Tag Archives: Greenwich Village

A SECOND HELPING OF BIRTHDAY CAKE: BOB WILBER, EHUD ASHERIE, and PUG HORTON (Smalls, March 15, 2012)

Nothing more needs to be said, except that this is the second set of reedman / composer / bandleader / inspiration Bob Wilber’s eighty-fourth birthday celebration at Smalls (183 West Tenth Street, New York) where he was accompanied by his own “favorite rhythm section,” pianist Ehud Asherie — with a guest spot for Bob’s wife, Joanne “Pug” Horton.  Bob played some wonderful jazz classics — as if summoning up all his heroes, mentors, and friends in an admiring ring around the bandstand.

For Bix, Bechet, and Bobby — a sprightly I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA:

For Fats and Louis (dig Ehud’s beautiful playing here!) — BLUE TURNING GRAY OVER YOU:

Edgar Sampson’s BLUE LOU — with the second chorus given to Bob’s own line on the chords, which he calls LOU’S BLUES:

Bob then invited his wife Pug to the stand to sing “a little eight-bar blues,” that hymn to defiance, ‘T’AIN’T NOBODY’S BIZ-NESS IF I DO:

And — appropriate for a birthday — AS LONG AS I LIVE:

Bechet’s lovely SI TU VOIS MA MERE:

And the bunny jumped over the fence and got away — a briskly moving COTTON TAIL:

Many happy returns of the day to Mr. Wilber — with felicitations to Mr. Asherie and Mrs. Wilber, too!

May your happiness increase.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BOB WILBER! (and THANK YOU, EHUD ASHERIE and PUG HORTON): Smalls, March 15, 2012

I know that in JULIUS CAESAR the Ides of March are a bad time to be out in public.  But Bob Wilber — that’s Robert Sage Wilber, clarinetist, soprano saxophonist, tenor saxophonist, composer, arranger, occasional singer, eminent bandleader — turned eighty-four on March 15, 2012, and played two substantial duet sets with pianist Ehud Asherie at Smalls (183 West Tenth Street, New York).   So we have to conclude that the Ides are not ominous for everyone.

People who do not play instruments professionally forget or perhaps have never known just how difficult it is to do — consistently, on any level.  Breath and reflexes, mental memory and muscle memory, all are essential attributes.  And just as people slow down when they reach “the golden years,” we might expect a musician’s fingers and embouchure to weaken, to falter.

Bob is an astonishing example of someone at the top of his form.  And this isn’t sweet-natured hyperbole for a diminished elder player: listen to his firm attack, lustrous tone, gliding mobility.  He was remarkable as a Bechet protege in 1947; he is even more remarkable now.

Bob calls Ehud “my favorite rhythm section in New York,” and if you don’t know Ehud’s work already — intuitive, attentive, subtle, multi-hued, and swinging — you are in for yet another treat.  Not only is he a delicious soloist, he is a splendidly sensitized accompanist.

It was lovely to meet a few old friends and to make some new ones (Alistair and Jan from London; Vanessa Tagliabue Yorke, among others) — and the audience was delighted to be in the same room as Bob and his wife Pug, to share their happiness.

The first set began with a lyrical version of Ellington’s I LET A SONG GO OUT OF MY HEART — Bob’s evocation of Johnny Hodges:

Even though I don’t quite want to give Lil Hardin Armstrong as much credit for writing STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE as does Bob, I have no quibbles with his floating version here:

More Ellingtonia.  And why not?  JUST SQUEEZE ME:

After Bob turned down Ehud’s suggestion of HIGH SOCIETY, they settled on the cheerful THREE LITTLE WORDS (with echoes of Benny, of course):

Not only is THANKS A MILLION the way we feel about Bob; it’s such a pretty Louis-associated song:

And the first set ended with Bob’s tribute to Billy Strayhorn with — what else? — TAKE THE “A” TRAIN:

How generous — and how typical — of Bob to use his time in the limelight, the celebration that he had for himself, to honor the Masters: Louis and Duke, Lil and Strays, Benny and Hodges!

Take a fifteen-minute break: we’ll be back for the second set!  (Bob and Ehud are working the room . . . talking to friends, too.)

May your happiness increase.

GOOD AND GROOVY — “PLAY DATE”: NEAL MINER / CHRIS BERGSON

I have had the opportunity to hear guitarist / vocalist Chris Bergson and string bassist Neal Miner three ways recently: in their short film, “The Making of Play Date”; at a live session at 55 Bar on Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, New York — and (most conveniently for my readers), their new CD, PLAY DATE:

It’s a superb disc — and since it doesn’t have any liner notes, I feel obliged to supply a few lines to explicate and praise.  Readers of JAZZ LIVES will know how much I admire Neal — he is both supple and steady, and his lines make elegant sense without being fussy.  He never expends flurries of guitarish notes and his bass always sounds down-to-earth.  A melodic fellow who swings!  Chris was new to me, but Neal and he go back a decade, and he is just as much a melodic swinger as his pal on the upright . . . whether he’s playing acoustic, electric, or singing in a surprisingly let-it-all-out way.

One of the nicest things about this CD — and there are many — is the middle course it steers.  Guitar / bass duets sometimes turn into sweet Easy Listening or cutting contests (I can play faster than you can; I can run up and down the fretboard like a wild bunny) — or they are attempts to create ornate orchestral textures.  Chris and Neal choose naturalness over artifice — so that the disc has the sound and heft of two brilliantly relaxed friends making music for themselves or, at most, a few friends — the site someone’s living room.

No studio tension, no fancy miking or reverb, no inserts or punches: just music.

And the music is wonderfully varied — from Monk, Rodgers, Van Heusen, Berlin, Schertzinger, Schwartz — to Ray Charles and a few originals.  Within that tune list, all sorts of delicious surprises await: the Bergson / Miner duo is aware of a variety of musical shapes: the twang of early Fifties rock, the saltiness of Roger Miller, and some deep-down blues.  They offer the verse to THESE FOOLISH THINGS.  It’s hugely entertaining music and I didn’t look at my watch once.

Here’s a link for MP3 downloads: Play-Date and the link to CD Baby for those in that frame of mind: chrisbergsonnealminer.  And while we’re energetically stacking up links, here’s one last one — to the YouTube video — from someone’s blog: jazzlives.  With music this fine, “attention must be paid.”  By the way, the absolute best way to purchase this CD is to encounter Neal or Chris on an actual gig and give either of them some cash and walk off with a real CD: this way, the money is going directly to the creators.  But you knew that already.

UNHEARD MELODIES, 1944

I was browsing online in search of new images or information about one of my favorite musicians, trumpeter Frank Newton, who has been gone since 1954 — and I came across this treasure, taken at the long-gone Greenwich Village jazz club the Pied Piper — on 15 Barrow Street, later reincarnated as Cafe Bohemia.

The bassist looks like Jack Lesberg; the drummer is invisible but might be Mack McGrath; I invite speculation about the young pianist.  The band also had valve trombonist Frank Orchard, and pianists James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith alternating between solo and band piano — letting a young Dick Hyman sit in now and again.  A version of this band — woefully without Newton — recorded for Black and White (under the Lion’s name) and for Decca / Commodore / World Transcriptions, thanks to Milt Gabler (under Max’s name).

