Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs: from left, Clint Baker, gazing skyward; Kim Cusack, arms folded; Katie Cavera, instantly recognizable; Ray, with blue cap, inviting us to come along; Jeff Hamilton, thinking his thoughts.
I’m honored to share the planet with Ray Skjelbred, who turns eighty today.
At the piano bench as well as elsewhere, he is a poet, a teacher, an inventor and then revealer of secrets, a writer of mysteries populated by velvet moles, eagles, and dogs, where no one gets killed. Tenaciously yet delicately, he walks through walls as if they were beaded curtains.
Ray Skjelbred calls his Cubs “my favorite band,” and it’s easy to see why — a lovely combination of Basie and Bobcats, illuminated by a sweet lyricism at once on-the-porch and Milt Gabler-joyous.
We salute him; we salute his Cubs, who are Kim Cusack, clarinet and vocal; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. These performances took wing at the San Diego Jazz Fest on November 28, 2015.
OH, BABY, DON’T SAY NO, SAY MAYBE:
Kim swears he’s KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW, but the jury is still out:
something for the Apex Club Orchestra, EVERY EVENING:
If my wishes aren’t enough, here’s a HAPPY BIRTHDAY (March 10, 1938) from Bobby Hackett, Pete Brown, Joe Marsala, Joe Bushkin, Ray Biondi, Artie Shapiro, George Wettling, Leo Watson. Since it’s mislabeled below, I also offer the nostalgic maroon Commodore label, a jazz madeline:
as it appeared on turntables:
To borrow Whitney Balliett’s words, “Bless Ray Skjelbred. And may he prosper.”
Today, October 24, 2020, Dan Morgenstern celebrates his ninety-first birthday, and we celebrate him. He’s been an eager participant on the jazz scene since his mother took him to see Fats Waller and the Quintette of the Hot Club of France in 1939; he’s hung out with Louis, Billie, Duke, Lester, Bird, Miles, Stan, Rowles, and a hundred others; if there was a jazz event in New York, Boston, or Chicago in the last seventy years, chances are he was there and wrote about it. I could continue, but I’d rather let him speak for himself.
Since spring 2017, I’ve had the immense privilege of bringing my camera to Dan’s Upper West Side apartment and capturing his singular memories: you can find memorable ones on the blog. But for today, I offer two interview segments that have not been seen.
Dan talks about Ella:
Ella in 1936 with Teddy Wilson, Frank Newton, Bennie Morton, Jerry Blake, Teddy McRae, Leemie Stanfield, John Trueheart, and Cozy Cole:
and about Lena, Maxine, and Eva Taylor (I apologize for the ragged ending of the segment, but YouTube refused to let me be any neater):
Lena in 1941 with Teddy Wilson, Bennie Morton, Emmett Berry, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Williams, J.C. Heard:
Maxine in 1938 with Bobby Hackett, Bud Freeman, Chester Hazlett, and others:
Eva Taylor, 1926, with Clarence Williams and Charlie Irvis, others unidentified:
and fifty years later (!) with the Peruna Jazz Band:
We are so fortunate to have our Jazz Eminence, Mister Morgenstern, with us!
The 1932 best-seller (with a Will Rogers movie a few years later):
Even before I was 40, I was slightly suspicious of the idea, even though it came from better health and thus longer life expectancy. Was it an insult to the years that came before? And now that I’m past forty . . . .
The bands and soloists who will be featured include John Royen, Katie Cavera, the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet, Grand Dominion, John Gill, On the Levee Jazz Band, the Mad Hat Hucksters, Carl Sonny Leyland, the Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra, the Yerba Buena Stompers, the Chicago Cellar Boys, Titanic Jazz Band, the Night Blooming Jazzmen, and more than twenty others, with youth bands, sets for amateur jammers, and the Saturday-night dance extravaganza featuring On The Levee and the Mad Hat Hucksters.
The Festival is also greatly comfortable, because it is one of those divine ventures where the music is a two-to-five minute walk from the rooms at the Town and Country Convention Center.
is the “almost final” band schedule for Wednesday night through Sunday. I will wait until the “final” schedule comes out before I start circling sets in pen and highlighting them — but already I feel woozy with an abundance of anticipated and sometimes conflicting pleasures.
For most of the audience, one of the pleasures of the festival circuit is returning to the familiar. Is your trad heartthrob the duo Itch and Scratch, or the Seven Stolen Sugar Packets? At a festival, you can greet old friends both on the bandstand and in the halls. But there’s also the pleasure of new groups, and the special pleasure of getting to meet and hear someone like John Royen, whom I’ve admired on records for years but have never gotten a chance to meet.
