Baby Dodds (drums), Gideon Honoré (piano), Jack Goss (guitar), Tut Soper (second piano), and Pat Pattison (bass).   On another occasion, Steiner sponsored a “jamboree” resulting in forty-five minutes of recordings of Lee Collins, Boyce, Darnell Howard, Volly DeFaut, pianists Gideon Honoré, Tut Soper, Jack Gardner, Mel Henke, and Chet Roble, among others.  and drummer Jim Barnes were among the contributors.  But in April 1946, a fire destroyed the Playhouse, and Steiner lost 150 unissued sides by Jack Gardner and groups, 20 sides by groups led by Boyce, a few by Frank Melrose, and location recordings by Honoré, Zinky Cohn, Punch Miller, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Jimmy Yancey.  (A sorrowing moment of silence is appropriate here.)  This information comes from the fascinating website devoted to S D (Steiner-Davis) Records: http://www.hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/sd.html.

Boyce’s last session was a decade later.  His absence from the recording studios might have been in part the result of changing fashions in music; what had been sought-after Hot Jazz was soon pushed aside with the popularity of bop, but I imagine that Boyce became more reclusive.  All this is supposition, but he seems to have been unfitted with the survival skills jazz musicians require: call up a club owner, create an opportunity to record.  One thinks of the nearly-blind Art Tatum and the completely blind George Shearing and Jeff Healey, but they might have been recognized as stronger personalities with more audaciously commanding technique than Boyce’s subtle ways.

Boyce seems always to have been contemplating the eternal rather than the quotidian, and he was baptized a Catholic in 1952.  The LIFE magazine story notes that a club owner “objected to” Boyce’s habit of for blessing himself before beginning to play.  I can only imagine that scene, and JAZZ LIVES readers might write the dialogue — the club owner astounded and irate, Boyce gently explaining that this was what he did before he played.  I have written of other musicians (Frank Newton as my prime example) who loved the music without reservation but recoiled from the business of music, and Boyce seems to be one of that tender breed.  Putting his beliefs into action, Boyce entered the Servite monastery as a friar in 1953 — devoting himself to chastity, poverty, and the contemplation of spiritual ideals and sorrows.

When Boyce went into a New York recording studio on April 2-3, 1956, he was no longer “Boyce Brown” but “Brother Matthew,” a monk, someone who wanted his royalties from the sale of the recording to go to missions in Africa.  The session was the idea of a record company executive, and certainly it had journalistic potential as good copy in that era of “comeback” stories, reuniting a monk who still could play Hot with his internationally famous colleagues.  Boyce was showcased with the Eddie Condon band of the time, and a LIFE photograph shows him gingerly accepting a drink from Wild Bill Davison, peering tentatively into the glass — whether from blindness or caution, one cannot say.

Since Condon was under contract to Columbia Records (thanks again to Avakian) he may not have played guitar on the sessions — guitar credit goes to Paul Smith, Eddie’s brother-in-law, but Condon “conducted,” which is what he did so well.  This group was Wild Bill Davison (cnt) Cutty Cutshall (tb) Pee Wee Russell (cl) Boyce (as) Ernie Caceres (bar) Gene Schroeder (p) Bob Casey (b) George Wettling (d) Eddie Condon (cond), and they recorded OUT OF NOWHERE, I NEVER KNEW, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, MY BLUE HEAVEN, LINGER AWHILE, BLUES FOR BOYCE, SISTER KATE, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN.

Those who collect Fifties television kinescopes may have seen Boyce on the Garry Moore Show (Moore loved hot jazz) or I’VE GOT A SECRET.  I can’t envision Brother Matthew being comfortable on show as a genial oddity — the jazz-musician-monk — but perhaps he did it because it would bring good publicity and contributions to the Order.

This link contains the LIFE story (pages 173-6) on that final session: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SE8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA173&lpg=PA173&dq=Boyce+brown+alto+sax&source=bl&ots=_QEpuuHPor&sig=TbeyWW0CUzC6-OjG8fS09vtg03k&hl=en&ei=eP9ATvOOHM-whAfYxP2xCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFsQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=Boyce%20brown%20alto%20sax&f=false.

Note: the link above opens most easily if one is willing to copy it whole and paste it into a new browser; then you will be able to peruse 1953 weekly pictorial journalism, including ads for durable house paint and Blue Cross hospital insurance.

After the session, Boyce went back into the monastery to devote himself to things of the spirit; pictures show him playing music with the other monks and making sandwiches in the kitchen.  He remained there until his death three years later.  Jim Denham believes that the Servites wouldn’t give Boyce final confirmation as a priest and he died of a heart attack shortly after that bitter disappointment in the monastery outside Granville, Wisconsin.

George Avakian told the late Richard M. Sudhalter in Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, “Looking back, I think he’s just as interesting now as I thought he was then.  The things he did, people are doing that kind of thing much more now.  But at that time nobody was: the element of surprise was a big factor. People hearing him for the first time were just flabbergasted.  I know I was. Where did this guy get this odd way of playing?  Where did it come from?  I guess there was a rather mysterious quality in all that.  Part of what makes it so interesting.”

