Tag Archives: Harlem

UPTOWN DELIGHTS: MICHAEL BANK QUINTET at THE SHRINE (CHARLIE CARANICAS, JOHN LUDLOW, BEN RUBENS, STEVE LITTLE: October 29, 2019)

Shrine World Music Venue, on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (7th Avenue), just below 134th Street in Harlem, is a welcoming place, “a multimedia arts and culture venue, founded in 2007 by musicians and music lovers in the music capital of Harlem, USA. . . . dedicated to art and culture in all mediums: film, theater, dance, and live music. Shrine World Music Venue’s mission is to establish a positive creative atmosphere for both artists and audiences from all backgrounds.”

I haven’t been there often, but admire their commitment to independent artists.  Late last October, I read that the pianist / composer Michael Bank, someone I’ve followed for fifteen years now, would be leading a small group there, and I eagerly went “uptown” for a brief but memorable gig. Michael had with him the venerable drummer Steve Little (Steve would have me tell you that he, once again, was playing on a drum set not his own), bassist Ben Rubens, trumpeter Charlie Caranicas, and alto saxophonist John Ludlow.  Here are some of the highlights of their late afternoon swing exploration.

But first: Shrine is deceptive: its somewhat muted exterior conceals an interior mixing science-fiction and disco.  My phone pictures do not do it justice.  To their credit, the musicians ignored the lighting and just played — splendidly.

Michael and Charlie:

HAVE YOU MET MISS JONES?

WATCH WHAT HAPPENS:

DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS?

DEWEY SQUARE:

I wait for my next summons to the Shrine, where good music is allowed to grow, and does.

May your happiness increase!

“ARE YOU READY? THEN JUMP STEADY!”

This seems not only an invitation to the dance but to a way of life.

Since staring at the label can only take us so far, here are the sounds:

That 1940 recording proves that Louis’ maligned Decca band had by this time was a first-rate swing band, as well as a swinging dance band.  Hear how Sidney Catlett understood Louis as few ever did, and Big Sid knew how to express his personality without insisting on being the whole show, a lesson many people can still learn.  If personnel listings are accurate, this band was, in addition to Louis, Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Wilbur DeParis, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, Luis Russell, Lee Blair, Pops Foster, and Sidney Catlett — a powerful gliding group full of friends from the Luis Russell band of 1929-30.

That would be a post in itself — Louis and Jack Palmer writing a jovial novelty tune that also is a wonderful swing record, showing us why Harlem audiences so enjoyed the band as well as its leader.

Palmer, also, is crucial here: he, Cab Calloway, and Frank Froeba had created THE JUMPIN’ JIVE (whose refrain is “Hep hep hep”) in 1939 — first recorded by a Lionel Hampton small group, and it was a substantial hit.  Whether Palmer found Louis or the reverse, HEP CATS’ BALL (which was not a hit) seems a Louis-enhanced version of the same idea: you can have a wonderful time in Harlem if you know the way uptown.  Almost eighty years later, I wonder how many people spoke this way, and for how long, but it doesn’t perplex me.

But there’s more here than a fine Louis Armstrong performance that gets little to no attention.  How about two?  How about some comparative listening?

This great surprise came into my field of vision just a day ago — thanks to Javier Soria Laso, who found it and sent it to Ricky Riccardi on Facebook, which is where I encountered it:

Louis Armstrong at WABC

As the site-writer points out, Louis and the band recorded this on March 14, 1940, for Decca, and played it on the air three days later.  Mills Music (still run by Irving Mills?) used a service that recorded performances of Mills-owned compositions off the air . . . for their archives or for purposes I don’t, at this remove, understand.  But the result is a treasure.  The conventional wisdom is that live performances are longer than 78 rpm recordings, but the airshot is almost twenty seconds shorter.  The tempo is faster, and it is less restrained — hear Louis’ ad lib comments, including “I mean it!”, there is a splendid break by J.C. Higginbotham, still at the peak of his shouting powers, and we can hear the little variations within the arrangement, with a great deal of delicious Catlett embellishment, encouragement, and joy.

Airshots of Louis before World War Two are not plentiful, or at least that used to be the case before selections from the Fleischmann’s Yeast programs were issued on CD, and the late Gosta Hagglof’s collection of Cotton Club airshots on the Ambassador label — a disc I am proud to have written the notes for.  But who knew that HEP CATS’ BALL would emerge and be so rewarding?

Incidentally, Ricky Riccardi’s second volume on Louis, covering this period, called I’VE GOT A HEART FULL OF RHYTHM, will be published in 2020.  I’ve read an early version and it is characteristic Riccardi: warm, enthusiastic, and full of new information.

While I was shuttling back from one recording to another, I did as we all do — a little online research, and found some relevant trivia.  1697 Broadway, as Google Images tells me, is now home to the Ed Sullivan Theater, Angelo’s Pizza, and various unidentified offices.  Here’s what it looked like in mid-1936, when HELP YOURSELF ran at the Popular Price Theatre of the Federal Theatre Project.  I regret I can’t take you inside the building at that time to show you what Ace Recording looked like in 1940; you will have to imagine:

NEW YORK – JULY 1: Exterior of the Manhattan Theatre at 1697 Broadway at West 53rd Street, New York, NY. It later becomes The Ed Sullivan Theater. Image dated July 1, 1936. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

It’s a foxy hop.  Meet me there!  (“There” is problematic.  The original Cotton Club had been in Harlem, but it was segregated — providing Black entertainment for Whites only.  By the time Louis was broadcasting for CBS “from the Cotton Club,” it had moved downtown to Broadway and 48th Street and was no longer segregated, but it closed in 1940.  So go the glories of hepdom.)

May your happiness increase!

JOEL FORRESTER FIVE at THE SHRINE (June 29, 2017): JOEL FORRESTER, MICHAEL IRWIN, MICHI FUJI, DAVE HOFSTRA, MATTHEW GARRITY

This post isn’t about painting or poetry, but about music that — in its own ways — enacts what those other arts do.

I SAW THE FIGURE FIVE IN GOLD, painting by Charles Demuth, in tribute to William Carlos Williams’ poem

I’m referring to the music created by the Joel Forrester Five at the Shrine in New York City on June 29, 2017.  The Five is Joel, piano and compositions; Michi Fuji, violin; Michael Irwin, trumpet; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Matthew Garrity, drums.  I encourage you to enter in to the world of the Five, the bubbling of their collective imaginations.

