Tag Archives: George Wein

JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE

Mal Sharpe and the “Big Money in Jazz” band

Mal Sharpe moved to another neighborhood on March 10, 2020.  He refuses to go away, so it is both an obligation and a privilege to honor him here.  His official obituary depicts him as a comedian:  

Mal Sharpe, ‘The Man on the Street’ radio gag man, dies at 83

That’s one way to see Mal, but between 2011 and 2014,  I knew him well as the leader of a band of idiosyncratic individualists, playing traditional jazz and standards, and as a friend.  I brought my camera and videoed him and his band, “Big Money in Jazz,” at the No Name in Sausalito, at the Savoy Tivoli and Fior d’Italia in San Francisco, at an outdoor concert in North Beach, and once in Armando’s in Martinez.  You can find my videos on YouTube, of course. 

Even though I celebrate Mal as musician and friend, this demands to be included, with all respect to Larry Scala, who told Mal the joke and was never credited:

You know.”

I checked my email files and found that I first met him through my friend Jeff Hamilton in 2011: I’d written to Mal for permission to video his gig at Armando’s, and he was very gracious, telling me that he had seen my blog many times.  Later, I came to his regular gigs, chatted with him, and took pleasure in the band.  He was physically large — tall and broad-shouldered, even though he slumped down in his chair while playing — well dressed in an intentionally casual way.

In those years I was commuting-for-romance from New York, and although I loved being in California, I missed the banquet of music at home.  I was sustained by Clint Baker’s Cafe Borrone All-Stars and the occasional swing dance gig, but initially found driving to and parking in San Francisco terrifying.  Going to Sausalito was easier — I clearly recall parking my car on Bridgeway and walking past a vertical bank of nasturtiums, which I ate liberally, much to the horror of my companion: I compromised by eating only those above dog-height.  I digress, of course.

The No Name Bar in Sausalito was quite awful, and since I had not been a bar-goer in my youth, I recoiled from its most remarkable features: the broken toilet in the men’s room, the bill of fare that was microwaved popcorn in paper bags, local beer, ordinary spirits, an odd clientele, Nancy, behind the bar, gracious in a rough-hewn way, the band assembled on a narrow stand parallel to the bar.  I remember coming outside after the gig and feeling that the world was strange because it was so clean and bright.  

I never knew in advance who was going to be on the stand with Mal — sometimes superb players, sometimes those who had once been superb, and some others — but the music was always interesting, if only because it was precarious: would X know the chords to the bridge? would Y accelerate his usual glacial pace to get to the end of the chorus when everyone else did?  And there was always Mal, who had his routines, but delivered them with that combination of “I know this by heart” and “I just made this up” that I found charming.  Hearing and watching him do something as mundane as gently hector the crowd to put tips in the jar was worth the drive. 

Mal also had regular improvisations.  One of them was that he would go to a local thrift store (was it in Berkeley or in Oakland?) and buy nearly-useless trinkets — little plastic toys or medical items of no value but much strangeness — and set up mock-contests whose winners would receive some bizarre prize.  I don’t think I am making this up, but once it was the empty case in which one could carry an enema bag.  The takers were few. 

Here is Mal’s New-England based improvisation with which he closed the afternoon’s music:

He played trombone and sang.  As a singer he could be marvelously affecting, and one of the delights of the band was that it was not a stereotypical Bourbon Street band.  If they played the SAINTS, I don’t recall.  And — in the fashion of the great postwar ensembles of Boston (where Mal had grown up (he’d been to George Wein’s Mahogany Hall) and New York, where I had, the band explored standards.  You were much more likely to hear PENNIES FROM HEAVEN than BOURBON STREET PARADE, although they did perform ICE CREAM and Mal liked women singers who favored Billie and Ella, so the band had a less-raucous air to it.  Here’s an example I found moving at the time and still do:

That’s classic Mal — singing with sly tenderness, but also with new lyrics he probably made up on the drive from Berkeley to the gig.

Mal and I bonded because he saw that I was going to use the blog and camera to celebrate him — not embarrass him — and he once said to me, after a post, “Michael, you made us sound so good!” which pleased me.  He knew he was an amateur trombonist, and he said as much, but he stayed within his limitations and thus did no harm. 