But that front line of Newton, Max Kaminsky, and Rod Cless is precious.  I’d bet a 1944 ten-dollar bill, which meant much more than it does today, that this band was playing a slow blues.  Can’t you hear it?

Thanks to photographer H. Kratovil, of course — and to the AFRICAN-AMERICAN website for publishing this photograph.  I don’t know anything about this site —  http://www.africanafrican.com/negroartist/JAZZ%20IMAGES4/index6.html — except that they offer eight pages of assorted “jazz images,” of which this one is most gratifying.

And, in case you’re wondering, Keats was right — even though he never made it to the Pied Piper in 1944.

HOT NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND: TERRY WALDO’S GOTHAM CITY BAND (featuring DAN BARRETT) at FAT CAT (Sept. 25, 2011)

Fat Cat is a large underground room located at 75 Christopher Street (off of Seventh Avenue South) in Greenwich Village, New York City.  Without much fanfare, it has been featuring jazz at night — sometimes three different bands performing each evening — as well as Sunday afternoon sets by pianist / singer Terry Waldo and his Gotham City Band.

Last Sunday, September 25, 2011, was a special afternoon, because Dan Barrett, the Pride of Costa Mesa, California, brought his trombone and cornet to the session.  Early on, the band included Peter Ecklund on trumpet; Pete Martinez, clarinet; Terry himself; John Gill, drums and banjo; Alexi David, string bass — with guest appearances from singers Barbara Rosene and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton.

As always, Fat Cat is known for “atmospheric lighting,” which means deep darkness (but you can always pretend you are listening with your eyes closed to the world’s best live radio broadcast) and occasional irrelevant shouts of triumph from the young folk playing foosball or other games . . . but even with these distractions, the music remained focused, stirring, and swinging.

The session began with a very happy — even joyous — MILENBERG JOYS:

Be it ever so humble, there’s no song like HOME — with deep associations to Louis Armstrong (early and middle-period) and an irreplaceable Keynote recording by Jack Teagarden, Joe Thomas, and Coleman Hawkins:

A groovy, slow-drag BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME was next, suggesting that the Sweetie in question was exceedingly Naughty to inspire such music:

Pete Martinez, Terry, Alexi, and John took a different tack with the RUBBER PLANT RAG:

I hadn’t seen or heard the fine singer Barbara Rosene in a long time, but she sounds wonderful, here CONFESSIN’ her inward thoughts to us in the darkness:

And to show off her cheery side, her sunny-side-up, she chose ‘S’WONDERFUL to follow:

Terry chose the venerable Berlin song ALL BY MYSELF for his feature, with Dan taking over Peter Ecklund’s lead by playing hot cornet:

The delightfully enigmatic Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton sat in for DIGA DIGA DOO — singing and clowning and having a fine time:

Then, a highlight for me — John Gill’s performance of the most satirized song in pop music of the last hundred years, MY MELANCHOLY BABY, which he sang with casual sincerity, the mark of a genuine performer:

MARGIE, ninety-plus years old, is still entrancing us:

Barbara Rosene told me that IF I HAD YOU is one of her favorite songs: her sweet conviction comes through in every bar:

Jerron returned to sing WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, and the band agreed that optimism of this sort is never out of style.  (The young gamers were shouting at the start, but I could dream those troubles away with ease):

And the session closed with a frankly riotous CHINATOWN, Jerron mugging while Dan and Pete played superb improvisations:

Music worth descending into the depths for . . . and the cover charge at Fat Cat is a very tidy three dollars, a rare pittance in New York City.

JOEL PRESS, MICHAEL KANAN, TAL RONEN, STEVE LITTLE at FAT CAT (July 5, 2011)

FAT CAT (located at 75 Christopher Street in New York City, just off Seventh Avenue South) is, at first glance, an odd place to hear rewarding jazz.

You climb down a steep staircase, meet up with someone who asks for proof of age and three dollars, stamps your hand with a blue-ink drawing of a grinning feline, and you turn a corner . . . into what resembles a Fifties rec room at a huge scale.  Past a bar (with an intriguing selection of beers on tap — I had Old Speckled Hen, a UK favorite — and wines) into a large basement filled with chess tables, billiard tables, ping pong tables, foosball tables, shuffleboard, and more.  In fact, one of Fat Cat’s two sites asserts proudly that it is “NYC’s best-equipped gaming center” and  “best pool hall.”

It’s far from dreary and ominous — perhaps a youthful Minnesota Fats and Eddie Felson might be doing battle here — on my most recent trip to Fat Cat, two young couples were playing pool with more enthusiasm than skill.  There is a good deal of late-adolescent shouting when someone makes a great shot or a disastrous move, but it’s all cheerful.  (One night, behind me was a chili-cookoff, or so it seemed, with aluminum tins of chili for a birthday party, a cake, and a long version of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU.)  And I understand that it is jammed at 1:30 AM.

Here’s the “gaming site” for the skeptical:

http://www.fatcatmusic.org/gaming.html

What the youngbloods at their Scrabble boards might not know is that Fat Cat is a secret jazz hangout as well.  How do the names Frank Wess, Ned Goold, Terry Waldo, Grant Stewart, Ehud Asherie, Corin Stiggall, Alex Hoffman — and more —  sound to you?

The other Fat Cat website has all the musical information you need:

http://www.fatcatmusic.org/

On Tuesday, July 5, a quartet gathered (there are soft couches — the sort of furniture it is difficult to leap up from) in a smaller quadrant not far from the bar.  The corner was dark in portions, gleefully lit in primary colors near the back.  A large sign announcing FEATRING _______________ and HIS ORCHESTRA (approximately, with the leader’s name never filled in) hangs over the proceedings.

But even given the shouts of joy or disdain from the players (not at all critical comments on the music), the quartet accomplished great things and brought wonderful lilting sounds to Fat Cat.

The players?

On tenor and soprano saxophone, the whimsical monument, the Swing Explorer, Joel Press . . . . making his own way, often sideways, in the great singing saxophone tradition bounded on one end by Eddie Miller and on the other by Steve Lacy.  Although Joel says it’s impossible for him, given his origins, I hear a deep Southwestern moan and lope in his playing.  He bounces when he plays, and you would hear the bounce with your eyes closed.  His sound is tender yet burry: I thought of a favorite rough blanket, cozy but assertive, as he glides from one idea to the next.  Lester Young peeks in approvingly over Joel’s shoulder, although Joel is much more than a purveyor of Prez-isms.

Pianist Michael Kanan never does the expected, yet when his notes and pauses have settled in, they seem exactly right — with the epigrammatic power and amusement of a Nat Cole, a Jimmy Rowles — although he, too, covers the entire spectrum from Willie the Lion Smith to Ray Bryant and Red Garland.  Michael makes wonderful sound-clusters come out of the piano: rippling trills and tremolos, single-note stabs, chords that seem lopsided but fit just right.  He and Joel float on a wave of loving respect, and several songs feature a sweetly chatty interlude, where ideas are tossed back and forth in polite yet eager conversation.

I hadn’t met Tal Ronen before, although I’d admired his work on a variety of CDs.  And I was delighted by the big warm sound he got — even when tuning his bass.  His pulse was absolutely right, although never obtrusive, and his solo lines were worthy of being transcribed.  Although some players bridle at being compared with the Great Dead, Tal made me think — many times during the evening — of both George Duvivier and Paul Chambers.

