Tag Archives: Hank Jones

“PUT A SWING IN YOUR STEP” WITH CHRIS DAWSON and FRIENDS

Chris Dawson hasn’t received the attention his playing deserves, but his latest CD (for Blue Swing Fine Recordings) will fix that.  It’s superb. 

Need proof?

People who admire these musicians as I do won’t need any more prompting.  They can buy copies (note the plural) of the disc at www.blueswing.com.,  www.CDBaby.com., or email Chris personally at chrismartindawson@yahoo.com to purchase personally inscribed copies.  

Here’s some of what I wrote when I first heard the disc:

When a European jazz researcher asked Eddie Durham what he thought of Edmond Hall, Durham said it all in one sentence, “Edmond Hall didn’t know how not to swing!” Those words popped into my head as soon as this disc began to play, because for Chris and his friends inspired jazz improvisation is second nature.

Mind you, I don’t pretend to have cool objectivity.  I first heard Chris as part of the ensemble on a handful of sessions about twenty years ago (with Rebecca Kilgore, Marty Grosz, and Hal Smith) and he leaped out from the speakers although he wasn’t playing any louder than anyone else.  It was the absolute rightness of what he played: time, feeling, harmonic subtlety – an art that didn’t call attention to itself and thus was instantly compelling. Although I heard echoes of Nat Cole, Hank Jones, and Mel Powell, Chris was complete in himself, and his playing was more than a collection of memorized gestures.

It might seem melodramatic for me to write that I spent the next two decades waiting for this CD, but it it’s the truth.  I was delighted to hear Chris’s solo Christmas CD in 2009, and thrilled to see clips from these sessions appearing on YouTube.  Now, the evidence is here to share and treasure!

I doubt that these five players immersed themselves in Golden Era science fiction, but it would explain a great deal, for they are time-travelers who don’t need gleaming machines.  Chris and his gang have reached the kind of musical flexibility and maturity where all swinging jazz is equal and equally worth cherishing: James P. Johnson and Bud Powell live in the same building and chat happily in the elevator.  Listen to PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ, where Chris melds the earthy yet delicate swing I’d associate with a 1938 Vocalion with the harmonic inventiveness and sense of space that characterized “Mainstream” several decades later.  It isn’t artificial: I never feel that he is thinking, “Now I’ll throw in an Augmented Nineteenth chord in the right hand (from Hindemith) over my Official Stride Pattern (Don Lambert) in the left”; it’s genuine and internal, in the manner of such stylistic investigators as Ruby Braff and Dave McKenna.

And although music has the power to make us reflect deeply on the great sadnesses we all face, this session is resoundingly happy – it echoes the reassuring pace of the steady heartbeat.  Even the lovely ballads on this disc aren’t hopelessly gloomy: while their sounds chronicle shattered dreams (as on OH, YOU CRAZY MOON), we admire the beautiful sounds.

Chris’s gang has a cohesive energy that could rearrange the landscape.  Listen to the pulse of that rhythm section, the way the players work together to the common goal.  And there’s the pure sound of Hal’s Sid Catlett- inspired brushes and rimshots, of Denny’s impassioned strum (he loves Allan Reuss and Steve Jordan), of Christoph’s woody, speaking bass, reminiscent of Ray Brown. Each of the members of this rhythm section could propel a big band on their own (hear Denny’s introduction to SAILBOAT); together, they are a living display of joyous synergy.  And with Dan Barrett on the date, no other horns need apply. To me, he is a jazz Midas, casually making everything golden.  (Dan is responsible for the nifty little riff that the band uses to send Christoph on his merry way on SWEETIE.)

Chris said to me, “I felt really fortunate and lucky to have this band. Each guy was my number one pick, so this was my dream team.  I’ve been playing with Christoph for about twenty years.  We met at USC, while he was working on his Masters and I was doing my undergraduate work.  He’s a very serious, dedicated musician, an inspiring player to know and work with.  I’ve known Dan for almost that long while playing gigs together in the local Los Angeles jazz scene.  I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and I respect his musicianship immensely!  I learn new things about music and what it means to be a professional player whenever we talk.  I met Hal while on an Evan Christopher gig around 1992.  I wouldn’t have done this project without him and I’m so happy I got him before he moved to San Antonio to work with Jim Cullum.  I was wondering which guitar player would suit us best, and Dan recommended Denny.  He was new to me, but I trust Dan 100% and it worked out great.  I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Although Chris doesn’t dramatically demand the spotlight, I find myself listening to a performance over and over, savoring at how Chris’s left hand knows what his right hand is doing, and vice versa.  And he’s my model of an ensemble pianist – how does he pick just the right notes?  Hear him support, cheer, and encourage everyone throughout this disc!

And the wonderful little charts – just right – are also from the noble hand of Mr. Dawson.  Chris told me, “One thing I hope that separates this project from others is those arrangements.  It isn’t a jam session, thrown together in the studio, but it’s a little more thought out.  For example, there’s the recurring introduction, interlude, and ending on THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME, as well as the unison intro and ending on ALL I DO IS DREAM OF YOU.  Also I like to use key changes for variety – ALL I DO modulates from F to C; WE’LL MEET AGAIN goes from Bb to C and ends up in Eb; RITZ bounces back and forth between C minor and G minor before ending in C minor.  I love the way the Benny Goodman Trio did this kind of thing.”

Chris is not only a satisfying small-group arranger but a splendidly masterful pianist.  Admire his unerring gently propulsive pulse; his steady time; the ringing sound he gets out of the instrument; his chord voicings.  And what delights he can create in a small space: his four-bar introductions are gems.  MY IDEAL is a graduate course (for those who can hear) in how to make melody come alive, how to convey tenderness while keeping the rhythm going.  And his HANDFUL OF KEYS honors Fats – in ways both accurate and jubilant – adding his own touches to this great display of playful athleticism.

For once, the title of this CD is accurate, musical truth in advertising: this music will uplift you on your daily rounds in a way that no costly set of orthotics could. And the glowing, generous sounds and textures here will resound in your ears long after the disc has concluded. Denny told me, “Quite honestly, playing time with Hal and Christoph was like breathing air – so natural and so effortless. A real pleasure indeed – they did the work and all I needed to do was open my ears.” 

Pleasures untold greet those who listen!

And a little coda:

Chris is an original, not a copyist.  He isn’t a museum piece but a creative improviser . . . !  And what he does is irreplaceable.

PAY ATTENTION: TED BROWN RETURNS! (Jan. 12, 2011)

Mark your calendars: saxophonist Ted Brown will be playing his first official New York gig in thirty years this coming January 12th at the Kitano Hotel — with a congenial rhythm section of Michael Kanan, piano; Murray Wall, bass, and Taro Okamoto, drums.  