Here’s John, playing Jelly:
And here are a few previously unseen videos from my visits to the Jazz Fest. First, one of my favorite bands ever, the band that Tim Laughlin and Connie Jones co-led, here with Doug Finke, Katie Cavera, Hal Smith, Chris Dawson, and Marty Eggers — in a 2014 performance of a Fats classic:
and the Chicago Cellar Boys — who will be at this year’s fest — in 2018. The CCB is or are Andy Schumm, John Otto, Paul Asaro, Johnny Donatowicz, and Dave Bock:
and for those deep in nostalgia for traditional jazz on a cosmic scale, how about High Sierra plus guests Justin Au and Doug Finke in 2014:
Pick the bands you like, explore those new to you, but I hope you can make it to this jolly explosion of music and friendship: it is worth the trip (and I’m flying from New York). You’ll have an unabridged experience and lose your anxieties!
I’ve gotten into trouble for saying this, but I’m not always enthusiastic about note-for-note recreations of recordings. But what follows — music and dance from the Original Cornell Syncopators — has such energy, wit, and life force that I just might have to change my mind. The OCS, led by multi-instrumentalist and wizard Colin Hancock, is Noah Li, drums; Hannah Krall, clarinet; Amit Mizrahi, piano; Rishi Verma, trombone. Their director is Joe Salzano; their “coaches” are Dan Levinson, Hal Smith, and David Sager, so you know — even before you hear a note — that they’re all on the right path. And then there’s the splendidly mobile Crazeology Dance Troupe. I might have to visit Ithaca, New York.
Incidentally, the detailed and articulate description underneath the first video answers all the questions you had and some you didn’t know you did but are glad they are answered.
DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL is often approached far too quickly: this version is both percussive and lyrical:
BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA has been worn to a nub, but this version allows us to hear it again, afresh (with a few of the original chord changes, which now sound unusual):
Most of us hear OSTRICH WALK through Bix and his Gang: this is what Bix and friends heard:
You’d better dig this JASS BAND BALL is what I say:
How deliciously heretical this music must have sounded a century ago; how refreshing it sounds today. Thank you, Creative Youngbloods! (And the OCS have other projects in mind — I suggest you subscribe to the appropriate YouTube channel for hours of satisfying and thought-provoking music. You could dance to it, I’m told, as well.
Today, November 2, is the birthday of one of our heroes — pianist / composer / singer / poet / imaginer / scholar Ray Skjelbred. He is an original, even when he is letting the great traditions flow through him; he is both inscrutable and generously open; he continues to improve life in this century.
No formulaic cupcakes with candles for Captain Skjelbred!
I offer instead a small musical mosaic of his own subversive creations — the first three when no one was supposed to be paying attention (someone might call it “making friends with the piano”) that I captured on May 25, 2014, at the Sacramento Music Festival.
Since I envision Captain Skjelbred as a quiet spy in the enemy country of mediocrity and repeater pencils, the fact that I caught him unaware might just be fair play. He does the same for and to us: in the fourth video, MY GALVESTON GAL (performed with his Cubs — Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Kim Cusack, clarinet) there is an odd and whimsical phrase Ray creates at 1:50 that makes me say, “What? What?” every time I hear it.
And he does it again, playing the piano, playing music, playing with our expectations — and always gratifying them in ways we didn’t know existed.
Thank you, Captain Skjelbred. We are grateful you are here.
Music for Groucho — Kalmar and Ruby, 1930:
A little Monkishness, or is it Monkiania?:
Some blues, sun-warmed, locally grown, organic:
And a pop tune from 1933, MY GALVESTON GAL, featured by Henry Allen, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Morton — much-beloved silliness, with a particularly Skjelbredian interlude at 1:50:
And no one calls him schnorrer. (Julius can explain, or you could look it up.)
P.S. Should anyone wonder, “Michael, now you’re posting clips that last less than a minute? Have you run out of things to post?” The answer is, in a hushed tone, “You have no idea of what remains to be seen.” The idea of a mosaic of orts and fragments appeals to me, and I hope also to the Captain. Found poetry!
Facebook, the cyber-world’s town crier, let me know this morning that today, March 6, is clarinetist / bandleader / composer Tim Laughlin’s birthday. That is a major event, for Mr. Laughlin not only creates beautiful swirling melodies, but he surrounds himself with synergistic bands that uplift us all. In celebration of this very notable day, I present another set that his All-Stars played at the November 2013 San Diego Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival. They are Connie Jones, cornet; Mike Pittsley, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. And in their honor, I have changed the title of the first selection from the tentative to the more optimistically assertive, for this band made and makes dreams take tangible swinging shape. (And the wonderful repertoire!)