Steve Little and Joel go back a long way — and this session was a reunion of sorts after a thirty-year hiatus.  Steve’s gently prodding drums make a band sound better, and his movement around his set (from brushes on the snare to a variety of cymbal strokes) leave us enlivened rather than somnolent.  Hear how deeply he pays attention to what’s going on within the band — but never letting his commentaries obscure the other players.

Some highlights:

Charlie Parker’s DEWEY SQUARE, a New York landmark as well as a musical statement:

YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY — in the best Kansas City tradition — turned the corner into MOTEN SWING before it finshed.  Here’s the first Kanan – Press chat, too:

Joel named his variation on the chords of OUT OF NOWHERE “LAST EXIT” in honor of Warne Marsh, who died onstage while playing his own improvisation on the same changes:

LOVER MAN, for Billie Holiday and Ram Ramirez:

LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, taken at an easy romantic trot, was a real pleasure:

INDIANA was the occasion for another Press – Kanan conversation:

Joel turned to his soprano sax for Thelonious Monk’s improvisation on LADY BE GOOD chord changes, which Monk called HACKENSACK:

And Joel closed the two sets with an easy Bb blues — the line, written by Sonny Rollins (but reaching back many generations before him) was called RELAXIN’, and it was an apt title:

Beauty and fervor and whimsy in the darkness.

INSPIRED DIALOGUES: LENA BLOCH and EVGENY SIVTSOV (CAFFE VIVALDI, May 8, 2011)

I have thought tenor saxophonist Lena Bloch a remarkable player in the too-few times I have seen and heard her.

Last Sunday (Mother’s Day 2011) I finally had an opportunity to experience her in a most intriguing duo with pianist Evgeny Sivtsov, appearing at Caffe Vivaldi (32 Jones Street in West Greenwich Village, New York City).

Duet playing is a fascinating balancing act.  As in any other relationship where two people have strong personalities and solidly established selves, the paradox emerges immediately that each one must be ready, at a moment’s notice, to switch roles.

And it’s much more subtle than Leader and Follower — in this case, Lena and Evgeny didn’t always follow the typical patterns, but they engage in playful, often dramatic dialogues.  At times I thought of Steve Lacy, other moments reminded me of Al Cohn and Jimmy Rowles, of Ted Brown and Michael Kanan — all fine echoes and resonances.

At first, Evgeny impressed me as a powerful, imposing player (although he is tall and thin), making great clusters of sound — more THE GREAT GATES OF KIEV than FIFTY-SECOND STREET THEME, but beneath his apparent ferocity was a playful self that emerged later in the set, where I heard prancing echoes of Erroll Garner, or Johnny Guarneri.

Lena has her own sound and conceptions.  She has a beautiful tone (even when she chooses to make it dry for a moment) and she understands melodic playing.  She is no rhapsodist, but an explorer, not afraid of venturing outside the contours of the expected melody.  But she never uses her tenor saxophone to make sounds that might assault us.

This session found Lena and Evgeny inventing inspired dialogues — a set of improvisations on standard songs that made the familiar fresh, with Lena’s tenor lines often riding the currents of Evgeny’s piano — a little boat in powerful currents, able to ride them without ever going under.  Exultant music — serious, playful, unpredictable.

And from behind my video camera, I found the faces and bodies of the two players visually fascinating, their artless movements and expressions compelling proof of how music moves us.  Watch Evgeny as he bravely makes his way through the thickets — unknown territory! — bobbing and weaving like the truly impassioned man he is.  And observe the wonderful way Lena’s face, while she was listening and leaning, reflects every note and nuance she heard on the piano.

Great, playful art.

Cole Porter’s I LOVE YOU:

I’LL REMEMBER APRIL.  (And I’ll smile):

I HEAR A RHAPSODY (an accurate title):

EVERYTHING HAPPENS TO ME (with its serious, grieving air):

YOU STEPPED OUT OF A DREAM:

Frank Loesser’s jaunty IVE NEVER BEEN IN LOVE BEFORE:

LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY:

REMEMBER! HERBIE NICHOLS AND THE OLD DAYS

My friend, the clarinetist H. Grundoon Chumley (he’s Scottish – Malaysian, hence his beautiful and unusual name), called me up to tell me stories from the late Fifties onwards on Seventh Avenue South in New York City. 

You know that the pianist Herbie Nichols played in Dixieland bands.  One night, I popped into a club called the Riviera — across from Nick’s on Seventh Avenue — and there was a jazz band.  The clarinetist was someone I knew from school and he forced me to sit in.  To my amazement, I got through it.  After the set was over, Herbie said to me, “Man, you’re a real player.”  That really egged me on, encouraged me tremendously, so I stayed with the horn and enjoyed it.  It was much later through a book by A.B. Spellman that I discovered the esteem in which Herbie was held.  I do recall the band at the Riviera — a Dixieland band led by the trumpet player Al Bandini, a friend of Pee Wee Russell’s.  Tom Lord played baritone.  After Herbie died, Bandini got Eddie Wilcox (who had taken over the Jimmie Lunceford band after Lunceford passed) who became the house piano player at the Riviera.  Once in a while Bandini would call and I would go down there and play.  A lot of pros would come and sit in: in those days there were many places to sit in and famous people walked in.  I never forgot one night.  A chap in a sailor suit came in and said, “Can I sit in?” and took out his trombone.  He played a solo on SWEET GEORGIA BROWN and our jaws dropped: it was Bill Watrous.  Another trombonist was Benny Morton — a wonderful man.  Once Dick Dreiwitz got us a gig to play Central Plaza (this would have been around 1961) because we all knew Jack Crystal from the Commodore Music Shop.  At the end of the night, the two bands would get together to play THE SAINTS.  I looked over at the other band, and it was Willie “the Lion” Smith, Charlie Shavers, and Jo Jones, and I couldn’t stop shaking.  Then I felt an arm around my shoulders, and Benny Morton was saying to me, “Come on, man, relax.  Just play!”  And I did.

One other thing.  We used to go to the Metropole and see all the greats — Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton, Gene Krupa, and Roy Eldridge.  I was a friend of Jack Bradley and he called me up — around 1964 or so — to tell me that Louis was going to play one night there.  There was a line around the block.  But I’ve never heard a record that captured a live performance, and that night I thought the ceiling was going to fall down with the power and purity of Louis’s sound.

TERRY WALDO’S GOTHAM CITY BAND at FAT CAT (Nov. 14, 2010)

Although sometimes I imagine my favorite musicians luxuriating in the absolute quiet of a concert hall, the truth is that hot jazz flourishes in places that would seem inimical to it. 

One of those places is Fat Cat, 75 Christopher Street (off Seventh Avenue South) in New York City — whose main room is primarily given over to billard tables, always in use.  The jazz ensemble is often standing on one side of the room, the lighting sufficiently indistinct to make identifying the musicians a challenge. 

Still, pianist Terry Waldo has an irregularly-regular Sunday gig there with his Gotham City Band, and the edition I saw this last Sunday was full of New York’s finest jazz musicians: Peter Ecklund on cornet and fluegelhorn; Jim Fryer on trombone, euphonium (or “euphemism” as he suggested), and the occasional vocal; Dan Levinson on clarinet and tenor sax; Jay Leonhart on bass and vocals; Giampaolo Biagi on drums.