In the late 1940s, Ted Brown, Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz were among the first students of jazz innovator Lennie Tristano.  And Brown continues to evoke the spirit of Lester Young — as he did when I saw him play alongside Joel Press and Michael Kanan at the end of June 2010.  Here are Ted, Joel, Michael, Neal Kanan, and Joe Hunt exploring ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE at Sofia’s Ristorante (Ted is wearing the red shirt, if you don’t know him by sight or sound):

Brown has performed and recorded with Tristano, Marsh, Konitz, Art Pepper, Kenny Clarke, Art Taylor, Jimmy Giuffre, Jimmy Raney, and many others.  His best-known recordings are probably JAZZ OF TWO CITIES with Marsh and FIGURE AND SPIRIT with Konitz.  (Both also feature Brown’s own compositions.)

Brown’s more recent years have often been lean: he has worked as a computer programmer.  But even when not performing regularly, he continued to practice at home and play private jam sessions.  His sound has retained its purity, warmth, and intimacy.  Perhaps he’s even grown as artist; certainly he is playing just as strong as on his classic recordings.

Supporting Brown at the Kitano are players connected to both the Tristano universe and serious swing:

Michael Kanan (piano) studied with Tristano-disciples Harvey Diamond and Sal Mosca.  He was a member of the International Hashva Orchestra (Mark Turner, Nat Su, Jorge Rossy) which explored original Tristano/Marsh/Konitz repertoire.  Kanan appears on Kurt Rosenwinkel’s INTUIT and has had long term associations with Jimmy Scott and Jane Monheit.

Murray Wall (bass) has performed Clark Terry, Benny Goodman, Buck Clayton, Ken Peplowski, Jon Hendricks, Marty Grosz, Annie Ross, Billy Eckstine, the EarRegulars, Michael Bank, and Mel Torme.  And upon arriving in New York from Australia in the 1970ss, he also  studied with Tristano.

Taro Okamoto (drums) has performed with Sal Mosca, Warne Marsh, Hank Jones and Sadik Hakim.  He was also an assistant to Elvin Jones. Most importantly for this gig, Wall and Okamoto have been playing together for 30 years!

The Kitano Hotel: 66 Park Avenue at 38th Street, NYC.  Sets at 8:00 and 10:00.  No cover charge, $15 minimum good for food or drink.  Reservations recommended: 212-885-7119.  http://www.kitano.com.

P.S.  I saw Ehud Asherie and Harry Allen at the Kitano this summer.  There’s a first-rate piano and they make a fine mojito!  Look for me — in between sets, of course: I’ll be the person intently looking through a viewfinder.

ITALO LOVES JAZZ!

Who is this happy man?

Why, Italo Assogna, that’s who.  No, he doesn’t play cornet with the Pescara Hot Stompers, but he loves jazz with all his heart. 

How did we meet him? 

Italo is the manager of Pino’s, a wonderful Italian restaurant on the High Street of Lechlade in Gloucestershire, GL7 3AD, where the Beloved and I had lunch today.  I know this isn’t a food blog or a restaurant blog, but we had what Louis would call a truly dee-licious meal there.  And we met Italo’s charming fiancee, Maria, as well.

 “But this is a jazz blog!” I hear you insisting.  True enough. 

Italo loves jazz.  I knew this when I went inside the restaurant and heard a strangely familiar sound coming through the speakers — the closing instrumental choruses of PRETTY LITTLE MISSY by Signore Armstrong, followed by HAVE YOU MET MISS JONES? by the same person.  I found out that Italo had chosen the music, and we had a long chat about what kinds of jazz would be best for a restaurant (I suggested Ben Webster with strings, followed by Clifford Brown with strings; the Beloved suggested Paul Desmond; I thought of Hank Jones and Jimmy Rowles). 

But Italo and Maria were two of the most enthusiastic and charming people we have met on our UK trip, and I think they would stand out anywhere as wonderful individuals.  We will remember them — and the extraordinary food — long after we are back in New York.  And Italo loves jazz! 

Mille grazie!

“PAY ATTENTION!” CELEBRATING JAKE HANNA (August 8, 2010)

The greatest artists have a way of making us comfortable.  We see them, unannounced, come on the stage, and we relax and get ready to be delighted.  “This is going to be wonderful!” we think, before the first note has been played.  Hank Jones and Milt Hinton and Ruby Braff and Vic Dickenson and another dozen others always evoked that feeling.  And Jake Hanna. 

 Jake lifted up every session with his beautiful sound, his floating, encouraging time, his own delight at being there.  But he was so consistently generous that I fear he didn’t get celebrated sufficiently when he was alive.  But the musicians knew, and wise listeners did also.

He isn’t with us anymore — to push the band joyously on his hi-hats, to crack wise on the bandstand, to tell long scurrilous hilarious stories off it.  But his presence is very much real and alive.

Jake’s niece, Maria Judge, has organized a musical celebration in honor of Jake.  It will be held in his hometown, Dorchester, Mass., on August 8 at 2 PM.  Musicians who loved Jake and who shared his artistic vision (loosely paraphrased, it went something like: “If you’re not going to swing, what the hell are you doing on the bandstand?”) will be there: Becky Kilgore, Howard Alden, Randy Reinhart, Warren Vache, Harry Allen, Joe Ascione (playing a set of Jake’s drums),  and Joel Forbes.  Knowing Jake — and how deeply people loved and admired him, there will be a great deal of laughter and swing.  I would give anything to be at the back of the hall with my video camera, and hope that someone takes my place.

The Hometown Celebration will take place on Sunday, August 8, beginning at 2 PM, at Florian Hall, 55 Hallet Street, Dorchester, Mass. 02124.  Don’t know how to get there?  Look-a-here . . . and there’s more information on the brand-new website, http://www.jakehanna.com.  My title (and one of my most-used tags)?  “Pay attention!” was one of Jake’s favorite phrases.  Attention must be paid . . . .

JUNE NIGHTS with MICHAEL KANAN and JOEL PRESS

Here’s a last-minute notice about two New York City gigs that promise extraordinary music. 

On Tuesday, June 29th, at Smalls Jazz Club, from 10 PM to 12:30 AM, the Michael Kanan Quartet will be playing.  Michael is the pianist whose beautifully subtle work stopped me cold on Dan Block’s Ellington tribute CD.  Some contemporary musicians don’t like being compared to their jazz ancestors, but I thought of Ellis Larkins and Hank Jones — Mike is just that compelling and delicate. 

And I’ll get to meet the wonderful Joel Press, tenor sax (I decided that he was “the Swing Explorer”) face to face.  Joel is both traditional and unclassifiable in the best ways.  I’ve heard him experiment with standard repertoire without obliterating it, arriving at surprising places in the course of a performance.  And he knows how to swing while he’s exploring.  

What could be better?  How about Pat O’Leary on bass and Joe Hunt on drums?  

Smalls is located at 183 West 10th St in Greenwich Village, and a $20 cover is good for a full night of music.  