DON’T ASK ME NOW:

SOME THINGS DON’T WORK OUT (a grieving masterpiece):

AFTER YOU, JOEL:

YOUR MOVE:

ABOUT FRANCOISE:

WITHOUT HER:

SILENT NIGHT BLUES:

FLIP-FLOP:

If you missed this afternoon concert, do not fret; you can see and hear the Five on July 24 for another uptown gig.  And an hour with the Five can be more (ful)filling than longer gigs with other ensembles.

I’ll let Joel explain it all in jocular style:

Monday July 24th is special!  My new quintet, the JOEL FORRESTER FIVE, will play a ONE-HOUR gig, 6-7 pm, in a Central Harlem bar. …You say: we did that LAST week.  Well, yes, we did; but this is a DIFFERENT bar. It’s call SILVANA (not to be confused with a 50s make of tv), 300 W.116th St. at Frederick Douglass Blvd. Take the C train to 116th.  I just like playing with these folk in ANY circumstances: Mike Irwin on trumpet and Michi Fuji on violin. And SILVANA is a jolly joint. [I recall that a close friend who’s an animator became himself quite animated when a Forrester band last played SILVANA, two years in arrears.]

May your happiness increase!

AS CINEMA, IT HAS ITS LIMITS: AS A TIME MACHINE, IT’S FLAWLESS: “HARLEM IS HEAVEN” (1932)

The great connoisseur of popular culture, especially women singers, Alan Eichler, just shared with us his VHS copy of the 1932 film HARLEM IS HEAVEN.  It’s a great gift, as it may be the first “all-colored” feature sound film, with starring roles for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Putney Dandridge, James Baskett, and with incidental music provided by Eubie Blake and his Orchestra, also with an appearance by Noble Sissle.

HARLEM HEAVEN poster

Now, I have reservations about the film itself.  Henri Wessell as “Chummy” and Anise Boyer as “Jean” are both beautiful young people, although their naturalistic acting is, to my taste, none too subtle.  And the plot (the film was written and directed by Irwin R. Franklyn) is thin to the point of transparency.

But what other film shows us so much of Bill Robinson as an actor, singer, and dancer — the stair dance sequence has been shown often but without credit, but the rest was new to me.  The dancers are presented to us as the world-famous Cotton Club entertainters, which is a look behind the scenes that we would otherwise not have had.

And this is serious business: is there any other film in the history of cinema that has Putney Dandridge as a deadly moral avenger who is never arrested or tried? I rest my case.

Even though I could not view the whole film in one sitting, I was captivated from the start by the little touches of 1932 Harlem reality: the marquee reading MILLS BROS. and the glimpse of the exterior of Connie’s Inn. Then, later on, there is a whole history of early-Thirties theatre and music and dance.  For fans of pre-Code splendor, “Jean” takes off her dress, revealing beautiful silk lingerie, while “Chummy” looks elsewhere, and later on there is a brief catfight between “Jean” and “Greta Rae.”  Worth viewing?  That’s up to you.

Here’s the film.

On its own terms, it is indeed Heavenly.  Thank you, Alan.  And here — reaching back even more — is Bill, in Technicolor (!) in the 1930 DIXIANA:

May your happiness increase.

“THE HOME OF SWEET ROMANCE”: REBECCA KILGORE, DAN BARRETT, JOHNNY VARRO, WAYNE WILKINSON, NICKI PARROTT, DANNY COOTS at the ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (April 18, 2015)

SAVOY

It wins you at a glance.

Where?  The Savoy Ballroom, of course.  The  Home of Happy Feet in Harlem stopped being a Swing mecca in 1958, but its spirit remains.

That spirit was very much in evidence at this year’s Atlanta Jazz Party, and on April 18, 2015, Rebecca Kilgore and a wonderful small band brought it even more sharply into focus with a performance of Edgar Sampson’s STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY. Her Stompers were Dan Barrett, trombone; Johnny Varro, piano; Wayne Wilkinson, guitar; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Danny Coots, drums.  (Does that closing riff owe its existence to Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge?)

You don’t need a ballroom with these wonderful musicians.

May your happiness increase!

MILT GABLER APPROVES: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, JIM BUCHMANN, KATIE CAVERA, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH at SAN DIEGO (Nov. 4, 2014)

Few readers of JAZZ LIVES were actually enjoying the music on Fifty-Second Street, or at a Jimmy Ryan’s jam session, or were in the audience after-hours in Harlem, Chicago, or Kansas City.  What we have now are reminiscences, photographs, and the very rare live recording.  We have to rely on issued recordings for evocations of those times and places, and — infrequently — live performances in this century.  Every so often, I am sitting in front of a band whose musical energy is so wise, so deep, and so intense, that I say to myself, “That’s what it might have sounded like at the Lincoln Gardens,” or “uptown in 1941,” or “at the Reno Club.”

This performance — recorded on November 4, 2014, at the San Diego Jazz Fest — made me think, “This is an unissued Commodore session . . . rejected because it ran too long.”  I don’t have higher praise than that, and since I think the dead know, I believe that Milt Gabler is feeling the good spirits too.

Milt Gabler

Milt Gabler

 

The musicians (or wizards of feeling?) are Ray Skjelbred, piano and inspiration; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jim Buchmann, clarinet; Katie Cavera, guitar; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

The song chosen is really a layer-cake of three.  First, DIGA DIGA DOO (by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields) — a song made for romping, even though its people-of-color-are-so-hedonistic lyrics are now hard to sing.  It’s overlaid by KRAZY KAPERS, a riff created at the 1933 “Chocolate Dandies” session overseen by John Hammond (the awful band title aside, it was a hot mixed group), and then the song that Ray murmurs about — the one that went too long at Carnegie Hall — Louis Prima’s SING SING SING, with or without commas, which gives Ray a chance to evoke Jess Stacy, always welcome.

When I was busily setting up the video on YouTube — writing a title, description, and creating tags, one of the suggested tabs that the YT machinery came up with was

Wow

My feelings exactly.

It’s in moments like this — nearly seven minutes of moments — that I feel I’m doing the important work of my life (with no offense meant to the students I teach) . . . attempting to make the evanescent permanent, attempting to make the local heroes world-famous.  It makes the knapsack with cameras and tripod feel feathery, not burdensome.

Commodore label

And — quite relevant to this music — I just read that Mosaic Records has completed an eight-CD set of the complete Commodore and Decca recordings of Eddie Condon and Bud Freeman, which will be available in mid-April.  Need I say more?