Here are some performances I captured, and, yes, one’s eyes do get used to the visual murk.  First (appropriately?) is CHINATOWN, MY CHINATOWN — “where the lights are low”:

Then, something extraordinary.  Trombonist Jim Fryer, man of many talents, came forward for a feature — an energized, acrobatic duet with Terry on Morton’s GRANDPA’S SPELLS.  After the set had concluded, I told Jim that he was now “Jim Flyer”:

Then, one of Terry’s melancholic / romantic original tunes, seated somewhere between 1928 dance-band music and Sixties AM pop, THE FOOL:

THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE (or is it PLAYED?) with a vocal by the talented Mr. Flyer:

And another band-within-a-band, the Greenwich Village Red Hot Peppers of Levinson, Waldo, and Biagi, performing Morton’s SHREVEPORT STOMP:

Finally, a new twist on an endearing old tune — adding a habanera rhythm (or is it just the Spanish tinge?) to IDA, SWEET AS APPLE CIDER, which features a lovely conversation between Dan’s tenor sax and Jim’s euphonium:

Terry’s sechedule of gigs — including solo piano at Banjo Jim’s — can be found at his website, http://www.terrywaldo.com.

DAN BARRETT, THE GROVE STREET STOMPERS, and FRIENDS (Oct. 18, 2010)

Bill Dunham, the pianist-leader of the Grove Street Stompers, will proudly tell you that the band’s unbroken run of Monday nights at Arthur’s Tavern, the “West Side’s smartest supper club,” began in 1959 — a record indeed! 

Monday, October 18, 2010, was a special night because Dan Barrett brought his own jubilant energy and a borrowed cornet.  Dan’s cornet playing is a great joy, both clipped and lyrical.  On this horn, he comes from the great tradition, echoing Louis, Bobby, Ruby, Sweets, Buck, and more, but the result always sounds like Barrett, which is the way it’s supposed to be.

Dan inspired the GSS: Bill on piano, Peter Ballance on trombone and announcements, Joe Licari on clarinet, Skip Muller on bass, and Giampaolo Biagi on drums.

Here are three selections from that evening.  JUST A CLOSER WAlK WITH THEE is one of those “Dixieland chestnuts” that usually descends into cliche, but not with the preaching trombone of guest J. Walter Hawkes, welcome at any gig:

A rousing THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE called to mind the ecstatic Condon recording for Columbia in the early Fifties:

And at the end of the evening, Bill gracefully gave up his seat at the piano to the Maestro, Rossano Sportiello, and they swung out on OH, BABY!: 

At the Tavern, the Creole Cooking Jazz Band (featuring Lee Lorenz, Dick Dreiwitz, Barbara Dreiwitz, and others) plays on Sundays, Eve Silber (often with Michael Hashim) holds down Wednesdays, and the Monday-night ensemble includes Peter Ecklund or Barry Bryson on trumpet / cornet.  Other guests have included Bria Skonberg, Emily Asher, and Bob Curtis.  Arthur’s Tavern (some spell it Arthurs) is located at 57 Grove Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, and the Sunday sessions run from 7-10 PM.

GORDON AU LEADS THE WAY at MONA’S (May 24-25, 2010)

I am what Jo Jones called “a nine-to-fiver,” his way of saying I am not a musician; I have a day gig; I go to sleep when interesting things are happening.  My workday starts even earlier, which means that many late-night jazz bacchanals are impossible for me, a man yawning at 11:30. 

But one semester ended and the summer courses have not yet begun, which meant that I was free to stay up late.  So I could go to the late-night-Tuesday-into-early-morning-Wednesday jam session at Mona’s (Avenue B between 13th and 14th Street in New York City).  Mona’s doesn’t have a sign out front, but the music would let you know you were in the right place.  I went there on Tuesday, May 24.   

I am embarrassed to say that I only lasted one long set, and I was told that the music — starting at 11 PM — would go at least until 2 AM.  But what I saw was delightful. 

The jam session began with Gordon Au on trumpet and Mikey Hart on piano (and singing): soon Jared Engel, bass, and Nick Russo, banjo and guitar, joined in.  Mikey, Jared, and Nick are strong players.  Mikey coaxes a great deal of music out of that piano, and he has the patience to let his solos build; his singing is fervent, down-home.  Jared has a huge sound: he’s a one-man rhythm section.  And Nick (whom I’ve seen in many bands) can do Minton’s 1941 on his electric guitar or swing out 1929 Luis Russell style on the banjo. 

I save my greatest praise for the gentleman with the trumpet in the corner, situated underneath the bright cartoonish painting: Mister Gordon Au.  Gordon is comfortable in any idiom and is fearless . . . so he has no problem launching into a song that might perhaps be slightly unfamiliar to the other players and tugging them along by his energetic example.  He is not only a masterful improviser, he is a peerless bandleader, leading the way without saying a word.  And he’s having such a good time!  A model for us all, I think.

Hoagy Carmichael’s RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE (originally FREE WHEELING, when Bix Beiderbecke first heard it) is not your standard AABA song — it has dips and weaves, many little places in which someone could get lost, like a multi-strain ragtime piece.  But Gordon sets the tempo and leads his colleagues splendidly:

Then (after a brief talk-through) they launched into LONESOME BLUES, which I believe was Mikey’s idea.  He not only knows the song but the lyrics.  I include this in his honor as well as in honor of Louis’s Hot Five — this is the first time I’ve ever heard this rare tune performed live, which is more than enough reason to include it here:

Finally, a version of THE PREACHER, which would surely act to convert any unbelievers in the audience:

When I left (prematurely and with regrets) Gordon said, “This is a very quiet night.  Usually there are two or three other horns there,” and he pointed to the spot where he had been playing.  Very tantalizing.  So I’m trying to think of ways to stay up late and still be able to go to work on Wednesday mornings.  I invite any suggestions that are more healthy than caffeine pills.

THE SECOND SET (THE EAR INN, April 25, 2010)

I have had a great deal of pleasure listening to jazz in many places, but the second set at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street in New York City) on a Sunday night when The Ear Regulars are playing is a true oasis.  

After their set break, the musicians are content, relaxed.  Their tempos rock; their music is stirring.  And there are usually some sterling additions, surprise guests who bring their horns and their talents.

Last Sunday, April 25, 2010, the Ear Regulars were Jon-Erik Kellso, Matt Munisteri, Harry Allen, and Neal Miner.  “Some band!” as Charlotte would say. 

They played a stellar set, which I captured in a post here, logically called THE FIRST SET (https://jazzlives.wordpress.com/2010/04/26/the-first-set-the-ear-inn-april-25-2010/).

Even better, some official Ear Pals came in: Andy Farber with his tenor sax; Danny Tobias and his cornet; Chris Flory (without a guitar but ready to borrow Matt’s), and Jim Whitney (ditto for Neal’s bass). 

In another world, the combination of two tenors, two trumpets, and a rhythm section might have stirred up competition.  But not here.  High notes and long solos aren’t the rule at these sessions; no, they are much more like a group of friends having a good time. 