And for those who can’t get enough, like myself, the next night, Wednesday, June 30, Michael, Joel, bassist Neal Miner, and Joe Hunt will be appearing in the cozy ground-floor space of Sofia’s (221 West 46th Street) from 7-10:30 pm.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to charge my batteries (both electronic and physical) in advance. (A reasonable man would be sleeping and packing, but I can sleep on the plane.)   See you there!

WELCOME TO HANK O’NEAL’S NEW BLOG

You can find it here: http://www.hankoneal.com/index.php?option=com_lyftenbloggie&view=lyftenbloggie&category=0&Itemid=73.

I’m thrilled that Hank has entered the blogosphere.  We have so much to thank him for: the long series of Chiaroscuro recordings, the concerts at the New School (I was there for a few and treasure the experience), his Floating Jazz Festivals, his wonderful photographs, his book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM.  In general, he’s been one of the most energetic and thoughtful friends this music has.  (And any man who was a friend of Eddie Condon, Ruby Braff, and Squirrel Ashcraft deserves canonization.)

Now he’s got a wonderful blog — with long, lively entries on Earl Hines, John Bunch, Hank Jones (all of whom he knew and worked with), and this splendid picture of Jacqueline Onassis:

Hank is also a very fine writer: gracious, natural, sharp-eyed.  What he writes is first-hand; it’s not a series of other people’s observations.  I’ve added his blog to my list of morning must-reads and think you’ll want to do so also.

BREATHING THE SAME AIR

Were I a different sort of person, I could blame my parents, who were lovingly overprotective.  I could be irked at them now for not encouraging me to leave my suburban nest at 14 or 15 to go into New York City.  Had they been more adventurous souls themselves, I might have seen Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Rex Stewart in the flesh.  But by the time I began to make the trek, Ben Webster had left for Europe; Coleman Hawkins had died. 

Rather than lament the ones I’ve missed, I will list the names of the heroic players and singers  — now dead — I did get to see.

Trumpets / cornets: Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett, Buck Clayton, Ruby Braff, Sweets Edison, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Ray Nance, Louis Metcalf, Herman Autrey, Doc Cheatham, Pat Jenkins, Joe Newman, Joe Thomas, Max Kaminsky, Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Erwin, Dick Sudhalter, Yank Lawson, Billy Butterfield, Jimmy McPartland, Johnny Windhurst, Taft Jordan, Franc Williams, Jimmy Maxwell.

Trombones: Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Benny Morton, Bobby Pratt, Georg Brunis, Dick Rath, Tyree Glenn, Eli Robinson.

Reeds: Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Al Klink, Herb Hall, Kenny Davern, Sal Pace, Russell Procope, Benny Carter, Johnny Mince, Bud Freeman, Buddy Tate, Phil Bodner, Sam Margolis, Harold Ashby, Earle Warren, Rudy Rutherford, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Clifford Jordan, Rudy Powell, Budd Johnson, Eddie Barefield, Lockjaw Davis, Allen Eager, Barney Bigard, Paul Quinichette, Illinois Jacquet, George Kelly.

Pianos: Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Claude Hopkins, Dill Jones, Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Jane Jarvis, Hank Jones, John Bunch, Jimmy Rowles, Eubie Blake, Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans, Ross Tompkins, Joe Bushkin, Ellis Larkins, Sammy Price, Art Hodes.

Guitars: Eddie Condon, Freddie Green, Wayne Wright, Herb Ellis, Al Casey, Bernard Addison, Carmen Mastren, George Barnes.

Basses: Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Charles Mingus, Al Hall, Bill Pemberton, Gene Ramey, Jack Lesberg, Bob Haggart, Franklyn Skeete.

Drums: Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Cliff Leeman, Chauncey Morehouse, Buzzy Drootin, Tommy Benford, Oliver Jackson, Eddie Locke, Sonny Greer, Sam Woodyard, Gus Johnson, Jake Hanna, Connie Kay, Freddie Moore.

Vibraphone (or Vibraharp): Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo.

Violin: Joe Venuti.

Vocals: Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, Lee Wiley, Bing Crosby, Al Hibbler, Maxine Sullivan.

I miss them all, but feel so fortunate that I was there to breathe the same air, to hear their sounds.

DELICATE FORCE: HANK JONES (1918-2010)

Hank Jones, 2005

It’s unrealistic, but I thought that Hank Jones would be around forever: so I was unreasonably shocked to hear of his death at age 91.  The obituaries speak of the musicians he played with so gloriously — from brothers Elvin and Thad to Charlie Rouse and Joe Lovano . . . to Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Joe Wilder, and Ruby Braff.  He had fine taste: the “New York Rhythm Section” that flourished in the Fifties included Hank, Milt Hinton, Barry Galbraith, and Osie Johnson. 

Modestly, he didn’t want the spotlight for himself (although he recorded prolifically as a leader for forty years and more); nor did he say that his sound on the piano, his touch, was exceptional.  But anyone hearing even four bars of his playing could identify Hank — he had a singular way of hitting notes on the piano, of phrasing a line of notes, of voicing a chord . . . so that it could be no one else.  I don’t know enough about piano technique to say whether it was a matter of touch, of pedaling — but he could make the simplest (even the most cliched) phrase sound pearly.  Next to him, many other pianists (with monumental reputations) sound over-elaborate or uncouth.  (The player closest to Hank in this was Ellis Larkins.)  Hank’s phrases seem to float above the piano, transcending the mechanics of hands pressing down wood, the wood hitting strings, and so on.  And he had a particularly steady rhythmic sense: his beat was also unmistakable, apparently decorous.  But the elegant surface veneer of his playing, its sheen and gloss, could not mask his swinging force beneath.  Like Bobby Hackett, he was never loud.  He didn’t have to be.   

And he’s gone.  But we had sixty-five years to hear him: what a generous life!

“The Official Hank Jones Website” can be found here: http://www.officialhankjones.com/.  It’s rather outdated, but it will do to remind us of the glorious playing of Hank Jones.

FAVORABLE JAZZ OMENS (April 2010)

Omens aren’t always ominous.  And while I wouldn’t see a groundswell of interest in jazz in these two recent sightings, they are cheering little incidents.

Around the corner from the Beloved’s digs, a new restaurant opened, an odd pairing, offering gourmet coffees, Shanghai dumplings, and Asian noodle dishes.  The food isn’t bad, but what caught me even before our orders came was the musical soundtrack — jazz performances I couldn’t recognize in a Fifties-plus style.  What did they sound like?  A tenor sax / piano duet on I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME; a woman singing about Jack and Jill and wishing that she and her love were young again; a piano trio trotting through S’WONDERFUL with an arco bass solo — the players sounded vaguely like Red Garland and Paul Chambers; KANSAS CITY sung by a man in front of a small group whose sound mixed Sixties Ellington with a Hammond organ. 