WHEN DREAMS COME TRUE:
A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY:
CHINA BOY (Hal kicks it off!):
TEA FOR TWO (featuring Chris, Marty, Katie, and Hal):
FOR ALL WE KNOW:
Happy birthday, Mr. Laughlin. You and your friends increase our happiness more than you could imagine. I’ve seen and heard it happen.
Here is a wondrous (and famous) 1933 Louis Armstrong record, LAUGHIN’ LOUIE — which combines the comic pretense of the brassman who can’t play because he is laughing too hard with Louis’ stunning a cappella rendition of “Love Song,” a silent-movie theme by Minnie T. Wright (thanks to Vince Giordano for this discovery):
Imagine a world without Louis Armstrong. Impossible and unthinkable.
Happy Birthday, Pops. You are the beautiful part. And my use of the present tense is no stage joke.
For the ultimate blogpost on LAUGHIN’ LOUIE, I offer the one written by the Louis-master, Ricky Riccardi — a feast for the ear and heart. And thanks to all the vipers and musicians in the house: Clarence, Little Bobby Hacksaw, Milton Mesirow, and a thousand more.
Congratulations are in order to the splendidly swinging Rebecca Kilgore Quartet (formerly known as B E D) — a very gratifying group that has just completed its first decade of appearances, recordings, and accolades. They are Rebecca Kilgore, vocals and rhythm guitar; Eddie Erickson, vocals, guitar, banjo, and hi-jinks; Dan Barrett, trombone, cornet, arrangements, vocals, piano, and travelogues; Joel Forbes, string bass.
Here they are — plus the wonderful New Orleans clarinetist Tim Laughlin — to show us what true spaciousness, even amplitude means — I’ll translate that as THAT’S A PLENTY — recorded at the much-missed Sweet and Hot Music Festival in 2011:
There are many other small groups out there clamoring for our attention, but the RK4 is special. For one thing, they are an engaging bunch: there is always laughter on the stand, and the audience is encouraged to join in. This quartet quickly turns listeners into friends. There’s always something happening during their performances, which are delightfully varied — Becky floats delicately above the rocking rhythms provided by Eddie and Joel; Dan takes a cornet solo backed by Eddie’s banjo; Eddie sings a tender ballad or Becky shows off her multilingual prowess in French or Portuguese. Dan shifts over to the piano to turn the band into a modern King Cole trio . . . the hour goes by too quickly.
Here’s what I wrote in 2010 about their glorious CD, YES, INDEED!
The Rebecca Kilgore Quartet has appeared at jazz festivals and parties worldwide — from Roswell, New Mexico, to Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Monterey in California, to Odessa, Texas and Clearwater Beach, Florida; they’ve done concerts and student outreach programs; they’ve appeared on the JazzFest at Sea Cruise; they perform at private parties big and small. Since they joined forces a decade ago, they’ve created five rewarding compact discs: GET READY FOR B E D (2002) ; BEDlam (2004); WATCH OUT! (2006); B E D Four + 1 (2008); YES, INDEED! (2010) — all available on the Blue Swing Fine Recordings label.*
When they began to delight listeners a decade ago, their stated goal was “to swing and have fun.” This hasn’t changed. In fact, they’ve gotten better — offering lively, joyous music that you don’t have to be a “jazz fan” to enjoy.
My only problem in writing this celebratory post is a philosophical one. Should we be wishing the RK4 a Happy Birthday or a Happy Anniversary? Readers are invited to write in with suggestions — but, better yet, pick a date for your next celebration and make sure that the RK4 is there, too.
*About those discs. Each one is a treat . . . but that’s no surprise. I always think the best way to buy one is to find the RK4 on a gig and get the discs direct, but I realize that isn’t always possible. The most recent one, YES, INDEED! is available here (that’s CDBaby). For the others, you could go to the source — www.rebeccakilgore.com or email the lady herself at info@rebeccakilgore. (Becky’s got info. Who could ask for anything more?)
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!
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.)
I suppose it’s childlike, but as my November birthday approaches, I still think, “Well, what would you like for your birthday?” (I talk to myself, but often it’s silently.) Gone are the days when I wanted a new cassette recorder or a particular record.
Having escaped from several cocoons, I now think much bigger, and my current wish has the Beloved and myself going to San Diego for the 32nd Annual San Diego Thanksgiving Dixieland Jazz Festival! (Their website is www.dixielandjazzfestival.org.)
It takes place during what I think of as Thanksgiving weekend — Nov. 23 – 27, 2011, and it’s held in the Town & Country Resort and Convention Center, 500 Hotel Circle North (I-8 & SR-163) San Diego. A five-day all events badge is $95.00.