The original quartet started off the second set with a leisurely saunter through a Ben Webster line (a composition twice removed?), DID YOU CALL HER TODAY?  In the interests of full disclosure, I must say that Ben is supposed to have substituted another verb in the title.  CALL is based on the chords of IN A MELLOTONE, which is based on ROSE ROOM.  The source of ROSE ROOM is yet untraced:

Beginning with Neal, here’s the second part:

Continuing the Ellington-out-of-Riff mood, Jon-Erik called for THE JEEP IS JUMPIN’, a Johnny Hodges version of I GOT RHYTHM — and invited Andy and Danny to the bandstand:

Here’s the rocking last chorus:

Jon-Erik passed the scepter to Danny, who called one of his favorite songs, THIS CAN’T BE LOVE:

Keeping the amorous subtext going, someone (was it Chris Flory, now ready to play Matt’s guitar?) suggested COMES LOVE, a favorite of Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber’s.  Jim Whitney had taken over on bass for Neal:

Here’s the conclusion:

Finally, the group (with Chris on guitar but Neal back on bass) romped through LINGER AWHILE, a song that makes me think of a Dicky Wells record with Lester Young, Bill Coleman, Ellis Larkins, Freddie Green, Al Hall, and Jo Jones on board:

I couldn’t linger for too long, but I can’t wait until next Sunday.  You come, too!

“CRAZY RHYTHM” AT THE EAR INN (April 11, 2010)

One bright shining moment — that went on at a high level for nearly nine minutes last Sunday, April 11, 2010, at The Ear Inn.

The Ear Regulars that night were guitarist Matt Munisteri; bassist Pat O’Leary; trombonist John Allred; tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, whizzing through a fast CRAZY RHYTHM — a pop hit of perhaps 1927, made lively again in the next century.  (Catch the hilarious reference to SONNY BOY almost at the end.)  Great soloing, great ensemble playing: hot jazz, caught live!

THEY CALL IT MUSIC: “THE BIG 72” (March 19, 2010)

Last night I went to another of Kevin Dorn’s late-Friday evening gigs at The Garage (Seventh Avenue South).  The band, “The Big 72,” plays from 10:30 to 2:30.  Staying for all four sets would require a preparatory nap, something I’ve never managed to do — but I was so delighted with the music that I stayed for two sets rather than my customary one.  You’ll see why. 

Like his hero Eddie Condon, Kevin likes to employ his friends for gigs (you’d be surprised at the rancor floating around the bandstand on some gigs — not Kevin’s) and he had a particularly congenial crew of individualists last night. 

For lyricism, there’s the always-surprising Charlie Caranicas on cornet, who has a singing tone and many nimble approaches, not just one.  The clarinet master (and occasional singer) Pete Martinez was in splendid form, murmuring in his lower register or letting himself go with whoops and Ed Hall-shrieks.  I’d heard Adrian Cunningham only on clarinet before (at The Ear Inn and Sweet Rhythm): it was a revelation to hear him on alto, where he showed raucous rhythm-and-blues tendencies, bending notes in the manner of Pete Brown.  In the background, Michael Bank took tidy, swinging solos and offered just the right chords behind soloists.  He deserves a better piano, but he added so much.  Kelly Friesen, hero of a thousand bands, pushed the beat but never raced the time, and his woody sound cut through the Garage’s constant aural ruckus.  And Kevin — well, he was in his element, letting the music take its own path without getting in its way by “leading.”  His solos were delicious sound-structures, full of variety and propulsion, but I found myself listening even more to his accompaniments: the sound of a stick on a half-closed hi-hat cymbal, the steady heartbeat of his bass drum, the tap of his stick on the hi-hat stem.

Here are ten performances I recorded.  At first the Garage’s patrons were unusually chatty and ambulatory (or should I say Talky and Walky?)  but many of them noticed that me and my video camera.  Surprisingly, they executed sweet arabesques of ducking down and getting small so they wouldn’t walk in front of my lens.  Thank you! 

NOBODY’S SWEETHEART NOW, a pop tune beloved by late-Twenties jazz players (I think of Teagarden and Condon among them):

A devoted, serious reading of SUGAR by Pete Martinez:

If Louis Armstrong didn’t invent THEM THERE EYES, he certainly owned this bright, silly song (until Billie Holiday came and reinvented it for everyone):

That probing, perhaps unanswered question (before Charles Ives), HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?:

AFTER YOU’VE GONE, played as a Wettling-Davison romp rather than a lament:

MY GAL SAL (whose title musicians happily corrupted into “They called her Syphillis Sal”):

Homage to Bix Beiderbecke — here’s JAZZ ME BLUES:

IDA (Sweet As Apple Cider) is forever associated in my memory with Pee Wee Russell, whose choruses were always unusual in the best way:

BALLIN’ THE JACK, an eternally popular “here’s how to do this new dance” song:

Finally, BLUES MY NAAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME, recollecting JAMMIN’ AT CONDON’S:

The Big 72 calls what they play music.  Or what would you suggest?

PETER ECKLUND NEWS: MARIANNE MANGAN REPORTS

Hi Michael,

Your many readers who remain in New York for the summer may like knowing that Peter Ecklund will bring his evening of jazz standards and original music back to the Greenwich Village Bistro on Wednesday, July 8th.

The program promises to be an extension of their last outing: high-class, intelligent musicianship, always swinging as expected but with a felicitous penchant for framing the familiar in unexpected ways.

Mike Weatherly on bass (with the occasional vocal) and Will Holshouser on accordion will join Peter on trumpet and flugelhorn, with guest appearances by the Potted Palm Orchestra and the Music Minus One Orchestra.

The coordinates:
Wednesday, July 8th, 9 to 11, at the Greenwich Village Bistro (13 Carmine Street between 6th & Bleecker). For reservations, call 718-213-4736.  No cover, no minimum.  Suggested donation $5.

OH, DIDN’T THEY RAMBLE!

I spent a few glorious hours last night (Sunday, May 24) at the Ear Inn — absorbing the sounds in two long sets by New Orleanian Evan Christopher (clarinet), Scott Robinson (trumpet, C-melody saxophone, and tenora), Matt Munisteri (guitar), and Danton Boller (bass) — the EarRegulars minus co-leader Jon-Erik Kellso, who was working his plunger mute at the Breda Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.

Candor compels me to say when I walked into the Ear, I found it noisy and crowded — as expected on the Sunday of a four-day weekend.  Finding no place to sit at first, I even entertained the cowardly thought of turning tail and heading back uptown.  But when I saw friendly faces — Jim and Grace Balantic, whose amiable presence I’ve missed for some time, Doug Pomeroy, jazz acupuncturist Marcia Salter, Conal and Vlatka Fowkes — I calmed myself and prepared to stay.

However, throughout the evening I kept noting the newest weird phenomena: photographers who have not yet figured out how to shoot without flash, thus exploding bursts of light a foot from the musicians.  Even more odd, I counted many young male faux-hipsters who now sport hats with tiny brims, rendering their skulls unnaturally huge.  Will no one tell them?  In my day, being Cool didn’t automatically mean looking Goofy.  But I digress.

The Ear Inn, incidentally, never turns into a monastic sanctuary — commerce, food, and drink are part of the cheerful drama of the evening . . . so one of the two hard-working waitresses was forever imploring the bartender (not Victor, alas for us), I need two Boddingtons, one Stella, two vodkas, one grapefruit tequila with salt!” In earnest near-shouts.