I pride myself on being able to recognize the great players and soloists of the jazz I appreciate, and midway through the first number (whose participants had clearly listened to Ben Webster and Hank Jones without being Ben or Hank) I asked my amiable waiter, “Who picks out the music?” wanting to extend my compliments to the hip person in charge.  He didn’t know, but went and asked.  When he returned, the answer was that the restaurant paid for a service (was its name DBX?) that selected the music.  I said, “I guess it’s called RESTAURANT JAZZ?” and he grinned.  The music, as is always the case in restaurants, got a bit too loud and its beat too urgent, but it was well-played, even if I wondered if capable musicians had been brought into the studio to deliver music that Sounds Like Famous People.  Derivative isn’t always a bad thing: it depends on what the source is.

Last night, I was on a subway platform in downtown New York City, waiting for the train.  Two neatly-dressed men were having an energetic conversation.  Or, to be accurate, one man was eagerly talking to the other, who kept smiling and nodding his head.  I couldn’t help but hear — in bits and pieces — what they were talking about.  I should confess that I edged nearer because I kept hearing familiar names: “Wynton” and “Roy Hargrove,” and the enthusiastic speaker kept miming trumpet playing by leaning back, raising his hands at a slight angle, and fluttering his fingers rapidly to simulate the pressing of valves.  (Those who know will recognize “air trumpet,” simulated by people who don’t play it.)  Where the speaker had been, I don’t know, but he was narrating his experience of witnessing a public trumpet battle where, according to him, Wynton had carved Roy a dozen different ways before turning him loose.  I heard, “And Wynton said, ‘I don’t want to leave your blood all over the stage,'” which was followed by gusts of laughter. 

The train came along before I could intrude myself into the conversation and advertise this blog, but that was fine.  I had the sense that I had been transported, for two minutes, to a universe full of wondrous jazz possibilities — where listeners simply had to tell their friends about the jam session they’d been to, and which trumpet player triumphed.  Someone out there is listening and loving the sounds!

JOHN BUNCH by RANDY SANDKE

Randy Sandke writes:

Someone should really acknowledge the passing of John Bunch.  He was a truly unique stylist and a brilliant improviser.  I remember listening with awe once as he played multiple choruses on the blues, every one taking up a new idea and developing it through each 12-bar sequence without being the slightest bit pedantic.  I thought I was listening to the spontaneous creation of a 20th Century Goldberg Variations.  John had a all the qualities of a great player – originality, flawless technique (which never called attention to itself), great subtlety, and infectious swing.  All he lacked was the major recognition, partly because his personality was very much like his playing: no flash or gimmicks.  Also, perhaps because he was identified as a “mainstream” player, which signifies lack of originality in critical parlance.  But as Harry Allen once said, John was always the most modern (and timeless I would add) player on the bandstand.

<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/02/arts/music/02bunch.html>

Nate Chinen’s piece in the NY Times was respectful and accurate to a point, but again, it implied that John was a “swing” player (there’s that word again).  John’s conception began with bebop, and his whole approach (rhythm, harmonic, melodic) was much more in the Hank Jones school than Teddy Wilson, though again, he spoke unequivocally in his own voice.

John was also a gentle and self-effacing person, on the reserved side, but one who had a wealth of fascinating stories to tell: of being shot down over Germany in WWII and spending months in a prisoner-of-war camp (all of which he told me as we were touring Germany); how his trio in Indianapolis couldn’t find a bass player so they used Wes Montgomery playing bass lines on guitar; and how, after playing with a young Freddie Hubbard, he thought “this guy sounds terrible; he’ll never make it.”

John will be sorely missed by those who knew him and those who revered his playing.  Like any true artist, he leaves a void that cannot be filled.

I can only add that I first saw and heard John play with Ruby Braff in the early Seventies.  In retrospect, I was so awed by Ruby’s playing that it took some time for me to actually hear closely what John was consistently, quietly doing.  But I can still see and hear Ruby standing by the piano while John soloed, urging him on, agreeing, smiling at what he heard. 

In a musical landscape of extroverts and self-dramatizers, John pursued his art — serenely and thoughtfully, with wonderful swing and understated eloquence.  In my experience, certain musicians, now gone, were always reliable and more: seeing them onstage, I could relax, knowing that the music was going to be superb.  Jake Hanna, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, John Bunch.  We are fortunate to have heard them, to have been welcomed into their individual rooms.

To hear more from John himself, visit Marc Myers’ invaluable JazzWax, where he is posting an interview he did with John — incomplete but invaluable: http://www.jazzwax.com/2010/04/interview-john-bunch-part-1.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Jazzwax+%28JazzWax%29&utm_content=Google+Feedfetcher

THE BOUNCE ACCORDING TO JOE ALTERMAN

There’s a Stephen Sondheim song — BOUNCE — from the musical of the same name.  I heard it many times on Jonathan Schwartz’s show on WNYC-FM.  It’s a cynical paean to the ability to re-adapt, to get up off the floor, to reinvent yourself, sung by two brothers who have seen a great deal.

I thought about it, however irrelevantly, when the young jazz pianist Joe Alterman sent me a copy of his debut CD, PIANO TRACKS (VOLUME ONE).  Young?  He’s twenty-one.  Credit for my knowing about Joe is due to the energetic Marc Myers, of JazzWax: read his December 2009 post on Joe here: http://www.jazzwax.com/2009/12/joe-alterman-piano-tracks.html.

Joe admires the lyrical, singing, propulsive styles — they’re timeless — embodied by Hank Jones and other giants. 

Joe’s also got his own personal blog, where he writes about meeting Hank Jones and Jimmy Heath, studying with Don Friedman, and more — humble, funny, and to the point.  It’s http://joealterman.blogspot.com/

But back to the CD at hand.  It was recorded last year, and it is a comfortable kind of music: swinging without being self-conscious, embracing the past without being restricted by “repertory” conventions.  Joe is a melodic player — someone who respects the compositions he sets out to play (Arlen, Johnny Green, Styne, Gershwin, Mancini) and is also an adept composer.  I’ve heard some contemporary pianists recently who seem to believe that their improvisations must be aggressive to be compelling, so they rampage over the keyboard as if they were annoyed by it.  That’s not Joe’s style.  He knows the virtue of space, of letting lines breathe.  And he knows how to swing naturally in the fashion of Red Garland and Ahmad Jamal.  Some of the infectious bounce of this CD is due to bassist Scott Glazer and drummer Justin Varnes (on one track, they are replaced by Sam Selinger and Tiffany Chang), but with all due respect to them, I think Joe could swing on his own.  He understands the possibilities within “medium-up-tempo,” and the CD has its own rocking momentum.  And several of his originals deserve their own life — the moody THE FIRST NIGHT HOME, and the naughty blues (BEFORE YOU BRING ME MY CORNBREAD) SLAP SOME BUTTER ON THAT BISCUIT, which surely has lyrics waiting to be sung. 

You can hear some music from the CD at Joe’s site — click on http://www.joealtermanmusic.com/live/

Sondheim’s song urges us all to “learn how to bounce,” which I know is a commendable skill — but young Joe Alterman already knows how.  Welcome!