All that’s necessary but not pulse-pounding information. Here’s the real stuff — the featured bands and guest artists. If I were to decode the list below because some of the band names might be unfamiliar, I get excited about Bryan Shaw, Howard Miyata, John Reynolds, Ralf Reynolds, Marc Caparone, Katie Cavera, Sue Fischer, Clint Baker, Tim Laughlin, Hal Smith, Marty Eggers, Bob Havens, Chris Dawson, Leon Oakley, Connie Jones, Justin Au, Carl Sonny Leyland, Stephanie Trick . . . and many more. (Apologies to those friends whose names I’ve left out through ignorance.)
Here are some of the bands!
Cornet Chop Suey • Red Skunk Jipzee Swing • Dave Bennett Quartet
High Sierra JB • Reynolds Bros. Rhythm Rascals • Titanic JB
Yerba Buena Stompers • Uptown Lowdown • Grand Dominion JB
Tim Laughlin/Connie Jones & the New Orleans All Stars
Night Blooming Jazzmen • Sue Palmer and her Motel Swing
Katie Cavera • Carl Sonny Leyland • Stephanie Trick
High Society JB • Dixie Express JB • Red Pepper JB
Heliotrope Ragtime Orchestra • Mission Bay High Dixie Band
Dick Williams’ JazzSea Jams • And more to come…
Now if I can just explain to JetBlue that the Beloved and I get their special Birthday rates, we’re all set . . . .
I was at Birdland last Wednesday, listening to David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. The LACB always attracts first-rank players, but this edition was remarkable because it was an All-Star All-Leader Band (with none of the expected tensions): David on tuba and vaudeville commentaries; Vince Giordano on banjo, vocal, and guitar; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Dan Block on clarinet and alto sax; Jim Fryer on trombone and vocals.
Although it has nothing to do with his musical virtues, Jim might be the least-celebrated of this group, although I’ve admired his playing since I first heard him a few years ago — perhaps as a member of the Nighthawks and certainly as someone sharing the stage with Bria Skonberg at one of Bill Taggart’s informal jazz gatherings. He is a modest player but an exuberant player, taking risks when appropriate, never coasting. I’ve also known him as a fine understated singer — but I’ve never heard him sing as wonderfully as he did last Wednesday.
As much as he enjoys playing the music and talking about Louis Armstrong, David Ostwald loves to connect with the people in the audience. Occasionally it takes the form of comedy, as when he earnestly implores those of us who are driving to be sure we have a car, but sometimes it’s much more personal and endearing. At the end of the first set, David noticed that there were a number of well-dressed women of varying ages in the front row; he chatted with them and found that they were at Birdland to celebrate someone’s birthday — which turned out to be the nicely coiffed Lorraine . . . someone obviously surrounded by love from the other women in her party.
Because the LACB draws much of its repertoire from music that Louis played and recorded, SWEET LORRAINE was a natural choice — something the great man recorded in the Fifties on Verve with Oscar Peterson. So the band launched into a sweet, slow version, but no one had yet chosen to take the vocal. Vince had sung a few numbers before this with great style, but no vocal was announced . . . until Jim took the microphone to deliver the refrain in the most tenderly endearing manner:
Lorraine, sitting right in front of me, was delighted.
And I, watching this performance again, find it full of human moments: the pleasure of Dan Block’s chalumeau register; Jon-Erik’s steady, winding phrases (and how unflappable he is while a good deal of microphone-hunting is going on behind him); Vince, making jokes as he plays; the pulse of the rhythm section, and Jon-Erik’s quiet Muggsy Spanier ending. Masterful all around!
Sometimes bad things pile on: this was a rare night when one outpouring of affection succeeded another. Vince Giordano came over to Lorraine at the end of the night (he is ever hopeful of garnering some fascinating piece of first-hand experience from someone who saw and heard his heroes) but Lorraine didn’t recall the names of bands; she didn’t have Victor Home Recording discs in her attic; she did, however, tell Vince that she was an avid fox-trotter, which pleased him.
Then David Ostwald brought himself and his tuba over and tenderly chatted with Lorraine . . . and said, “I’m going to play something for you.” He proceeded to play a tender, legato, singing version of HAPPY BIRTHDAY — sweet and slow — on the tuba, ending with a Louis-flourish. He sang through that brass tubing as if it were a cello — a very moving experience! I was sitting there, possibly with my mouth open, too struck by what was going on (it seemed private) to record it for YouTube, so you will have to imagine it.
When I caught up with Jim later, to tell him how much this particular performance moved me, he reminded me that one of his and his wife Rosita’s daughters is named Lorraine — a choice the prospective parents made after hearing Doc Cheatham sing the song with unaffected grace on Sunday brunches at Sweet Basil. It pleases me immensely to be able to offer this lyrical moment for the Lorraine in the audience, Lorraine Fryer, and all the people out there who answer to other names.