A word about the musicians.  Evan is one of the finest clarinet players I will ever hear: his command of that recalcitrant instrument from chalumeau to Davern-like high notes is astonishing, and he has a fat woody New Orleans tone, rapturous in the lower register, moving to an Ed Hall ferocity when he presses the octave key.  He is a fierce player in intensity and sometimes in volume, but he can murmur tenderly when he cares to.  And, although he is fluent — ripping through many-noted phrases — he doesn’t doodle or noodle aimlessly, as so many clarinetists do, filling up every space with superfluous rococco whimsies.

Scott Robinson, wearing his OUTER SPACE shirt, made by his multi-talented wife, Sharon, was in fine form: doubling trumpet and C-melody saxophone in the space of a performance, playing three choruses on the trumpet and then — without pause — going straight to the saxophone, magically.  Few payers (Benny Carter, Tom Baker, Smon Stribling) have managed to double brass and reeds; none of them have made it seem as effortless as Scott does.  And the tenora . . . a truly obscure Catalonian double-reed instrument that he had brought to the Ear on May 10 — which has an oboe’s insistent tone and timbre — is gradually becoming a Robinson friend.

Matt Munisteri was in fine form, even though the Ear gig was the second or third of the day (a concert for the Sidney Bechet Society in the early afternoon, then a 1:30 jam session with Evan in honor of Frankie Manning); he burned throughout the performance, with his humming-along-to-his-solos particularly endearing.

Young Danton Boller, quiet and unassuming, seemed to play his string bass without amplification, but swung heroically, reminding me at points of Milt Hinton or George Duvivier — his melodies ringing, his time flawless, his spaces just right.  One could transcribe a Boller solo for horns and it would be mightily compelling.  He is someone to watch, if you haven’t caught him yet — on CD, he is a delightful presence on the Kellso-Christopher-Munisteri CD, BLUE ROOF BLUES (Arbors).

The band began with a nearly slow AT SUNDOWN (perhaps in honor of the still light-blue evening sky?) which did that pretty tune honor, and then, perhaps in honor of togetherness to come, romped — and I don’t use that word lightly — through TOGETHER (“We strolled the lane to-geth-er,” etc.) in suggesting a modern version of Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, with Scott riffing behind Evan, the two horns creating a rocking counterpoint.  A blistering THEM THERE EYES followed, with Evan and Scott swapping the lead in their opening choruses (this quartet showed it knew the value of old-time ensemble playing, something that some musicians have unwisely jettisoned in favor of long solo passages).  Evan, who has a comedic touch, then discussed the business of making requests of the band.  He laid out three conditions: the band had to know the song; the band had to be interested in playing the song; the band would be most knowledgeable and willing to play the request if some financial support was forthcoming.  A man sitting at the bar asked for the very unusual Bing Crosby JUNE IN JANUARY (1934) which Evan taught the band in a matter of moments, and the band learned it in performance, with its final choruses recalling the glories of Soprano Summit in years gone by.

At the end, Evan said, “That was a SPECIAL request!” — and some member of the quartet, primed to do so, asked, “Why was it SPECIAL, Evan?” to which he said, full-throttle, “Because it was PAID FOR!”  Making himself clear, you understand.

SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET followed, beginning with hints of Johnny Hodges, then moving into Louis-territory, with Evan and Scott using the Master’s passionate phrasing and high notes in their solos.  And something unexpected had taken place: perhaps because this jazz oasis is called the Ear, the noisy audience had gradually changed into a room (mostly) full of listeners, who had caught the group’s drift.  Of course, there were still people who talked through each song and then clapped enthusiastically at the end because everyone around them was doing so — but I could sense more people were paying attention, always a reassuring spectacle.  And the set ended with a joyous JUNE NIGHT — with laugh-out-loud trades between the two horns, and a jovial unbuttoned vocal by Evan (a little Fats, a little Louis Prima) which surprised everyone.  Then the musicians retired to the back room to eat some well-deserved food.

Emboldened by the idea of JUNE IN JANUARY, before the second set started, I approached Evan with an appropriate portion of currency unsubtly displayed, and asked him, “Excuse me, Evan, would that buy me some SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE?”  Evan took in the bill, said, “SWEAT-HOGS ON PARADE?  OK?!”  And that’s how the set began, the band rounding the corners in wonderful style, Scott even beginning his trumpet solo with a nod to LOVE IN BLOOM, Matt playing a chorus of ringing chords, the band inventing one riff after another to close.  Scott, brave fellow that he is, took up the tenora for a feature on THE NEARNESS OF YOU — which had plaintive urgency as you could hear him getting more comfortable with his new horn.  (At the end of the night, when I talked with him about the tenora, he said, “I know it has a pretty sound, but I haven’t quite found it yet.”  He will, I know.)

HINDUSTAN was a highlight of the BLUE ROOF BLUES CD, with the nifty idea of shifting from the key of C to the key of Eb for alternating choruses, something I’ve never heard another band do, raising the temperature considerably; this performance ended with a serious of ecstatic, hilarious, and knowing phrase-tradings, with quotes from I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT, PAGILACCI, leading up to an urgent, pushing counterpoint, mixing long melodic lines with fervent improvisations, savoring the many textures of the quartet.  A waltz-time NEW ORLEANS cooled things down, beginning with a duet for clarinet and guitar that sounded like back-porch music for a warm night.  A riotous THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE took us back to Noone, to Soprano Summit, with Scott’s rocking solo pleasing Evan so much that he was clapping along with it.  Finally, a down-home MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR mixed operatic fervor and hymnlike unison playing, ending with the band getting softer and softer, as if they were walking slowly into the distance.

It was lovely music, fulfilling and fulfilled, and it has filled my thoughts a day later.  You should have been there!

LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT, OR JON-ERIK’S PLUNGER MUTE (April 27, 2009)

I hadn’t been to the Ear Inn for some time, and was suffering Ear-deprivation, so I was intent on being there last night for a session with the EarRegulars: Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Chuck Wilson on alto sax, Joe Cohn on guitar, and Pat O’Leary on bass.  The good news is that they were all happy and in fine form, joined almost immediately by trombonist Harvey Tibbs.  (I knew it was a good omen when Victor’s iPod found its way to Billie Holiday’s 1942 “Wherever You Are,” a recording I thought I’d only hear in my apartment.)

A jaunty SUNDAY began the proceedings, then a properly huggable version of JUST SQUEEZE ME, followed by a truly quick STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY which cried out for dancing in the narrow aisles, a “groovy” COME RAIN OR COME SHINE (an O’Leary suggestion that worked mightily), a twelve-minute jammed BLUES, and a romping SOME OF THESE DAYS.  Chuck soared and preached, his style encompassing the sweetness of Hilton Jefferson and the lemony tang of post-Parker mainstream wisdom; Harvey once again showed how his compact, sleek style fits anywhere; Joe was a lucent soloist and a dedicated rhythm man; Pat was eloquent and inventive.  Little touches shone: trades between Jon-Erik and Harvey on the blues, Pat’s double-stop punctuations behind Chuck in that same performance.

But I’ve left the most memorable detail for last.  You know that Jon-Erik is a great passionate player who doesn’t coast.  Not everyone knows how witty he is.  Few know that he is also capable of hilarious social commentary as well . . . . through his horn.