May your happiness increase!

 

DAWN AND CHRIS GIVE THE CAB DRIVER DIRECTIONS IN SWING STYLE

One of my favorite singers, Dawn Lambeth.

One of my favorite pianists, Chris Dawson.

A swinging early-Thirties Ellington song, DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM.  I have to point out that the lyrics by newspaper writer Nick Kenny are less than fresh . . . but one can listen around the hackneyed phrases to admire Dawn’s sweet, light-hearted approach to the song, the textures and timbres of her voice, and the swinging, faithful, and elegant piano of Mister Dawson.

I wish this duo — or the larger version, Dawn Lambeth and Friends — were coming to my city, soon.  And yours, too.

May your happiness increase.

“LIVE SPORT”: A JAM SESSION AFTER HOURS IN THE VICTORY PUB, NEWCASTLE (Oct. 28-29, 2012) with the STARS of THE WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY

Once more . . . if “Mister Mike” isn’t someone recognizable to you, would you kindly take a minute and read this?  It would mean a great deal to many people, and, to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie, “No him, no this.”

“This” turns out to be my video record of the closing notes of the 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party — a jam session on Sunday night held in the Victory Pub of the Village Newcastle.  Some of the details are indistinct — I would have made a very bad spy — because a video camera, even on a tripod, is an ungainly dance partner.  I wrote down personnels on the back of two JAZZ LIVES cards, which have now vanished into that place where Things That Vanish go.  So if I’ve left out the name of a noble participant, email me at swingyoucats@gmail.com. and tell me.

Or you can simply observe musicians brilliantly at play in the dark.

LONESOME BLUES (from the Hot Five book) Thomas Winteler, soprano saxophone; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone; Martin Litton, keyboard — he deserves a grand piano! — ; Roly Veitch, guitar; Josh Duffee, drums):

AFTER YOU’VE GONE (Thomas Winteler, soprano saxophone; Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone; Martin Litton, keyboard; Martin Wheatley, guitar; Josh Duffee, drums):

I NEVER KNEW Andy Schumm, cornet; Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Jens Lindgren, trombone; Thomas Winteler, Michael McQuaid, Norman Field, reeds; Martin Wheatley, guitar; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone, and others):   

ONCE IN A WHILE (for Louis and the Hot Five — performed by Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Jens Lindgren, trombone; Thomas Winteler, Michael McQuaid, Norman Field, reeds; Spats Langham, guitar; Manu Hagmann, bass; Josh Duffee, drums, and others):

MY MELANCHOLY BABY (traditionally the dreaded request by inebriated patrons in the bar, but Spats Langham turns it into a masterpiece of tender swing here, aided by Andy Schumm, cornet; Kristoffer Kompen, trombone; Henri Lemaire, string bass; Matthias Seuffert, tenor saxophone; Michael McQuaid, alto saxophone, Josh Duffee, drums. The admiring watchers include Frans Sjostrom, Martin Wheatley, Stephane Gillot):

I SAW STARS (which I associate with the 1934 debut of Django and Stephane on Ultraphone — here rendered with sweet fervor by Roly Veitch, guitar / vocal; Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Matthias Seuffert, Michael McQuaid, reeds; Alistair Allan, trombone; Henri Lemaire, string bass; Josh Duffee, drums):

Then, as if by magic, the scene shifted . . . suddenly it was 1941; we were at Minton’s (or someplace north of 125th Street in Harlem, New York City; I had turned into Jerry Newman, recording swing-to-bop for posterity . . . you’ll hear what I mean.

LESTER LEAPS IN (Martin Litton, keyboard; Michael McQuaid, alto saxophone; Rico Tomasso, Andy Schumm, trumpet; Matthias Seuffert, tenor saxophone; Alistair Allan, trombone; Martin Wheatley, Roly Veitch, guitar; Manu Hagmann, string bass; Josh Duffee, drums):

TOPSY (Martin Litton, keyboard; Michael McQuaid, alto saxophone; Rico Tomasso, trumpet; Matthias Seuffert, tenor saxophone; Alistair Allan, trombone; Martin Wheatley, Roly Veitch, guitar; Manu Hagmann, string bass; Josh Duffee, drums):

After those last notes had stopped echoing, I (and some others) made our weary, happy way to bed . . . rocking gently on what we had heard, dreaming sweetly of the 2013 Party.

For Mister Mike.

And, as always, tickets are on sale to the 2013 Party, the best-organized high-spirited living jazz museum, here.

May your happiness increase.

A GREAT HUMAN STORY: “THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB and the MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA”

We have all seen our share of documentaries, perhaps beginning in elementary school.  The least successful are tedious although well-meaning, taking us year-by-year, serving up moral lessons.  Although they strive to inform and move us, often they are unsatisfying and undramatic in their desire to present us with facts.

Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant feature-length portrait is a soaring antidote to every earnest, plodding, didactic documentary.  It is full of feeling, insightful without being over-emphatic.  It tells several stories in affecting, subtle ways.

Chick Webb was a great musician — a drummer other drummers still talk about with awe and love.  He guided and lovingly protected the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, helping her grow into a mature artist.  Crippled from childhood — he would never grow much taller than 4′; he was in constant pain; he died shortly after turning thirty — he was fiercely ambitious and ultimately triumphant in ways he did not live to see.

But this is far more than the story of one small yet great-hearted man.  It is much larger than the chronicle of one jazz musician.  It is the story of how Webb’s love, tenacity, and courage changed the world.  That sounds hyperbolic, and I do not think that any American history textbook has yet made space for the little king from Baltimore, who deserves his place alongside Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.  This film will go a long way towards correcting that omission.  For Chick, tiny yet regal behind his drum set, helped create an environment where Black and White could forget those superficial differences and become equal in the blare of the music, the thrill of the dance.

Without Webb, would there have been a Savoy Ballroom where American men and women could have forgotten the bigotry so prevalent, lost in the joy of swing?  I like to imagine someone, trained into attitudes of racism from birth, hearing HARLEM CONGO on the radio and feeling transformed as if by a bolt of lightning, not caring that the players were not Caucasian, making the shift in his / her thinking from cruel derision to admiration and love.  How may people moved to an acceptance of racial equality because they were humming Ella’s recording of A TISKET, A TASKET?  We will never know . . . but just as the sun (in the fable) encouraged the stubborn man to shed his heavy coat where the cold wind failed, I believe that jazz and swing did more than has ever been acknowledged to make White and Black see themselves as one.