Interesting, but tragic as well.  In a society that prides itself on cherishing the appearance of individualism, it is sad that Boyce Brown — surely an individualist with something beautiful on his mind — became marginalized as freakish, not only because he looked different, but because of his piety.  And although the jazz world prides itself on music and behaviors that go against the grain; it didn’t always do so effectively in this instance.  Thoreau’s different drummer didn’t get the gig.

But perhaps Boyce was fortunate that he had a monastery to retreat to, and spiritual things to which he could devote himself.  I think ruefully that had he been born fifty years later, he might have borne the weight of the popular-psychological tags we now take for granted.  Would we have classified him as a depressive, as differently abled, as someone suffering from social phobia, someone exhibiting Asperger’s, a victim of low self-esteem?  Birdlike and half-blind, he seems to me a creative spirit who turned away from this coarse world of fleshly realities to contemplate larger things, someone who wanted to do good for those who could not help themselves.

This post would not have been possible without the information from and gracious help of Jim Denham, Jeff Crompton, Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, Tom Kelly, Hank O’Neal, Hal Smith, David J. Weiner, and Aunt Ida Melrose.  I have remembered (perhaps hazily) information I read long ago in Dave Dexter, Jr.’s THE JAZZ STORY, and a February 1999 profile in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG, whose author I cannot trace.   If any JAZZ LIVES readers have more information or links to people who knew or knew of Boyce, I would be delighted to read their comments or to incorporate them into a future post.  Boyce Brown deserves more than partial oblivion.

MR. ARMSTRONG by MR. RICCARDI (or “DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL!”)

The person pictured at top should be immediately recognizable, although some of you might wonder when Louis joined the armed forces.  (The answer is, “1952, along with Abbott and Costello.”) 

Here’s a candid shot of Ricky Riccardi, my nomination for pre-eminent Louis Armstrong scholar, present and future.

The Beloved and I went uptown to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (104 East 126th Street) on last Tuesday night for Ricky’s presentation of rare Louis films.  It turned out to be ninety minutes of Louis on television — a medium that embraced him and one he was made for. 

In the audience were a number of jazz luminaries — Phoebe Jacobs, who’s been a friend to the music and musicians for a long time, and George Avakian, who’s been responsible for many of the finest jazz recordings on the planet . . . since 1940.  And — dispensing medical assistance and goodwill — the Jazz Acupuncturist Marcia Salter.   

Loren Schoenberg, director of the Museum, introduced Ricky — but reminded everyone that on the next four Tuesdays in September he will be sharing excerpted performances from the very exciting Bill Savory collection — not to be missed!  For the complete schedule, visit http://www.jmih.org/.

Ricky’s cornucopia of films covered the last two decades of Louis’s life.   Those who stereotype Louis might think that these performances would be the offerings of an exhausted man, coasting along on his pop hits.  (Some people still believe that Louis played and sang his final significant notes around 1927.  A pox on such delusions!) 

No, what we saw was lively, moving, creative, and witty.  Ricky went back to 1950 to CAVALCADE OF BANDS for a duet between Louis and Velma Middleton — both exquisite comedic talents — on THAT’S MY DESIRE — also showing brief vies of Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, and Cozy Cole.  On a 1952 Frank Sinatra show, Louis sang and played I’M CONFESSIN’, accompanied by Bill Miller, Sinatra’s long-time pianist.  In that same year, Louis appeared on the COLGATE COMEDY HOUR alongside Abbott and Costello — in a skit that had him blowing BUGLE CALL RAG instead of REVEILLE.  

Ricky jumped forward to a 1958 Times Jazz special — one of those weirdly delightful extravaganzas that offered everyone from George Shearing to Lionel Hampton to Jaye P. Morgan and Garry Moore, Jack Teagarden and Gerry Mulligan.  Louis played SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET and then various characters took over a blues that segued into — what else? — the ST. LOUIS BLUES. 

Because all of these clips were “live,” there were odd, pleasing surprises.  While Mulligan was playing his eloquent solo on a slow blues, you could see Jack Teagarden quickly checking his watch (“How much time do we have left?”)  Considering that the sponsor was Timex, and that there had been commercials featuring John Cameron Swayzee, was this a subliminal plug on Jack’s part?

An extraordinary (and rare) sequence from a 1960 BELL TELEPHONE HOUR had Louis singing SUNNY SIDE (and substituting the word “treaders” for “feet” in the lyrics), blowing splendidly on LAZY RIVER, seguiing into a heartbreaking SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD, and ending up with a bouncy MUSKRAT RAMBLE — accompanied by a gospel quartet of sorts! 

Later, after clips from talk shows where we got to see Louis interacting with everyone including Dr. Joyce Brothers, there were more tender moments — a version of MOON RIVER (accompanied, rubato, by Billy Taylor) and a sweetly loving I’M CONFESSIN’ that Louis sang to Lucille — her choice!  Another precious moment was being able to watch Bing Crosby appreciate every nuance of Louis, singing and playing SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH in early 1971 — and, of course, a deeply felt version of WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD. 

Of course Louis played and sang magnificently — butalso showed himself a moving actor, a natural comedian.  In conversation on the talk shows, he displayed a gift for instant repartee.  (“Why did he have to die?” I kept thinking.)

If you weren’t there, you missed a wonderful evening.  All this is prelude, of course, to Ricky’s splendid book, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS.  I am waiting eagerly for its 2011 publication.  I know it will be full of insights, new evidence, and love.

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.