The Ear is filled (blessedly) but not always with people who are in touch with the music.  Last night there was a good-hearted gentleman standing at the bar, enthusiastically clapping along with the band, although a bit behind the beat.  But he was trying.

Next to him, for most of the first set, was a pretty young woman of substantial build, her hair blonde, her short dress white in honor of the summer heat.  She was very much amused by her own conversation and that of her ladyfriends, and her amusement came out in a walloping five-beat laugh that could have been heard in the last row of a Broadway theatre: “HA HA HA HA HA!” (pause) “HA HA HA HA HA!” and so on.  I don’t deny anyone pleasure, but she was as loud as the band. Beginning JUST SQUEEZE ME, Jon-Erik equipped himself with his plunger mute — an adventurer going into the dark forest.  When it came time for his solo, the blonde was in full voice — but Jon-Erik played her laughter back at her, “WAH WAH WAH WAH WAH!”  Perhaps half a dozen people in the Ear (in addition to the band) got it, but his mockery was brilliant.  A dangerous satirist lurks among us, disguised as a jazz trumpeter.  Watch out!

RONNIE WASHAM SINGS BILLIE HOLIDAY

An eloquent dispatch from the front lines of Greenwich Village jazz, sent in by Marianne Mangan, one of our blog’s faithful unpaid local correspondents:

Singer Ronnie Washam and her friends Peter Sokolow (piano), Sam Parkins (clarinet) and Dave Winograd (bass) visited with Billie Holiday at the Greenwich Village Bistro last Thursday evening. That illustrious songbook was handled admirably, an echo of Billie’s timbre here, a sliver of her phrasing there, a large helping of Ronnie’s valuable interpretative skill and flexible technique throughout.

The instrumentalists supported her ably, soloing to their own advantage as called for. And so the buoyancy of “Them There Eyes” turned to poignant regret in “I Wished On the Moon” hardening to the wry resolve of “God Bless the Child.” Fine entertainment, all, plus one superb bonus track: “I Cried For You.” A wistful first chorus, a scornful second, slowly built to a revengeful release, the guys swinging out, and all vocal indicators pointing towards a well-forged iron having entered Ronnie’s soul. The tone was sweet and true as always, but the attitude was pure woman done wrong. Blasphemous as it may sound, by the end of “I Cried For You,” Billie was forgotten for a few minutes. This one was all Ronnie & Her Friends.

They’ll be getting together again next Tuesday evening, March 10th, 9 to 11.

THE GROVE STREET STOMPERS

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As fond as I am of the West Village, I can’t say that Grove Street is architecturally distinguished.  But it is memorable for the landmark shown above — Arthur’s Tavern — where pianist Bill Dunham has led the Grove Street Stompers for forty-seven years of Monday nights.  By even the most stringent calculations, that’s over seven thousand sets of loose improvised jazz, over seven thousand brief renditions of “Mood Indigo,” the song that the Stompers use as their closing theme.  I’ll leave it to Bill, who is charmingly gregarious, to list the great jazz players who have been regulars or guests in that astonishing long run.

Last night was a particularly unusual Monday for me: my college had closed itself down because of the snow, and I was unexpectedly free to hear some live jazz.  I hadn’t been at Arthur’s for some time, so I decided to visit an old haunt.  Bill had told me that his front line was going to feature cornetist Randy Reinhart and clarinetist Joe Muranyi, which was an inducement to brave the cold winds.  Bill would be on piano, and regulars Peter Ballance (trombone and general keeper-of-decorum) and drummer Giampaolo Biagi would be there.  Bassist Tim Ferguson and pianist-visitor Ron Ferry completed the dramatis personae.

The Stompers are a home-grown jazz band in the finest old style: drawing on a wide variety of material, they take medium-tempo jogs through spirituals, pop tunes, Tin Pan Alley classics, Condon and Armstrong favorites, and jazz evergreens.  Last night, “Dixieland” was represented by CHINA BOY, CHANGES MADE, DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS?, I FOUND A NEW BABY, JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN and a few more.  But the band’s range is happily broader: THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE, WININ’ BOY BLUES, OUT OF NOWHERE, and MY BUDDY lit up the place.

A word about “lighting up the place.”  The Tavern should be seen not only for the music, but for its general decor.  On the wall above my head, signs wishing me a Happy Halloween were much in evidence; over the bar’s cash register was a sign reading CLOSED, and strings of brightly colored lights — Christmas, probably — are always on.  The wine list is, shall we say, limited, but the amiable waitress was busy supplying everyone’s alcohol-related needs.  I was fortunate to be among friendly Spouses: Sonya Dunham and Nina Favara (Mrs. Reinhart) who were listening intently and cheering the band on.

And the music?  Well, the Stompers are the very antithesis of slick.  Yes, there is an occasional lead sheet passed around in case someone in uncertain about the chords on the bridge, but any arranging is done in the heat of the moment.  Last night, Randy decided, as he always does, to act as a prime mover, and he drove the band, choosing to play brass eight-bar trades with trombonist Peter, to leap into solos as if his life depended on it, to show off his beautiful command of the horn from bottom to top, mixing Berigan and Fifties Mainstream with delicacy and fervor.  Joe Muranyi, who’s seen many ensembles come and go, including Louis’s, was in fine quiet form, showing off his lovely chalumeau register.  The regulars — Bill, Peter, and Giampaolo — aren’t fancy, and their solos are concise, but they’ve got the feeling.  And Tim Ferguson, someone I’d not heard before, kept everything in good order and took nice resonant solos.

This musical convocation takes place from 7-10 on Monday nights, and worth the trip — just south of the Christopher Street / Sheridan Square subway stop.  The Stompers won’t necessarily be there for another forty-seven years, so you might well want to visit.

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BILLIE, BARBARA LEA, MINGUS, AND FRIENDS

Jeanie Wilson (dear friend of Barbara Lea and a thoughtful reader of this blog) just sent this along — what a treasure!

billie-poster

When it stops snowing, Jeanie, can we go?  I’ll spring for the tickets.  At $2.50, everyone we know can join us!

(Before my attentive readers write in to add information, I’ll venture that this took place in 1957 — a few minutes with an online perpetual calendar suggested that as the only plausible year.)

ENTERING BILLIE’S WORLD

This morning I gave a talk to a group sponsored by the Molloy (College) Institute for Lifelong Learning  at a church in Rockville Centre.

My subject? “Miss Billie Holiday,” as John Crosby respectfully calls her.

billie-1These talks let me stand up in front of a group of attentive, aware people and discuss something and someone I love.  (I came late to Billie — buying my first Holiday records in 1967 — but I fell hard.)

To be able to share Billie’s records of BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD or MISS BROWN TO YOU and see someone twenty feet away from me gently rocking with the beat is a pleasure.  And because the people who come to these talks aren’t taking required courses for a grade, the atmosphere is free from the emotions so often associated with academia — on either side of the desk.

STRANGE FRUIT casts its own spell as a unique piece of music, of political oratory, of theatre.  As does the Commodore I’LL BE SEEING YOU and (of course) the film clip of FINE AND MELLOW from “The Sound of Jazz,” which I can no longer watch without a lump in my throat.