THE VANGUARD SESSIONS

Vanguard Ruby disc

Between 1953 and 1957, John Hammond supervised a series of record dates for the Vanguard label.  I first heard one of those records — the second volume of the THE VIC DICKENSON SHOWCASE — at my local library in the late Sixties, and fell in love. 

The Vanguard sessions featured Ruby Braff, Shad Collins, Buck Clayton, Joe Newman, Emmett Berry, Pat Jenkins, Doug Mettome, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Benny Green, Urbie Green, Lawrence Brown, Henderson Chambers, Ed Hall, Peanuts Hucko, Jimmy Buffington, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tate, Rudy Powell, Earle Warren, Lucky Thompson, Frank Wess, Pete Brown, Paul Quinichette, Mel Powell, Sir Charles Thompson, Jimmy Jones, Hank Jones, Sammy Price, Ellis Larkins, Nat Pierce, Steve Jordan, Skeeter Best, Kenny Burrell, Oscar Pettiford, Walter Page, Aaron Bell, Jo Jones, Bobby Donaldson, Jimmy Crawford, Jimmy Rushing, and others.

The list of artists above would be one answer to the question, “What made these sessions special?” but we all know of recordings with glorious personnel that don’t quite come together as art — perhaps there’s too little or too much arranging, or the recorded sound is not quite right, or one musician (a thudding drummer, an over-amplified bassist) throws everything off. 

The Vanguard sessions benefited immensely from Hammond’s imagination.  Although I have been severe about Hammond — as someone who interfered with musicians for whom he was offering support — and required that his preferences be taken seriously or else (strong-willed artists like Louis, Duke, and Frank Newton fought with or ran away from John).  Hammond may have been “difficult” and more, but his taste in jazz was impeccable.  And broad — the list above goes back to Sammy Price, Walter Page, and forward to Kenny Burrell and Benny Green. 

Later on, what I see as Hammond’s desire for strong flavors and novelty led him to champion Dylan and Springsteen, but I suspect that those choices were also in part because he could not endure watching others make “discoveries.”  Had it been possible to continue making records like the Vanguards eternally, I believe Hammond might have done so.   

Although Mainstream jazz was still part of the American cultural landscape in the early Fifties, and the artists Hammond loved were recording for labels large and small — from Verve, Columbia, Decca, all the way down to Urania and Period — he felt strongly about players both strong and subtle, musicians who had fewer opportunities to record sessions on their own.  At one point, Hammond and George Wein seemed to be in a friendly struggle to champion Ruby Braff, and I think Hammond was the most fervent advocate Vic Dickenson, Sir Charles Thompson, and Mel Powell ever had.  Other record producers, such as the astute George Avakian at Columbia, would record Jimmy Rushing, but who else was eager to record Pete Brown, Shad Collins, or Henderson Chambers?  No one but Hammond. 

And he arranged musicians in novel — but not self-consciously so — combinations.  For THE VIC DICKENSON SHOWCASE, it did not take a leap of faith to put Braff, Vic, and Ed Hall together in the studio, for they had played together at Boston’s Savoy Cafe in 1949.  And to encourage them to stretch out for leisurely versions of “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “Jeepers Creepers,” and “Russian Lullaby” was something that other record producers — notably Norman Granz — had been doing to capitalize on the longer playing time of the new recording format.  But after that rather formal beginning, Hammond began to be more playful.  The second SHOWCASE featured Shad Collins, the masterful and idiosyncratic ex-Basie trumpeter, in the lead, with Braff joining in as a guest star on two tracks. 

Vanguard Vic

Now, some of the finest jazz recordings were made in adverse circumstances (I think of the cramped Brunswick and Decca studios of the Thirties).  And marvelous music can be captured in less-than-ideal sound: consider Jerry Newman’s irreplaceable uptown recordings.  But the sound of the studio has a good deal to do with the eventual result.  Victor had, at one point, a converted church in Camden, New Jersey; Columbia had Liederkrantz Hall and its 30th Street Studios.  Hammond had a Masonic Temple on Clermont Avenue in Brooklyn, New York — with a thirty-five foot ceiling, wood floors, and beautiful natural resonance. 

The Vanguard label, formed by brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon, had devoted itself to beautiful-sounding classical recordings; Hammond had written a piece about the terrible sound of current jazz recordings, and the Solomons asked him if he would like to produce sessions for them.  Always eager for an opportunity to showcase musicians he loved, without interference, Hammond began by featuring Vic Dickenson, whose sound may never have been as beautifully captured as it was on the Vanguards. 

Striving for an entirely natural sound, the Vanguards were recorded with one microphone hanging from the ceiling.  The players in the Masonic Temple did not know what the future would hold — musicians isolated behind baffles, listening to their colleagues through headphones — but having one microphone would have been reminiscent of the great sessions of the Thirties and Forties.  And musicians often become tense at recording sessions, no matter how professional or experienced they are — having a minimum of engineering-interference can only have added to the relaxed atmosphere in the room. 

The one drawback of the Masonic Temple was that loud drumming was a problem: I assume the sound ricocheted around the room.  So for most of these sessions, either Jo Jones or Bobby Donaldson played wire brushes or the hi-hat cymbal, with wonderful results.  (On the second Vic SHOWCASE, Jo’s rimshots explode like artillery fire on RUNNIN’ WILD, most happily, and Jo also was able to record his lengthy CARAVAN solo, so perhaps the difficulty was taken care of early.)  On THE NAT PIERCE BANDSTAND — a session recently reissued on Fresh Sound — you can hear the lovely, translucent sound Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Jo Jones made, their notes forming three-dimensional sculpture on BLUES YET? and STOMP IT OFF. 

Vanguard Vic 2(Something for the eyes.  I am not sure what contemporary art directors would make of this cover, including Vic’s socks, and the stuffed animals, but I treasure it, even though there is a lion playing a concertina.)

What accounted for the beauty of these recordings might be beyond definition.  Were the musicians so happy to be left alone that they played better than ever?  Was it the magisterial beat and presence of Walter Page on many sessions?  Was it Hammond’s insistence on unamplified rhythm guitar?  Whatever it was, I hear these musicians reach into those mystical spaces inside themselves with irreplaceable results.  On these recordings, there is none of the reaching-for-a-climax audible on many records.  Nowhere is this more apparent than on the sessions featuring Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins.  Braff had heard Larkins play duets with Ella Fitzgerald for Decca (reissued on CD as PURE ELLA) and told Hammond that he, too, wanted to play with Larkins.  Larkins’ steady, calm carpet of sounds balances Braff’s tendency towards self-dramatization, especially on several Bing Crosby songs — PLEASE and I’VE GOT A POCKETFUL OF DREAMS.  Vanguard Ruby

Ruby and Ellis were reunited several times in the next decades, for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label and twice for Arbors, as well as onstage at a Braff-organized tribute to Billie Holiday, but they never sounded so poignantly wonderful as on the Vanguards. 