And the film documents just how aware Webb was of the reforming power of his music.  The idea of him as a subtle crusader for love, acceptance, and fairness is not something imposed on him by an ideologically-minded filmmaker: it is all there in the newspaper clippings and the words he spoke.

Here is Candace Brown’s superb essay on the film — with video clips from the film.

I must move from the larger story to a few smaller ones.  Put bluntly, I think filmmaker Kaufman is a wonder-worker, his talents quiet but compelling — rather like the person in the tale who makes a delicious soup starting with only a stone.  It took six years and a great deal of effort to make this film, and the result is gratifying throughout.

Making a documentary in this century about someone who died in 1939 has its own built-in difficulties.  For one thing, the subject is no longer around to narrate, to sit still for hours of questions.  And many of the subjects friends and family are also gone.  Chick Webb was a public figure, to be sure, but he wasn’t someone well-documented by sound film.  Although his 1929 band can be heard in the rather lopsided film short AFTER SEBEN, the director of that film cut Chick out of the final product because he thought the little man looked too odd.

I don’t think so.  Here is a still from that film (with Chick’s dear friend John Trueheart on banjo and my hero Bennie Morton on trombone):

But back to Kaufman’s problem.  Although there are many recordings of Chick’s band in the studios and even a radio broadcast or two, other figures of that period left behind more visual evidence: think of the photogenic /  charismatic Ellington, Goodman, Louis.  Of Webb and his band in their prime, the film footage extant lasts four seconds.

So Kaufman had to be ingenious.  And he has been, far beyond even my hopes.

The film is a beautifully-crafted tapestry of sight and sound, avoiding the usual overexposed bits of stock film and (dare I say it) the expected talking heads, droning into the camera.  The living people Kaufman has found to speak with love of Chick Webb are all singular: jazz musicians Roy Haynes (swaggering in his cowboy hat), Joe Wilder (a courtly knight without armor), Dr. Richard Gale (son of Moe, who ran the Savoy), dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller . . . their affection and enthusiasm lifts up every scene.

And Kaufman has made a virtue of necessity with an even more brilliant leap.  Webb wasn’t quoted often, but his utterances were memorable — rather like rimshots.  Ella, Gene Krupa, Ellington, Basie, Helen and Stanley Dance, Artie Shaw, Mezz Mezzrow, and twenty others have their words come to life — not because a serious dull voiceover reads them to us, but because Kaufman has arranged for some of the most famous people in the world to read a few passages.  Do the names Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson suggest how seriously other people took this project?

THE SAVOY KING is a work of art and an act of love, and it desrves to be seen — not just by “jazz lovers” or “people who remember the Big Band Era.”

It has been selected to be shown at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, tentatively on September 29, which in itself is a great honor.

That’s the beautiful part.  Now here comes four bars of gritty reality.  In the ideal world, no one would ever have to ask for money, and a major studio would already have done a beautiful job of exploring Chick Webb’s heroism, generosity, and music by now.  But it hasn’t happened, and we know what results when the stories we love go Hollywood.

Filmmaker Kaufman is looking for funding through INDIEGOGO to arrange a “proper launch” for this film — the goal being $5000 to cover the extra work of our PR team (media, publicity, sales, etc), and other key expenses that will help lead to a commercial release.  All levels of support (ideally $75 and up) will make a real difference.  Here is the link.

Think of a world made better by swing.

See and support this film.

May your happiness increase.

DO YOU HAVE PLANS FOR APRIL 20, 1939?

Can you spare $2.50?

And are you free to join me uptown — Thursday night into Friday morning — for some remarkable hot jazz?

It’s not every day you get to hear Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow and his Blue Bird Recording Orchestra featuring Tommy Ladnier on Trumpets, is it?  I have never been to a Sensational Attraction and Dance, myself.

Here’s the official invitation if a newspaper clipping seems too gauche:

I want to know who else was in the band.  Teddy Bunn, Elmer James, Manzie Johnson, James P. Johnson, Wellman Braud, Zutty Singleton . . . .?  And who knew that Mezz was living at 126th Street and Fifth Avenue at the time.  Tommy Ladnier, alas, would be dead on June 4.

Who were the Park Royal Boys?  And when did the Congress Casino Ballroom become an office building or an apartment complex?

Thanks to David J. Weiner, sleuth extraordinaire, for this eBay find!

May your happiness increase.

CHICK WEBB, “THE SAVOY KING”: SWING SPIRITS HAUNT SEATTLE

The fine writer and musician Candace Brown attended the premiere of the new feature film, THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB AND THE MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA.  (You may know Candace through her perceptive, heartfelt blog, GOOD LIFE NORTHWEST — and if she’s new to you, you will want to make her acquaintance here.)

Here’s her review (interspersed with clips from THE SAVOY KING).  I can’t wait to see the film for myself!

Spirits haunt the Harvard Exit Theatre, some Seattleites say.  I do know that the spirit of Swing era drummer and band leader William Henry “Chick” Webb visited this 1925 building recently and played to a packed house.  While there for the Seattle International Film Festival (http://siff.net), I felt surrounded by his presence, his zest for life, and his passion for the music on which he left his mark, as I watched the world premiere of a film called “The Savoy King: Chick Webb and The Music That Changed America.”

The film’s writer, director and producer, Jeff Kaufman, described that music as “incredibly hot”during an interview on KUOW radio. “The music was made to light a fire inside of people and to charge a dance floor,” Kaufman remarked.  Chick Webb, as much as anyone, struck the match that lit that fire.  No wonder drummer Louie Bellson called him “the Louis Armstrong of drums.”

The film begins with the words “Giants come in all sizes.”  Chick Webb was indeed small.  He broke his back in a fall during childhood and never grew any taller, remaining under five feet. Compounding the crippling aftermath of his accident, he developed tuberculosis of the spine, which caused him to have a hunched back, limited use of his legs, and chronic pain.  Advised to take up drumming as a form of therapy, Webb found his life’s passion.  Then the world of Swing found him. Soon Louis Armstrong heard, and hired, the sensational young drummer, and they toured together with the musical HOT CHOCOLATES.

During a life that would last not much more than three decades, Webb came to be the father of modern jazz drumming.  He mentored Ella Fitzgerald.  He led the first black band to play in a number of white hotels, the first black band to host a national radio show.  He earned the title “King of the Savoy Ballroom” with his steady gig there leading the house band.