But the chat afterwards is often even more rewarding.  And surprising.  Today, for instance, we drifted into a discussion of trained and untrained singing voices, diction, Kate Smith, honoring the song GOD BLESS AMERICA, high drape pants, the Rosenberg children, and more.

Best of all, to me, are the bits of anecdote that surface.  If you looked at this crowd, you might sniff dismissively, “Oh, senior citizens from the suburbs.  What would they bring to such an experience?”  But that assumption would be both unfair and wrong, as today’s experience proved.

A man told me about going to jazz clubs in the Village circa 1948 and sitting there forever for very little money, perhaps a quarter.

A woman off to one side picked up on something I had said about Benny Goodman and told me that her husband’s childhood friend was Jay Finegold, who had been Benny’s manager for a long time in the Fifties and Sixties.  I had spoken about Goodman’s focus on his playing — to such an extent that he seemed eccentric, oblivious, or even cruel — and she pointed out that BG came to Jay’s funeral, contradicting much of what I had thought of the King of Swing as a boss or employer.

A woman in the back of the room raised her hand politely and said, “I saw Billie Holiday in a bar on Post Avenue in Westbury.”  (An aside: Post Avenue does have two-way car traffic, but it is distinguished by a CVS, a supermarket, various ethnic eateries, donut shops, delis.  52nd Street isn’t and never was.)

I stopped cold and begged her to elaborate.  She said that this sighting took place around 1954, that Billie sang beautifully but was so stoned (drunk or high, I didn’t know) that she almost knocked the narrator over on the way to the ladies’ room.

A rather shy woman came up at the end and told me that she and her husband had met at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1941 or 1942.  They were high school students who came to dance to the jazz.  She remembered sharing a Tom Collins (they were underage but no one cared).  And she brought up sacred names: bassist Al Morgan, who gave her a brooch in the shape of a bass, and Zutty Singleton.  I beamed at her, awestruck.

On the surface, such talks seem to be one-sided.  I am The Expert; I offer information; my hearers might ask a question or two.  And sometimes that is what the interchange feels like.  But I go away from these experiences thinking that I have been well-taught by the people sitting in front of me.  And they have made me feel more than I ever expect.

My hearers have lived the experiences I am explaining in ways that are no longer possible.  So to talk with someone who saw Billie or Zutty is something extraordinary, not to be repeated as the years go on.  And I am allowed into the most affectionately cherished memories of my audience.  In me, a stranger with esoteric enthusiasms, they find someone eager to hear, someone who cares about a small piece of their past.  Perhaps they tell me something they haven’t told their children, who know so little of the music of fifty or sixty years ago.

The casual generosity of these people, offering irreplaceable stories, is a rare gift.

[The photographs at top and bottom — showing Billie looking healthy and cheerful — come from a German website, and I believe they were taken during her 1954 European tour.  Is the clarinetist a young Tony Scott?  I am sure that it is Red Norvo at the vibraharp, as he would have called it.)

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IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO PRAISE

My title is a slight distortion of a Willard Robison song that Mildred Bailey did beautifully, and it’s also a statement of philosophy for this blog.  But I’m not going back into the Dear Departed Past, to quote Dave Frishberg, only back to last year — December 30, 2008, to be precise. 

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In a December post, WAY DOWN YONDER ON CARMINE STREET, I urged my New York readers to come hear the singer Ronnie Washam (she’s Veronica on her return address labels) and her Friends at the Greenwich Village Bistro for a debut gig.  I made it to 1 and 1/2 sets that night.  And they were worth writing about. 

Ronnie’s Friends — not just an idle band title — are Sam Parkins, also known as Leroy Parkins, Albert-system clarinetist, scholar, record producer, raconteur, and writer; Pete Sokolow, pianist-singer, honoring Earl Hines and Fats Waller, and bassist Dave Winograd. 

When I got down to the Bistro (just south of the IFC theatre and around the corner — 13 Carmine Street), this little band was already strolling through S’WONDERFUL.  They proceeded to honor George and Ira Gershwin in a fond and musically articulate set.  The songs ranged from the tender (EMBRACEABLE YOU and OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY) to the affectionately satiric (THEY ALL LAUGHED, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT), the rueful (BUT NOT FOR ME), and the riotous (Sokolow’s tribute to “my hero,” Thomas Waller, in a piano-vocal I GOT RHTYHM that summoned up Fats’s band version of 1935 hilariously and effectively.

Ronnie was in wonderful form and fine voice.  I hadn’t heard her since the Cajun closed in 2006, when she was “The Chelsea Nightingale,” positioned off to the side of the bandstand as an accessory to Bob Thompson’s Red Onion Jazz Band.  Thompson, even then, was a solid drummer with a well-earned grasp of jazz history, but he called the songs Ronnie sang, and it was a pleasure to see her sing others at the Bistro.  I knew her then as someone who loved the melody and understood the words; with this more relaxed combo, I heard her as a far freer improviser, someone whose second choruses were developments of what she had sung in her first exposition of the theme.  Her time remains excellent; her diction is splendid.  But it’s her feeling that sets her apart from a thousand other singers trying to comvince us that they own the Great American Songbook.  Like Bing, Ronnie makes it seem easy: listening to her, one might think, “Oh, I  could do that!”  But that would be an error.  And she had an easy give-and-take with the band, being content to be one of them rather than the Star. 

The band — all three of them — was very pleasing as well.  The piano wasn’t perfect, but Sokolow covered every inch of it, graciously playing the right chords, delicately voiced, behind Ronnie and the other two players.  Dave Winograd sat on a high stool, his bass at an angle over his shoulder, impressing us all with his huge tone and fine notes.  Sam Parkins has all the Goodman facility anyone would want, but he isn’t the twenty-first century’s Peanuts Hucko: he uses those flurries to create his own sound-pictures, with lovely excursions into the horn’s lower register. 

Sam is also a not-quite-dormant showman and vaudevillian, so one high point of the evening was his rapid-fire delivery of I’M A DING DONG DADDY FROM DUMAS.  Who among us remembers all of those tongue-twisting lyrics?  Sam remembers them and puts them over, exuberantly.  It was a joy to watch and hear him, occasionally finishing his sixteen bars and deciding to hand the baton to another player, hollering, “Somebody else!”  It worked. 

The second set moved beyond Gershwin to a naughty MAKIN’ WHOOPEE, a tender TIME ON MY HANDS, a funny CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU (a Waller-Razaf collaboration with an irresistible melody and irresistibly silly lyrics), a fervent ME MINUS YOU (in honor of Connee Boswell, one of Ronnie’s — and my — heroines), and a moving AM I BLUE, complete with the rarely-heard verse, where Ronnie showed just how compelling her understated delivery is.

I sat next to my friends Marianne Mangan and Bob Levin, and the three of us were beaming.  Others in the Bistro seemed to know just how good the music was, and the tip jar was filled with bills.  I hope this quartet has a new steady gig.  The ambiance, in itself, was worth seeking out, as if a group of talented friends was playing for their own enjoyment in someone’s living room, caring for the music above all.   

A postscript: Sam Parkins has been writing his musical and intellectual autobiography (he gave me some chapters from it when we were both regulars at the Cajun) and it’s wonderfully addictive.  You can find excerpts from it on his MySpace page:   http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=201966595.  He was there (I was just re-reading his piece on the death of Ellington bassist Junior Raglin) and he can write.  A rare combination indeed.