Hammond may have gotten his greatest pleasure from the Basie band of the late Thirties, especially the small-group sessions, so he attempted to give the Vanguards the same floating swing, using pianists Thompson and Pierce, who understood what Basie had done without copying it note for note.  For THE JO JONES SPECIAL, Hammond even managed to reunite the original “All-American Rhythm Section” for two versions of “Shoe Shine Boy.”  Thompson — still with us at 91 — recorded with Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones for an imperishable quartet session.  If you asked me to define what swing is, I might offer their “Swingtime in the Rockies” as compact, enthralling evidence. 

Hammond was also justifiably enthusiastic about pianist Mel Powell — someone immediately identifiable in a few bars, his style merging Waller, Tatum, astonishing technique, sophisticated harmonies, and an irrepressible swing — and encouraged him to record in trios with Braff, with Paul Quinichette, with Clayton and Ed Hall, among others.  One priceless yet too brief performance is Powell’s WHEN DID YOU LEAVE HEAVEN? with French hornist Jimmy Buffington in the lead — a spectral imagining of the Benny Goodman Trio. 

Vanguard Mel 2

The last Vanguards were recorded in 1957, beautiful sessions featuring Buck Clayton and Jimmy Rushing.  I don’t know what made the series conclude.  Did the recordings not sell well?  Vanguard turned to the burgeoning folk movement shortly after.  Or was it that Hammond had embarked on this project for a minimal salary and no royalties and, even given his early patrician background, had to make a living?  But these are my idea of what jazz recordings should sound like, for their musicality and the naturalness of their sound.

I would like to be able to end this paean to the Vanguards by announcing a new Mosaic box set containing all of them.  But I can’t.  And it seems as if forces have always made these recordings difficult to obtain in their original state.  Originally, they were issued on ten-inch long-playing records (the format that record companies thought 78 rpm record buyers, or their furniture, would adapt to most easily).  But they made the transition to the standard twelve-inch format easily.  The original Vanguard records didn’t stay in print for long in their original format.  I paid twenty-five dollars, then a great deal of money, for a vinyl copy of BUCK MEETS RUBY from the now-departed Dayton’s Records on Twelfth Street in Manhattan.  In the Seventies, several of the artists with bigger names, Clayton, Jo Jones, and Vic, had their sessions reissued in America on two-lp colletions called THE ESSENTIAL.  And the original vinyl sessions were reissued on UK issues for a few minutes in that decade. 

When compact discs replaced vinyl, no one had any emotional allegiance to the Vanguards, although they were available in their original formats (at high prices) in Japan.  The Vanguard catalogue was bought by the Welk Music Group (the corporate embodiment of Champagne Music).  in 1999, thirteen compact discs emerged: three by Braff, two by “the Basie Bunch,” two by Mel Powell, two by Jimmy Rushing, one by Sir Charles, one by Vic.  On the back cover of the CDs, the credits read: “Compilation produced by Steve Buckingham” and “Musical consultant and notes by Samuel Charters.”  I don’t know either of them personally, and I assume that their choices were controlled by the time a compact disc allows, but the results are sometimes inexplicable.  The sound of the original sessions comes through clearly but sessions are scrambled and incomplete, except for the Braff-Larkins material, which they properly saw as untouchable.  And rightly so.  The Vanguard recordings are glorious.  And they deserve better presentation than they’ve received.

P.S.  Researching this post, I went to the usual sources — Amazon and eBay — and there’s no balm for the weary or the deprived.  On eBay, a vinyl BUCK MEETS RUBY is selling for five times as much.  That may be my twenty-five dollars, adjusted for inflation, but it still seems exorbitant. 

On eBay I also saw the most recent evidence of the corruption, if not The Decline, of the West.  Feast your eyes on this CD cover:

Vanguard Visionaries corrupt

Can you imagine Jimmy Rushing’s reaction — beyond the grave — on learning that his reputation rested on his being an influence on Jamie Cullum, Norah Jones, and Harry Connick, Jr.?  I can’t.  The Marketing Department has been at work!  But I’d put up with such foolishness if I could have the Vanguards back again.

THE PIANIST IN QUESTION

weinI was in the middle of writing an ambivalent review for All About Jazz of the Mosaic reissue of George Wein’s Newport All-Stars 1967 concerts when I stopped.  The CD, GEORGE WEIN IS ALIVE AN WELL IN MEXICO, features Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and Jack Lesberg.  It was originally issued on Columbia Records, and Mosaic has added three previously unissued tracks.  The slow numbers offer poignant playing from Russell late in his career, with Freeman and Braff in peerless, musing form, Lesberg giving great support.  And reissue producer Michael Cuscuna, long may he wave, apologizes for reproducing the dreadfully insulting cover photograph and tells a wonderful story about two of the faux-Mexican banditos, who are doing their best to summon up the spirit of Alfonso Badoya.   

But Lamond’s drums pummel the listener, which could be more the fault of the hall and the recording engineer.  And all of Wein’s pianistic shortcomings are brilliantly audible — the heavy touch, the clogged phrasing, the repeated formulas, the dragging rhythms.

In the interest of fairness, I took a YouTube break to check myself, to see if I was being unjust to Wein.  As an impresario, he has contributed immeasurably to jazz.  Imagine if the Newport Jazz Festivals had never existed! 

But as a pianist and bandleader? 

I found this performance of LADY BE GOOD — from Copenhagen, dated 1974 (although it might be 1969) with Braff, Red Norvo, bassist Larry Ridley, Barney Kessel, Lamond, and Wein.

Wein kicks off a very brisk tempo and all is well, sometimes inspiring, until he solos, perhaps becase Kessel and Ridley’s strong rhythmic pulse keeps the band on track.  But Wein then launches complicated figures that he is just-nearly-able to play at this tempo.  The solo isn’t disastrous, but it offers evidence to support what I’ve been hearing on records and in person for a long time.  Unkind, perhaps; unjust, no.  Imagine this band with a young Mark Shane, with Dick Hyman, John Bunch, Hank Jones, or Jimmy Rowles.  How they would have flown! 

And since there is more to life and to this post than pulling anyone to pieces in public, I encourage vewers to delight in the solos by everyone else in this performance — Norvo’s limber arpeggios, a floating phrase Braff pulls off in his second bridge, Kessel’s bluesy intensity. 

Should the philosophical question come up, “Is it better to have this performance, with its flaws, then not?” my answer would be a quick Yes.  But it reminds us just how marvelous it is when everyone in an improvising jazz group is emotionally and technically on the same wavelength, and perhaps just how hard it is to accomplish that special creative unity.

I CONFESS! A JAZZ CRIMINAL TELLS ALL

If the phonograph record had never been invented, jazz might have remained a local art form heard only on a visit to New Orleans.  Charlie Parker might well be only a remote name, an unheard legend to listeners born after 1955. 