We also drifted into a sideways friendship over delicatessen sandwiches at Saul’s, and talked of our mutual hero Vic Dickenson.  I gave him copies of recordings I’d made of Vic, and sometimes our phone conversation would start with his commenting about what Vic had done on the second chorus of SONNY BOY on the CDs I’d made for him.  When I visited him at home once or twice, he invited me into his den, which had photographs of his and my heroes on the wall, a barber’s chair that he sat in to practice, and other oddments. 

I emailed him often, mostly propelled by my finding a new picture or video that I knew he would like, and his brief responses had a telling comical snap.  Face to face, Mal and I spoke of recordings we were listening to; I brought him jazz gossip from New York and he talked about chance meetings with great people and odd ones, taking perhaps more delight in the latter than the other. 

As noted in the newspaper obituary, he was a great on-the-spot improviser of nearly-surreal sketch comedies, and once that I recall I felt (years after the fact) that I had become a character in a Sharpe sketch.  We both knew someone on the New York scene — a fan, amateur musician, and schnorrer (Mal loved Yiddish) who was always on the lookout for some apparently-altruistic scheme that would benefit no one but himself.  He came into the conversation and Mal and I took turns enthusiastically narrating his small-time thieveries.  The next time we met I brought him up with vengeful glee and told of his latest feats while Mal sat silent, listening.  When I ran out of energy, Mal looked at me after a long pause and said that he had decided to speak of this person no more, that it was not what he should be doing, and so on.  At the time, I felt as if Mal had let me walk blindfolded into a hole he had just dug, and said, “Hey, you could have stopped me at the start of blackening this person’s character,” and I don’t recall what he said.  Years later I understood that he had let me go on for the pleasure of the punchline, and I appreciated it as much as I could.

I am not sure if I discerned it or Mal himself told me, but he was a classic paradox — a shy man who sought the limelight as long as he could control it.  I think he needed to be onstage, to make people laugh and applaud, but (with the tuna or turkey sandwich he had Nancy get for him) he needed even more to drive home in silence, then be at home with no one bothering him.  Later on he told me that it wasn’t just shyness, it was anxiety, and I felt very sorrowful, but it also helped me understand him better: as if someone afraid of drowning forced himself to take swimming lessons, even though they scared him terribly and he never got any better.  

When I came back to New York in January 2015, I was happy to be home but I missed Mal greatly, and I would pick up the phone and call him.  I think the last time we spoke was in 2017, and I sensed that he had retreated from the world more than a little.  He stopped responding to emails as well.  But that is too sad a note to end my recollections on.  

How could you not love a man whose email signature (edited by me) was . . . .

MAL SHARPE
Host of KCSM’s Back on Basin Street 91.1
Man On The Street Productions & Big Money in Jazz
Home phone xxx xxx xxxx cell xxx xxx xxxx
Teenage Home phone in Newton, Ma. Bi-4-9509 (If my mother answers, hang up)

DON’T LOOK AT THE TROMBONES, IT ONLY ENCOURAGES THEM—RICHARD STRAUSS

and then there’s this song and performance.  Larry told me today, as we spoke of Mal, that it was Mal’s opening song for gigs:

I think Mal would be embarrassed by having more than fifteen hundred words written about him, but when he could be by himself in his barber chair, he would be secretly pleased.  Perhaps he would have emailed me to say he never ate turkey.

My condolences to Sandra and Jennifer Sharpe.  And my gratitude to Mal for letting me be one of the band in my own way

.

May your happiness increase!

EASY LIVING: DAN MORGENSTERN RECALLS BILLIE HOLIDAY (Dec. 10, 2019)

Much of what I read about Billie Holiday strikes me as morbidly unhealthy: the fascination with her drug addiction, her abusive men.  I can’t pretend that those aspects of her life did not exist, but I was thrilled to ask Dan Morgenstern, now ninety, to recall the Lady — and to have him share warm, personal stories.

First, a musical interlude:

Now, here’s Dan, at his Upper West Side apartment: the subject, Lady Day as she was in real life, with anecdotes about Martha Raye, Tommy Flanagan, Lester Young, Zutty Singleton as well:

and the second part — more about Billie, with anecdotes about George Wein, Lester Young, Budd Johnson, Paul Quinichette, Chuck Israels, John Simmons, and Benny Goodman:

Thank you, Dan!  And there are more beautiful stories to come.

May your happiness increase!