The story of this “King” and his ballroom go hand in hand and the film weaves the two together with a firm grip.  On opposing stages, bands battled in popular “cutting contests.” Webb’s band beat, among many others, those of Count Basie and Benny Goodman, defeated only by Duke Ellington.  And it was here that drummer Gene Krupa bowed to the “King” and told him, “I was never cut by a better man.”

The Savoy Ballroom, the first integrated music venue in America, opened in Harlem in 1926.  Reputed to be the world’s best, it attracted crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 dancers.  Kaufman recreates that scene through vintage film footage, computer wizardry, and quotes.  A Jewish man, Moe Gale, owned it and a black man, Charles Buchanan, ran it. Kaufman said, “It was sort of the Rosa Parks bus of music of the 1930s, and you can’t underestimate the impact that had.”  His amazement over how the Savoy brought people together helped drive the project.

Because so little footage of Webb exists, “The Savoy King” tells its story mostly through countless photos, filmed interviews, and old clips backed with narration, sometimes in the form of voice-overs by several of today’s celebrities reading quotes from Webb’s contemporaries.  Janet Jackson speaks the words of Ella Fitzgerald, Ron Perlman reads Gene Krupa, and Bill Cosby gives voice to Webb himself.  Kaufman included filmed interviews with several people who knew Webb personally, such as Louie Bellson, Lindy Hop dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, playwright and actress Gertrude Jeanette, and others.  Fitzgerald’s son, Ray Brown Jr., shares his mother’s memories of Webb.

Kaufman devoted months, sometimes years, to finding and connecting with his interviewees and he has my gratitude. Priceless film footage of Gale’s son, Dr. Richard Gale, recalling stories and describing the intensity of his father’s grief over Webb’s death, underscores one of the major points of this film, that whatever degree of racial equality we now have in America was hard won, and music played a part.  The blunt portrayal of racial prejudice, through eyewitness accounts, could shock even those who consider themselves aware.  But that prejudice ended at the edge of the dance floor, where all that mattered was the feeling of swing.

“The Savoy King” should go down on record as one of the most important films shown at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival because of its significance to not only music history, but American history.  It goes far beyond documenting the life of one musician—no matter how influential he was.  The film offers lessons and inspiration.  It shows how America has changed, how a person can overcome incredible hurdles to reach their dreams, how one person can make a difference.

In his radio interview, Kaufman described Chick Webb as “the first drummer to drum with emotion.”  Webb died 73 years ago, on June 16, 1939, but that emotion lives on.  I heard it in the music and in the voices of those who knew him, and I felt it when the film’s audience gave a standing ovation.  I hope the presence of Chick Webb’s spirit added to the vibe at the Harvard Exit.  Maybe late at night, when the lights go out, the ghosts dance the jitterbug.  And I hope that vibrant energy will reverberate in my own soul forever.

The film’s website can be found here.

May your happiness increase.

THE JAZZ ADVENTURES OF TIMME ROSENKRANTZ

Imagine if Huckleberry Finn in all his naivete, enthusiasm, and observation had landed in Harlem in 1934 and sought out the best jazz and its players . . .

If an adult Huck with a Danish accent had written his memoirs — with space for everyone from Erroll Garner to Billie Holiday, from Chick Webb to Art Tatum — that book would be the late Timme Rosenkrantz’s HARLEM JAZZ ADVENTURES: A EUROPEAN BARON’S MEMOIR 1934-1969 (adapted and edited by Fradley Hamilton Garner, published this year by Scarecrow Press).

You can find out more and order the book  here, and watch a brief video-introduction by Fradley Garner.

Born in 1911, Timme (a Baron from a noble Danish family) lost his heart to hot jazz early on and came to New York City in 1934.  Disregarding those who said he would be murdered in Harlem, he took the A train uptown — years before taking that train became a Swing commonplace.

His eager good nature and enthusiasm endeared him to the jazz masters immediately, and they insisted on showing him where the best music was to be found at 5 or 6 in the morning, accompanied by large quantities of dubious liquor and fine fried chicken.  Perhaps it was also the novelty of a “white boy” so delighted and so knowledgeable about hot jazz, years before the jitterbugs swarmed, that caused Benny Carter and John Hammond, among many others, to take him as one of their own.

Timme was very good-hearted but a terrible businessman, and all of his doomed or precarious ventures had to do with jazz — jazz magazines that ran for an issue, a Harlem record shop, jam sessions in clubs and concert halls, recording sessions — were for the betterment of the art rather than for his own needs.

He may be best known for his 1945 Town Hall concert and two official recording sessions (one in 1938 for Victor, as “Timme Rosenkrantz and his Barrelhouse Barons,” with Rex Stewart, Billy Hicks, Tyree Glenn, Don Byas, Russell Procope, Rudy Williams, Billy Kyle, Brick Fleagle, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Timme’s life partner, singer Inez Cavanagh), the other in 1945 for Continental, with Red Norvo, Charlie Ventura, Johnny Bothwick, Otto Hardwick, Harry Carney, Jimmy Jones, John Levy, Specs Powell.

Some will know him for his short essays on Chick Webb (which ran as the liner notes for the Columbia vinyl collection of Webb recordings) and Coleman Hawkins, or for the recently published collection of his photographs, IS THIS TO BE MY SOUVENIR?

And there is a wonderful — still untapped — treasure chest of private recordings Timme made at his apartment.  Anthony Barnett has arranged for the Stuff Smith material to be released on his AB Fable label, and some of the Erroll Garner material has made its way to issue . . . but hours of rare 1944-5 jazz have yet to be heard by the public.

Timme’s memoirs give an accurate picture of what was endearing in the man: his enthusiasm for the music, his love of eccentrics (he was one himself), his amused comic view of the world.  This is not a book of grievances and grudges; reading it is like spending time with a jovial elder who fixes you a drink and launches into yet another hilarious tale of men and women long gone — all first-hand, told with a fan’s ardor.

Some of the stories are of the famous — Coleman Hawkins’ prowess and pride, his one Danish phrase; Timme’s attempt to defend Art Tatum from an audience of jazz-deaf gangsters; the generosities of Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, and Duke Ellington, the beauty of Billie Holiday; the power of Mezz Mezzrow’s marijuana; the appeal of the new duo of Slim and Slam.