Phonograph records are objects that make music accessible and permanent, and I grew up surrounded by them.  My father, a motion picture projectionist, was also expected to be an unpaid disc jockey, someone who would fill the theatre with music between shows by spinning records from the projection booth.  I remember his story of the first explosion of rock ‘n’ roll.  During an intermission, he reached for a record whose title meant nothing to him, put it on with the volume turned off in the booth, and turned back to his book.  Then the theatre manger called him in a near-frenzy, “Take that God-damned record off!  The kids are dancing on the seats and ripping up the theatre!” 

It was the famous (or infamous) record here.   

As 78 rpm records gave way to microgroove, my father would occasionally bring an outmoded record home rather than see it thrown away.  He was intrigued by technology, and we had a Revere reel-to-reel tape recorder, which I learned how to use early on. 

Later, around 1968, he brought home something new, a portable cassette recorder and a few blank tapes. 

By this time, I had become converted to jazz, which I thought of as my music.  It as a secret pleasure: I thought of myself as a subversive, listening to Louis while everyone around me was deeply absorbed by rock.  In my suburban hermitage, I recorded jazz radio shows — John S. Wilson’s “World of Jazz,” Ed Beach’s “Just Jazz,” and made them my soundtrack.  Records were not easy to get and I couldn’t afford all that I wanted, so the idea of tape-recording a precious performance and listening to it over and over shaped my first experiences of the music.  I lived for the moment when everything seemed cosmically aligned: Beach would be playing two hours of rare Jo Jones records on WRVR-FM; I would be home at the right time with a reel of blank tape; I could listen to it while the show was being broadcast; I would tape it to hear it again.  It would become mine.  In my memory, I can see those tape boxes, each one holding a precious hour or two of Buck Clayton, of 1940 Ellington, or Lee Wiley.    

I grew up on Long Island, an environment defined by the distance from one shopping mall to the next, and I recognize its inherent provincialism.  But for someone like myself, entranced by jazz, being born there rather than in Cape Breton was great good fortune.  In The New Yorker, I could read the names of musicians I had heard on radio or records.  They were playing live in New York City, an hour away by train and subway or car.          

I do not remember the details of the first live jazz I heard in Manhattan.  Was it in Town Hall or the Half Note?  But I prepared for this precious experience by bringing my cassette recorder with me.  It seemed logical rather than perverse to be a jazz anthropologist, a swing explorer.  Vasco DaGama of Dixieland, if you will.  I could poke my nose beyond my comfortable suburban environment, venture into the uncharted City, capture a performance live and return home with the reward.  Not gold or pepper or notes on the marriage rituals in New Guinea, but a homemade recording, however flawed, of the music I had heard last night.  A prize — to revisit, to study, to treasure.

Of course the idea wasn’t new.  Jazz enthusiasts had been capturing the music in its native habitat since the Thirties, perhaps earlier.  I had read about airshots, “on location” acetates, and live recordings, essential parts of jazz’s mythology.  That these recordings had often been made secretly by amateurs happily breaking the rules was even better.  Their illicit behavior was evidence of deep devotion to the art.  They wanted to keep what they had heard once from vanishing forever.  Even though I didn’t think about the implications of what I wanted to do, I now think there was a touch of late-Sixties political rebellion implicit in it.  Why should the recording companies control the music, and why should I be deprived of doing so?  When I had seen Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars in 1967, I had been too naive to bring my Instamatic camera to take twelve snapshots.  Now Louis was dead, and I had only an autograph and my memory of what he had looked like, what he had played. 

I was not sufficiently prideful or self-deluded to think of myself as the Long Island reincarnation of Jerry Newman at Minton’s or Dean Benedetti in search of Bird.  But perhaps I could capture a memorable chorus or ensemble, even in low-fidelity.  Would it become valuable over time?  What did that matter?  It would be precious now.          

This may strike some readers as more peculiar than collecting stamps or baseball cards.  Some jazz-lovers may be satisfied to hear a beautiful performance once, never again.  But this art is so splendidly evanescent that the thought of it going away is nearly painful.  It cries out to be preserved.  In terms of jazz’s brief chronological history, I am a late-comer.  Many of the great players were dead by the late Sixties; many of their portraits greeted me when I turned to the obituary page of The New York Times: I saved those clippings until the sheaf got too depressing.  It felt as if all the creators were leaving town, and this may have goaded me into illicit tape-recording as a way of snaring what moments I could before it was too late. 

I would never see PeeWee Russell or Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins or Rex Stewart . . . but when Benny Morton or Jimmy Rushing played a gig, I would not let their sounds escape me.   

Thus my life of crime began.  Being a criminal is difficult, let me tell you.         

Many club-owners did not care about a couple of college kids with their cassette recorder, sitting as close to the bandstand as possible, as long as the kids bought beer or hamburgers at regular intervals, but some establishments were very serious about such infractions.  I nearly got thrown out of the Village Vanguard a few years ago when the waiter noticed something glittering in my lap – a minidisc recorder, its display a bright phosphorescent blue.  He said that I could stop recording right now or I would have to leave, in tones that suggested New York’s finest were pounding down Seventh Avenue South in hot pursuit of Another Jazz Miscreant.        

And it was even worse in larger places, with notices hanging everywhere that The Taking Of Photographs and The Use Of Recording Devices Is Prohibited By Law.  But I had seen that the ushers were not athletic enough to arrest everyone with a tiny Kodak (flashbulbs went off at many performances) so I thought that I might get away with my criminalities.  I became sly, sidling into a concert hall with a blue plastic shoulder bag, trying to look nonchalant, always a failed enterprise.  The bag held a newspaper or magazine – a thin subterfuge – covering my cassette recorder, a $60 Shure microphone, and extra batteries.  Illegal and delicious.  I evaded what I thought were the peering eyes of the usher, usually someone who wanted only to give me a program and seat me in the right place, then scuttle away.  In the semi-darkness, while people talked, rattled their programs, unwrapped their cough drops, I would connect the microphone to the recorder and drop the heavy wire down through the sleeve of my jacket so that the microphone could be hidden in my lap.  I knew that my applause –the sound of two hands clapping — would be deafening on the tape, so I learned to look enthusiastic while pretending to clap. 

Emboldened by success, I brought a tape recorder to nearly every jazz performance I could.  Sometimes those tapes, heard the next day, were mediocre: routine music, badly recorded, turns out to be not worth the effort.  Occasionally, there were what college radio stations call “technical difficulties” and I had recorded nothing.  In those cases, crime certainly did not pay.  But I captured hours and hours of jazz that gave me pleasure.  Even the roll call of the players delights me now: just to think of pianists, I come up with Earl Hines, Eubie Blake, Dick Wellstood, Art Hodes, Joe Bushkin, Dave McKenna, Jimmy Andrews, Count Basie, Mark Shane, Teddy Wilson, Dick Hyman, Bill Evans, Jimmy Rowles, Ralph Sutton, Dill Jones, Hank Jones, Claude Hopkins, Chuck Folds, Don Friedman, Red Richards, Ellis Larkins, and two dozen others. 