FORTY YEARS OF PEE WEE RUSSELL, WITH DELIGHTED AMAZEMENT

Those of you who get excited by genuine paper ephemera (as opposed to this, which is not even a careful forgery) will have noticed my recent posting with many signatures of jazz greats here.  After I had posted my elaborate cornucopia of collectors’ treasures, I returned to  eBay and found this holy relic I had overlooked:

I find the card very pleasing, and fountain pen blots add to its c. 1944 authenticity.  But here’s the beautiful part:

and another version:

There wasn’t enough time between my discovery and the end of the bidding to post it, so (I hope readers will forgive me) I offered a small bid and won it.  I am completely surprised, because usually someone swoops down in the last two minutes and drives the price up beyond what I am willing to pay.

But the card now belongs to someone who loves Pee Wee Russell in all his many incarnations.  Here is a quick and idiosyncratic tour of Charles Ellsworth Russell’s constantly changing planetary systems — all held together by surprise, feeling, and a love for the blues.

Incidentally, some otherwise perceptive jazz listeners have told me that they don’t “get” Mr. Russell: I wonder if they are sometimes distracted from his singular beauties by their reflex reaction to, say, the conventions of the music he was often expected to play.  If they could listen to him with the same curiosity, openness, and delight they bring to Lester or Bix they would hear his remarkable energies even when he was playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE.

The famous IDA from 1927:

Philip Larkin’s holy grail — the Rhythmakers with Red Allen:

and CROSS PATCH from 1936:

even better, the 1936 short film with Prima, SWING IT:

DOIN’ THE NEW LOW DOWN, with Bobby Hackett, Brad Gowans, Eddie Condon:

and the first take, with Max Kaminsky, James P. Johnson, Dicky Wells, Freddie Green and Zutty Singleton:

and thank goodness a second take survives:

and Pee Wee with Eddie and Brad:

in 1958, with Bud Freeman, Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, and Nat Pierce:

and this, so beautiful, with Buck Clayton and Tommy Flanagan, from 1960:

with Coleman Hawkins, Emmett Berry, Bob Brookmeyer, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones:

an excerpt from a Newport Jazz Festival set in 1962:

a slow blues with Art Hodes in 1968, near the end of Pee Wee’s life:

and another wonderful surprise: the half-hour documentary on Pee Wee, in which our friend Dan Morgenstern plays a great part:

Pee Wee truly “kept reinventing himself,” and it would be possible to create an audio / video survey of his career that would be just as satisfying without repeating anything I’ve presented above.  His friends and associates — among them Milt Gabler, George Wein, Ruby Braff, and Nat Pierce — helped him share his gifts with us for forty years of recordings, a wonderful long offering.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS RUBY BRAFF (December 15, 2017)

 

To get us in the proper mood, here are Ruby Braff and Dick Hyman investigating Benny Carter’s ONCE UPON A TIME, a performance that has its light-hearted moments and a very touching ending:

and why stop with one performance only?  SWEET SAVANNAH SUE is one of my favorite recordings of the thousands Ruby created:

Dan’s first musing on Ruby mentions some mutual friends — Ruby’s bio-discographer Tom Hustad, Sam Margolis, Jack Bradley, Loren Schoenberg — but keeps on returning to the well-seasoned enigma that was Ruby himself:

Here is a musical interlude whose relevance will become clear to the conscientious:

More tales of Ruby, Dick Gibson, Ruby in hospice, friends and former friends:

Finally, Ruby and Dick Sudhalter, Ruby as record reviewer, and sidelights on Kenny Dorham and Miles Davis, who will be the subject of the next videos:

I find Dan’s reminiscences invaluable.  He was there.  But more than that, his sharp, friendly observations make a scene come alive.  And he’s taught me an invaluable lesson about interviewing . . . to stay out of the interviewee’s way.  I’ve learned that Dan’s zigzag paths are much more interesting than any list of questions I might have prepared.  Take it from me.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS, CONTINUED (July 8, 2017)

Our good fortune continues.  “Tell us a story, Dan?” we ask, and he kindly obliges.  And his stories have the virtue of being candid, genuine, and they are never to show himself off.  A rare fellow, that Mister Morgenstern is.

Here are a few more segments from my July 2017 interlude with Dan. In the first, he recalls the great clarinetist, improviser, and man Frank Chace, with glances at Bob Wright, Wayne Jones, Harriet Choice, Bill Priestley, Pee Wee Russell, Mary Russell, Nick’s, Louis Prima, Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes, Frank Teschemacher, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton:

Here, Dan speaks of Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, Whitney Balliett, Charles Edward Smith — with stories about George Wein, Stan Getz, Art Tatum, Sidney Bechet:

and a little more, about “jazz critics,” including Larry Kart, Stanley Dance, Helen Oakley Dance, and a little loving comment about Bunny Berigan:

If the creeks don’t rise, Dan and I will meet again this month.  And this time I hope we will get to talk of Cecil Scott and other luminaries, memorable in their own ways.