But since Timme didn’t just meet his heroes in clubs, there are more intimate glimpses: Fats Waller in an overflowing bathtub, trombonist / arranger Harry “Father” White, in alcoholic delirium, arranging for a rehearsal of his new band — its members all dead, including Chick Webb, Jimmy Harrison, and Bix, Timme’s being measured for a shirt by Lil Armstrong, and more.

Billie Holiday invites Timme to a party; Louis explains to him that his favorite record is Berigan’s I CAN’T GET STARTED; Bud Powell tells Timme what time it is; Duke Ellington warns about “fresh-air poisoning.”

Even better than the previously unseen photographs and the careful documentation by Donald Clarke and Timme’s friend, jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern, even more enticing than the lengthy discography of issued and unissued recordings, are the stories of people we know little of.

Michigan cornetist Jake Vandermeulen, the forever-thirsty Fud Livingston, little-known guitarist Zeb Julian, the inexplicable demi-deity Leo Watson, the lovely Sally Gooding, suitcase-percussionist Josh Billings, urbane Adrian Rollini.  And they come in clusters: at Rollini’s own club, we encounter Eddie Condon, Red McKenzie, and Charlie Barnet . . .

Timme gives us an insider’s view of Harlem night life and early morning revels, of the numbers racket, of running a record store uptown — the characters and details.  The book is the very opposite of analytic “jazz literature” in its warm embrace of the scene, the musicians, and the reader.

It is irresistible reading for jazz fans who wish, like Timme, to have been behind the scenes.  He was there, and his stories sparkle with life.  I know that jazz fans have been waiting a long time to read these pages, and I would have expected nothing less from the man Fats Waller dubbed “Honeysuckle Rosenkrantz.”

MICHAEL KANAN and FRIENDS ARE THROWING A PARTY (Nov. 6, 2011)

A Rent Party, to be exact.  For those who don’t know, this comes out of a Harlem tradition in the Twenties and onwards: if you needed some financial aid, you hired a friendly piano player (who brought his friends with him) and asked people to contribute what they could to keep Old Man Depression at bay.

Pianist Michael Kanan has moved into a new studio — there was a fire too close to the old one — and it’s a beauty, spacious and with lots of windows.  But the Rent . . . is . . . Higher, a fact of urban life.  So here’s Michael’s solution: invite his friends to play his beautiful piano and ask a congenial group to support this enterprise.

He writes:

To celebrate the opening of our new rehearsal studio – “The Drawing Room” – we are presenting a concert by the “Four Pianists”. Larry Ham, Tardo Hammer, Pete Malinverni, and Michael Kanan will alternate at the mint condition Steinway C grand piano. There will be some special guests sitting in as well.  As we are trying to defray some of the cost of moving into the new space, we’ll ask for donations at the door.  Please contribute whatever you’d like.

Sunday, November 6th

7:00 – until it’s done

At “The Drawing Room”

70 Willoughby Street #2A, between Lawrence St. and Bridge St.

Downtown Brooklyn

Admission: contribute what you’d like

for info: 917-836-2105

The Drawing Room is a large, comfortable space which can accommodate a large, happy crowd. Bring anyone you’d like, and spread the word!  Feel free to BYOB.  Our studio is accessible by several subway lines. From Midtown Manhattan you can get there in 30 minutes or less.  If you choose to drive, you can probably find street parking on a Sunday evening.  

I know that Michael has great plans for the new space, and I hope to be there for some of those happenings: I can’t make this one, because I’ll be at Mike Durham’s Classic Jazz Party.  But having heard these four pianists take turns at a far less congenial venue, I can guarantee that this Rent Party will be worth it.

HARLEM MAD: GLENN CRYTZER AND HIS SYNCOPATORS

The stuff is here and it’s mellow!

Many jazz musicans present themselves not only as players but as composers, with varying results. 

Seattle-based Glenn Crytzer — guitarist, banjoist, singer — is one of those rare creative beings who beautifully fills both roles.  The evidence is on YouTube, and most recently on a new small-band CD, HARLEM MAD, which presents twenty (count ’em) originals by Glenn, with star turns by Meschiya Lake, Solomon Douglas, and Ray Skjelbred. 

Instead of brooding “compositions” that serve only as jumping-off places for long solos, or thirty-two bar borrowings that take their A section from something familiar and their B from something even more so, Glenn’s songs have real shape and authenticity. 

On HARLEM MAD, you’ll hear a broad variety of performances that could be taken from the archives — unissued takes and masters from 1926 to 1949, from Glenn’s own take on rough-hewn South Side Chicago of the Twenties (Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Bertrand) to cheerfully lopsided jump tunes that nod to Monk as well as Jacquet and Byas. 

And there are vocals as well — for the justly-praised Meschiya Lake, who comes through on this CD as a fully-developed star personality, whether moaning the blues or suggesting that we get rhythm and jump with her.  The songs romp, groove, and moan — there are paeans to getting frisky on the dance floor, as well as heartbroken blues and naughty laments about making love to the wrong woman in the dark . . . all genres are more than adequately spoken for!’

I thought of Rod Serling — a jazz fan wanders into a diner where he’s never been, in an unidentified time and place.  The coffee is hot; the apple pie is fine . . . . and the jukebox needs no coins and plays one wildly appealing yet unfamiliar song after another . . .  But this isn’t the Twilight Zone, and HARLEM MAD isn’t a science-fiction dreamlike artifact.  

Here are Glenn, Meschiya, and the Syncopators performing one of Glenn’s originals from HARLEM MAD, NEW YEAR BLUES.  (And, yes, who could mistake the trumpet player in the clip?  That’s our own Bria Skonberg.):

And TEN ‘TIL FIVE, which suggests both the 1941 Goodman Sextet with Charlie Christian and one of the Minton’s sessions recorded that same year by Jerry Newman:

See what I mean?  The compositions on HARLEM MAD are the title song / TEN ‘TIL FIVE / YOU DON’T SAY / WITCHING HOUR BLUES / FORTUNATE LOVE / BARNEY’S BOUNCE / PAYIN’ NO MIND / CENTURY STOMPS / NEW YEAR BLUES / WALLINGFORD WIGGLES / I GOT NOTHIN’ / LAZY / THE CLAWJAMMER / MR. RHYTHM / FUMBLIN’ AROUND / THE DEPRIVATION BLUES / RAINIER VALLEY RHYTHM / PARC ON SUMMIT / THE BEAVER BUMP / NICE AND SLOE. 