Concert halls were usually terrible places for surreptitious recording because they were often terrible places to hear music.  The sound technicians at Carnegie Hall, for instance, where many of the Newport-New York concerts were held, apparently took perverse pleasure in making the piano sound as much unlike itself as possible.  The eye saw Teddy Wilson seated at a Steinway: the ear heard metal striking metal.  And you can imagine the acoustics at the top of Radio City Music Hall.  At the first of the 1972 jam sessions, Stu Zimny and I were seated in what seemed the upper reaches of the earth, next to a pair of Texas women who whooped happily when Gene Krupa hit his splash cymbal or when Roy Eldridge went for a high note.  Before the concert and during it, they most cordially offered us whiskey from bottles they had hidden in their pocketbooks; not to be outdone in gallantry, I offered them chocolate.  Both of us stuck to the stimulants we knew best.  But I cannot complain.  When I hear those tapes again, their exuberant hollering is part of the experience of the music, of having been there.      

Small clubs were easier to record in, and there was a better chance to be forgiven my wickedness, especially if I had spoken to the musicians beforehand and gotten their permission.  Since I looked at my jazz heroes with reverence, this approach often worked.  Kenny Davern, who had a powerful prejudice against playing into a microphone, showed me how to set mine so that it would record effectively.  Ruby Braff got so used to me and my friends that he dubbed us “Tapes,” as in, “Hey, Tapes!” when he saw us.  

One Sunday in 1972, Bobby Hackett, a gracious man, looked down at my brand-new Teac reel-to-reel recorder, perhaps forty pounds, that I had lugged into Your Father’s Mustache in hopes of recording him.  I was sweating already, and his noticing the machine made me even more moist, from anxiety.  What if he growled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”  But all he said was, mildly, “What brand is that?”  And when I told him, he smiled and said, “I have one like it at home,” and went about the business of getting ready for the gig.     

But my criminality wasn’t always well-received.  The trumpeter Joe Thomas fretted about our taping him at an outdoor concert in Battery Park.  He was insistent that that “the union man” would find us out and that he would get in trouble.  I don’t remember how we soothed his fears (did we hide the recorder in a flowerbed?) but it took a good deal of placating before he let us go ahead. 

Some musicians were unwilling to be taped, and, in retrospect, I can’t blame them.  Perhaps someone unscrupulous had taken advantage in the past.  The pianist Cyril Haynes refused to play a note until I put my recorder away.  

I can see in my mind’s eye the brilliantly eccentric trombonist Dicky Wells, at the back of the bandstand clogged with other musicians, shaking his head from side to side in vehement “No-no-no!” and waving his arm and outstretched index finger in energetic arcs.  I remember a session featuring cornetist Wild Bill Davison, where I set up my microphone right under the bell of his horn.  He asked, gruffly, “Are you planning to record me with that?”  “Yes, Mr. Davison,” I politely replied.  “Well, that will cost you one Scotch now and one for each set you record,” he said in what seems now to have been a well-rehearsed speech.  I considered my budget for a moment and put the recorder back in the bag.  Was he disappointed at the failure of his bargain?  I couldn’t tell. 

Many players looked horrified and refused, politely but vigorously, when I asked if they wanted me to mail them a copy of what they had just played.  Was it modesty?  Perhaps they had no particular desire to relive what they had done in what was supposed to be an informal situation.  I recall Ray Nance playing splendidly as part of a large ad-hoc ensemble at a Queens College concert (with Joe Newman, Garnett Brown, Hank Jones, Milt Hinton, Al Foster, and others), and I recorded it from the audience.  Some months later, he appeared for a few nights at a tiny local club that had – for whatever reason – ventured into jazz.  Few people came to hear him, and on the second night, I brought a tape copy of that concert, approached him and offered it to him, thinking I was giving him a present.  He was pleasant enough, but I recall his looking at the box, now his, with mild puzzlement, as if I had given him a parakeet or a box of raisins.     

But taping made for delightfully weird interchanges with some players, made more aware of our presence by the machinery set in front of them.  Ruby Braff came over to Rob Rothberg and myself during a set-break one Tuesday night when he was guest star at the 54th Street Eddie Condon’s.  He peered at the small notebook in which I was writing down personnel and song titles for future reference.  “What is that?” he asked.  I showed him, and he said, “Want my autograph?”  “Sure,” I said, although we had met a dozen or more times already.  He took my pen and spent more time than I expected before handing the book to me, proudly chortling.  He had drawn a pistol, smoke curling out of its muzzle, with “Lucky Luciano” signed boldly beneath it.  A fellow law-breaker!     

After beginning my life of crime, in a few years I had piles of tapes, annotated and organized.  It may have made no sense to anyone not a member of the jazz world, but it meant that I could hear Vic Dickenson play Louis’s famous WEST END BLUES, the cadenza note-for-note, as he had in an outdoor concert at Port Jefferson, New York.  I could hear Marty Grosz sing ISN’T LOVE THE STRANGEST THING, as he did when Soprano Summit appeared at the Jazz Museum in midtown.  On a precious cassette, I still have perhaps ten minutes of what might have been the ultimate small group — Hackett, Vic, Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones — strolling through JUST YOU, JUST ME, BODY AND SOUL, and a slow blues — from a Newport concert in 1974. 

Having these tapes did not prevent any of my heroes from dying, but bits and pieces of their music have been saved.

But “saved” is, alas, an overstatement.  The blank tapes I used were thin and inexpensive; even the best ones were inherently fragile.  The coating flaked off, or their sound got dimmer and dimmer.  So I no longer have many of my original tapes, surely an irony in itself.  In my mind’s ear, I hear Al Cohn, Joe Newman, and Zoot Sims surging through THE RED DOOR and MOTORING ALONG at a Town Hall concert sponsored by Dick Gibson (was it 1970?).  The tape has been gone for years, proving that all things fall or decay, that objects disintegrate or scurry away, beyond our reach.  I didn’t succeed in making permanent records, or at least the tapes I made proved to be impermanent.  But the idea of capturing — or nearly-capturing — jazz in full flight appealed to me then and continues to now.

And (as a postscript) such taping allowed me to make friends from Florida to Westoverledingen, Germany – friends who also loved the music and broke the rules.  I will write about such partners-in-crime in a future posting, among them the brilliant and generous John L. Fell. 

My crimes continue unabated, I state proudly.  The ancient cassette recorder gave way to a Sony minidisc recorder in 2005, thanks to my mentor Kevin Dorn, and I try to be an ethical, polite lawbreaker and ask the musicians’ permission to record whenever possible.  But if you see me in a club, vigorously enjoying the music, nodding my head, smiling broadly, but not applauding, you can be fairly sure that I am continuing my wicked (although fairly harmless) ways.  Come say hello – but not while the music is playing, if you don’t mind.