May your happiness increase!

THE JOHN OCHS CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY OF SEATTLE: RAY SKJELBRED, JIM GOODWIN, HAM CARSON (April 8, 1988)

Jim Goodwin, photo courtesy of Dave Radlauer

There are musicians, and there are people who make the music possible: record producers, archivists, concert promoters, club owners, managers, and more. Think of George Wein, Norman Granz, Milt Gabler, Jerry Newman, (even) Joe Glaser, George Avakian, Bill Savory, the Ertegun brothers, and three dozen more.  To this list must be added the name (and living presence) of John Ochs, who has generously produced records and CDs on his Rhythm Master label. I have long admired those recordings, but hadn’t known of John as a video-archivist prince until meeting him (and wife Pamela) at the November 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest, when he told me of the marvels I can share with you below.

A youthful Ray Skjelbred, again courtesy of Dave Radlauer.

John is also the authority of Northwest Pacific boxing promoter Jack Hurley, and has just published a three-volume bio-history.  Details here.  (I have no interest in boxing but was caught by these irresistible stories.)

But this post is about some treasured music — by heroes — that I hadn’t known existed.  It’s my pleasure to let John himself introduce it:

The video was recorded at the RhythmMaster recording session in my basement on April 8, 1988.  I borrowed a neighbor’s video camera with auto-focus (as you will see, only sometimes, and even then it was not very good).  The session featured primarily Ray Skjelbred on piano and Jim Goodwin on cornet.  I asked reed man Hamilton Carson to come around for second half of the session to add another voice. Unfortunately, the footage from the session’s first half (the entire portion of the session featuring Jim and Ray as a duo. Damn!) was stolen in a house break-in along with the VCR with which I had been reviewing it.

What remains is the last part of the session just as Ham had come aboard. Unfortunately, after a few tunes, our “cameraman,” had to leave early, and the special lighting was dimmed and the camera put on auto-pilot for the rest of the session.  The quality of the video is not up to your normal standard, but despite the major focus problems, I think it is worth sharing.

Goodwin’s cornet work here might seem a little ragged to some people.  Certainly he is blowing a very breathy horn.  There are several reasons for this.  For one thing, this session took place at a lull in Jim’s musical life when he had moved back to Portland to live with his mother.  What little music he played was mostly for himself on the upright piano in the living room rather than on the cornet.  So also, Jim being the Jim Goodwin we know and love so well, was never one to place a premium on the condition or quality of his horn.  If it had a few leaky valves or hadn’t been cleaned in a while, that was just a challenge to be navigated around rather than fixed.  Most importantly though, as a follower of such musicians as Wild Bill Davison (maybe his earliest as well and most enduring influence), Rex Stewart, Red Allen, and Herman Autrey, etc., Jim naturally gravitated to an expressive, earthy-toned method of horn playing.

These aspects of his style are in full display here, but, more importantly, the footage provides a visual closeup of the creative warmth and vitality Goodwin brought to his music and to the musicians in the band.  When Ham Carson blows an especially beautiful solo, Jim is right there listening and encouraging him. And when the solo ends, Jim can hardly wait to take his turn, not to upstage Ham, but to continue the mood and complement the good work he has done.  So too, when Skjelbred acknowledges Goodwin’s descending run with a tip of his own musical hat, Jim is quick to return the compliment with a smile even as he gets on with the business of making music.  It was this infectious use of his creativity, and his desire to make the band sound better, which made him such a joy to work with and to listen to.  Jim simply brought out the best in those around him. I hope that these video clips might help round out the picture of Jim Goodwin, the musician, and afford those who never saw him play an opportunity to visualize what was happening on the bandstand or studio when they listen to his other sound recordings.