The multi-talented musicians on the CD are Steve Mostovoy, trumpet / cornet; Dave Loomis, trombone; Craig Flory, clarinet / tenor; Paul Woltz, alto / brass bass; Ray Skjelbred or Solomon Douglas, piano; Glenn Crytzer, guitar / banjo / vocal; Dave Brown or Matt Weiner, string bass; Mike Daugherty, drums / washboard; Meschiya Lake, vocals. 

It’s not nice to tease people, but if you’re feeling whimsical when one of your jazz pals is visiting, you might pick a track from this CD and put it on, unannounced and unidentified . . . when the eyebrows go up and the friend wants to know exactly what that music (newly encountered) is, see how far you can go with a straight face, “Oh, that’s an unissued 1930 Champion by an otherwise unknown Chicago band,” or “That’s something they dug out of the Savoy vaults from 1947.  Like it?” 

Glenn  Crytzer and the Syncopators are just that good, just that swinging. 

There’s a great interview with Glenn at SWUNGOVER: http://swungover.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/interview-with-glenn-crytzer-of-the-syncopators/

and for more information about HARLEM MAD, visit Glenn’s website: http://www.syncopators.com.  Mellow indeed.

“UNIDENTIFIED NEGRO JAZZ MUSICIANS” on eBay

Call me oversensitive if you will, but I found the title above more than a bit puzzling and demeaning when it was attached to a number of photographs on sale on eBay.  Hasn’t “Negro” been replaced by more accurate, less weighted language?  And to call the musicians below “unidentified” seems a failure of basic research skills. 

If Benny Carter is an “unidentified Negro,” we need to embark on a more effective national program of cultural education.   

Without further lecturing, the photographs (all of them sold to the highest bidders by now):

Benny Carter and his Orchestra, 1939 — including Jimmy Archey, Bobby Woodlen, Vic Dickenson, Chick Morrison, Lincoln Mills, Tyree Glenn, and Joe Thomas (from left to right).  It’s a rather unorthodox arrangement of this stellar brass section, for photographic purposes only.

I’ve never seen a photograph of this man looking downcast or mournful: that’s Zutty Singleton!

Two extraordinary percussionists for the price of one: on top, grinning even more broadly, Sonny Greer at his personalized Leedy set; below him, Cozy Cole, having a wonderful time as well.

In fairness, I must write that this handsome trumpet player is, for the moment, “unidentified” to me — he looks terribly familiar but his name is elusive.  Can anyone help?  (Although I must point out that John C. Brown or someone else had identified the subject on the reverse of the one photograph from this collection I bought . . . )

As a postscript: Steve Provizer thinks it’s Jonah Jones.  Mike Burgevin, who enjoyed a long friendship / playing partnership with Joe Thomas, thinks it’s Joe. 

The photographs above are famous — the Blessed Herschel Evans (possibly by Timme Rosenkrantz) and Irving “Mouse” Randolph.  I wonder how Irving got that nickname: he hardly resembles any rodent I ever saw, on the floor or in cartoons.  The Randolph portrait, by the way, was reproduced in one of the mid-Seventies Billie Holiday box sets on Columbia, which is where I saw it first.

His Honor, The Judge, Milton John Hinton (in the Seventies, I believe).

Mugging for the camera — by himself, without the Tympany Five — Louis Jordan.

Sonny Greer, resplendent at work (with the backs of the Ellington brass section to his right) during that band’s Victor Records contract — little Nipper’s on the bass drum head.

The two musicians at bottom are identified (although not by the seller); at top, I think the pianist is Patti Bown, the trumpeter Charlie Shavers, and I couldn’t mistake Milt Hinton and Jo Jones.

I won’t even guess at the trio on the right, but the handsome fellow on the left is intriguing.  If I can’t find out who he is, at least I’d like that suit jacket for myself, if it would fit.

The fellow in the center should be recognizable — but who could miss Lionel Hampton and Jimmy Crawford (the latter under his own stylized palm tree)?

Equal time for unidentified Caucasians!  The drummer at top left obviously loves his Rogers set, but might need a motorized throne to cover it all.  Behind the swinging woodpecker, none other than Ray Bauduc.  And at bottom — characteristically thin and somber — Dave Tough. 

Anonymous no more, I hope.

P.S.  And since I’d like to end this post in celebration rather than rancor, here’s a lovely (and fully identified) portrait of the saxophonist, composer, arranger, and bandleader Edgar Sampson, sharp in his band jacket and ready for action in front of the Savoy Ballroom, or at least the Savoy Billiards.  Everything suggests this was taken in the mid-Thirties, and it has the general affect of a Timme Rosenkrantz shot, but I can’t prove it: the clothing of the passers-by suggests mild weather, but only students of historical fashion could tell us more. 

SAVORY DELIGHTS

Like many other jazz fans, I first heard the name Bill Savory in the liner notes (by George Avakian) to a series of Benny Goodman airshot performances issued on Columbia Records after the astonishing success of their 1938 Carnegie Hall jazz concert issues.  I learned that Savory was a pioneering engineer, friend to many jazz musicians, with a special fondness for Goodman and his associates, who had made disc recordings of radio broadcasts in the Thirties. 

Some memorable performances had been made available through his devotion to the music: one that I can hear in my head as I write this was a Goodman Trio version of SWEET LEILANI, complete with energetic tom-tom playing by Gene Krupa, that gave the demure Hawaiian maiden a decidedly uptown flavor.

Through the various Goodman discographies, I later learned that Savory’s collection was substantial.  But that was where it ended until recently — where, in the New York jazz circles I frequent, I began hearing rumors about those discs. 

Now it’s progressed past gossip and whispers: the stuff is here (more or less) and it defines “mellow.” 

How about music from the fabled Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing, which has existed only as silent newsreel footage of the Count Basie band? 

How about performances by Goodman (of course), Teddy Wilson (once on harpsichord), Leo Watson, Louis Armstrong, Chu Berry, Mildred Bailey, Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Charlie Christian, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Bunny Berigan, Bobby Hackett, Billie Holiday . . . . ? 

The collection has been brought to light through the long-term and tireless efforts of Loren Schoenberg — not only a fine tenor saxophonist and bandleader in his own right, but the head of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem — who made the pilgrimage to Malta, Illinois, where Savory’s son had kept the thousand or so discs.  And who better to take over the difficult job of transferring those that could be rescued but our friend Doug Pomeroy, who decided that he didn’t exactly feel like retiring once he heard some of the music coming from those unique recordings. 