This video also may serve to introduce many of your viewers to the music of clarinetist Ham Carson.  It may be hard to believe, but I am quite sure that neither Goodwin nor Skjelbred, who at the time lived in Berkeley, California, had met Ham prior to the the session. Ham moved to Seattle from Los Angeles about 10 years earlier and had been a fixture in Seattle’s jazz circles ever since. I was familiar with Ham’s affinity for Chicago-style (i. e., Pee Wee, Tesch) playing and thought the styles of the three musicians would be compatible.  Boy, for once, was I ever right!  Ham fit right in!  His playing here is impressive throughout — prodigious even.  As for Ray’s playing on the session, no comment is required.

My dear friend Candace Brown shared two pieces of journalism which are more than relevant.  Sadly, they are obituaries, but written with care and warmth: Ham Carson and Jim Goodwin.  If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know of my reverence for pianist Ray Skjelbred, who is very much with us as I write these words.  

But enough words.  To the music, which speaks louder.  Than.

PART ONE: Recorded by John Ochs, April 8, 1988. Ray Skjelbred, piano; Jim Goodwin, cornet; Ham Carson, clarinet: EMALINE; GEE, BABY, AIN’T I GOOD TO YOU; COPENHAGEN; RUNNIN’ WILD.

PART TWO: RUNNIN’ WILD (concluded); SQUEEZE ME (piano solo); I AIN’T GOT NOBODY; NOBODY’S SWEETHEART.

PART THREE:  NEW BALK BLUES; POOR BUTTERFLY (Carson-Skjelbred duet); DIGA DIGA DOO; SAY IT SIMPLE; TRYING TO STOP MY CRYING.

A few things need to be said.  First, ninety minutes of this!  Second, many “rarities” are more rare than gratifying: I hope you all will take the time to savor this hot chamber music recital.

To me, there are four heroes in these three videos: Skjelbred, Carson, Goodwin, and Ochs.  Their generosities uplift us, and we are grateful.

May your happiness increase!

THE KISS OF JOY: ENRICO TOMASSO VISITS THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG ARCHIVES (August 9, 2017)

At an age when most of us are playing with imaginary friends or real toys, the lovely musician Enrico Tomasso was playing BASIN STREET BLUES for Louis Armstrong and — in that famous photograph — receiving “The  Kiss Of Joy” from Louis.  So when Marc Caparone refers to Rico as “anointed,” he speaks the truth.

August 9, 2017, was a very special day for me, for Enrico and his family — his wife Debbie and daughter Analucia — thanks to Ricky Riccardi, the Ambassador of Louis and Louisness.  For it was on that day that Rico came to the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College, my idea of a holy place, to sit among the wonders.  I was there, with my camera, and recorded what happened, for all to see.  The opening videos of this segment are narrative: Rico, Ricky, and family, looking at Louis’ scrapbooks and photographs.  But Rico has marvelous stories to tell: this isn’t “history”: it’s very much alive.

First, Rico’s stories of New York and New Orleans, 1971, with glimpses of Dizzy Gillespie, George Wein, and Big Chief Russell Moore:

Then, going back a bit, stories of Louis in England both in 1933 and 1968.  You’ll want to hear what Rico’s mother told him, and that Louis called Rico, “my little trumpet player”:

Looking at one of Louis’ scrapbooks — and there’s a great punchline at 4:25:

And what I find very touching, the scrapbook that Lucille Armstrong kept of letters and notes of condolences sent to her after Louis’ death.  I asked Ricky to read out the note from Spike Mackintosh, which is touching beyond words:

A little mouthpiece-talk:

“Now here comes the beautiful part”: Enrico Tomasso playing Louis’ trumpets.  Much of the memories above have shown us the grown man reliving parts of his childhood, completely dear and alive — but now we move into the much more vivid present, even though Rico says that he has “holiday chops.”

Here are excerpts from DINAH, STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, I COVER THE WATERFRONT, SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH, POTATO HEAD BLUES, a story Bob Wilber told about the 1947 Town Hall Concert, a cadenza, and I USED TO LOVE YOU — which the young Rico learned and sent on a tape to Louis:

And a little extra taste:

When someone, as a loving gesture, says, “Have a blessed day,” I have a good sense of where that utterance is coming from.  I usually say, “You too!  I already am.”  But August 9, 2017, with Enrico, Ricky, Analucia, and Debbie, was an especially blessed day.  The kiss of joy that Louis gave Rico in 1968 — Rico has returned to us for decades.  And this was another glowing unrestrained example of love in the form of sound, from Louis, from Rico: a great gift that warms us like sunshine.

And there will be more music from Rico and friends to come.

Rico and Louis at Heathrow Airport, 1970.

May your happiness increase!