Now the whuspers have turned into reality, and we wait to hear the results.  I don’t know how long — or in what fashion — the music will eventually reach us.  Loren has proposed that this musical treasure will become part of the Museum’s digital trove . . . but until that happens, here’s some more fascinating information . . . taken from the pages of The New York Times, which doesn’t often make a point of mentioning Chu Berry in its first section!

But wait!  There’s more!  How about some tantalizing snippets from the collection (just enough to induce hysteria among the faithful).  (Click on JAZZ LOST AND FOUND under the photograph to the left for some audio magic):

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/arts/music/17jazz.html?hp=&pagewanted=all

And (closer to the end of the article) there’s an astonishing video showing the esteemed Messrs. Schoenberg and Pomeroy . . . the latter, a master at work, restoring these treasures.

And a Times story on Coleman Hawkins, 1940:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/18/arts/music/18savory.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1
=y

And the Museum will be presenting four programs on these treasures as part of their Tuesday evening JAZZ FOR CURIOUS LISTENERS series, held from 7:00 – 8:30PM at our Visitors Center, 104 E. 126th Street, NY, NY 10035.  

September 7 – You Won’t Believe It – An Overview

September 14 – Tenor Madness – Lester Young/Coleman Hawkins/Chu Berry/Herschel Evans

September 21 – Trumpet Titans – Louis Armstrong/Roy Eldridge/Harry James/Bunny Berigan

September 28 – Jam Sessions – Benny Goodman/Bobby Hackett/Lionel Hampton/Slim and Slam

Savory indeed!

P.S.  I apologize to the New York jazz aficionados, for whom this post is already old news; they have already made their appointments to visit the Museum.  This is for my readers for whom New York jazz gossip is not their daily breakfast chat . . . and for the sheer pleasure of writing about these treasures!

THEIR IRRESISTIBLE STORIES

It’s taken me some time to write about Hank O’Neal’s book, THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM (Vanderbilt University Press), but admiration slowed me down.  What follows is only the smallest sample of its contents. 

Between 1985 and 2007, O’Neal (an excellent home-grown journalist who knew how to ask questions and get out of the way) interviewed forty-two jazz giants.  Some were well-known (Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Clark Terry, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Illinois Jacquet, Cab Calloway, Andy Kirk, Sy Oliver, Jonah Jones, Benny Carter, Maxine Sullivan, Buddy Tate), others no less deserving but in semi-obscurity to all but jazz devotees and scholars (Al Cobbs, Ovie Alston, Gene Prince).  Almost all of O’Neal’s subjects have now died: Frank Wess, Terry, and Billy Taylor might be the sole survivors. 

Rather than ask each musician for a long autobiographical summary, O’Neal focused on their memories of Harlem.  Fascinating stories resulted, which eventually proved stronger than their grief for a way of life that they had seen vanish.  

O’Neal is also a fine photographer from the old school — Berenice Abbott was his occasionally irritable mentor — so the book has large-format photographs of its subjects, often in their homes, as well as invaulable jazz memorabilia (advertisements and posters, record labels and the like) and photographs of the buildings that now stand where the uptown clubs used to be.  I find those transformations hard to take; that Connie’s Inn is now a C-Town supermarket makes me gloomy.

But because many of the musicians had never been asked to talk about Harlem, they responded with fresh stories that were hilarious, profound, touching.  

Fats Waller’s advice to guitarist Al Casey: “Don’t ever let your head get too big because there is always that little boy around the corner that can outplay you and outdo everything you do.”

Harry Edison, recalling his mother’s economic advice: ” [When I was fourteen or fifteen] I played with a guy named Earl Hood.  I remember I had to have a tuxedo and my mother paid two dollars for it.  We played little jobs around Columbus and every time I got home my mother used to ask me, ‘How much did you make?’  I’d tell her that Mr. Hood told me I was playing for the experience, and she said, ‘To hell with experience, you might as well stay home if you’re not going to get paid.’ ”

Edison’s memory of pianist Don Lambert taunting Art Tatum at an uptown jam session: “Get up off that chair.  You can’t play, you’ve got no left hand, you’re the world’s worst piano player.”

How clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton asked Teddy Wilson for a raise: “Teddy, I think you ought to put a little yeast in the money.”

Al Cobbs, remembering what Louis Armstrong said about the crowds he drew: “Let me tell you something.  The kind of music I’m playing makes people feel good–the folks come in and they buy steaks.  But some of the things people are playing make people sad, and these folks will just sit there, drink a Coca-Cola, and stay all night.”

The record session that Nat Cole wanted to organize in California, with Illinois Jacquet: “He’d be on piano.  I’d play my horn, and Jimmy Blanton, Sid Catlett, and Charlie Christian would make up the rhythm section.  That sounded great to me.”

The book is full of stories: impatient Stuff Smith wandering out on the ledge of a tall building.  How Coleman Hawkins explained his record of BODY AND SOUL to Thelma Carpenter as musical love-making.  What Milt Hinton’s teacher said to him.  Danny Barker explaining the difference between New Orleans and New York in terms of hospitality.  Al Casey paying tribute to Teddy Bunn.  Buddy Tate remembering the last time he saw Charlie Parker alive. 

And the book comes with a compact disc of many of the giants playing (and talking) — musical history.

THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM is too cumbersome to take to the beach, but it’s a masterpiece.  To learn more about it, visit http://www.vanderbiltuniversitypress.com/books/335/the-ghosts-of-harlem, where you can see twenty beautiful sample pages.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO TAKE A WALK?

Yes, it is a pretty Harry Warren song from 1931.  But I mean a real walk — a jazz walk. 

Paul Blair, someone who knows his jazz, has been editing the local jazz monthly called Hot House for the past six years.   And he’s also been conducting walking tours through various New York neighborhoods.   This home-grown enterprise – operating under the name SwingStreets (www.SwingStreets.com) – began with a focus on historic local jazz addresses:  musicians’ homes and hangouts, clubs past and present.  Paul’s led outings in Midtown, Greenwich Village, the East Village, Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene-Clinton Hill. 

Lately, he’s broadened his approach and now also leads folks with absolutely no interest in jazz through particularly distinctive Outer Borough neighborhoods they’d be unlikely to explore on their own.  Still, his most popular tour remains the one covering Harlem. 
 
A typical tour (one Paul conducted two weeks ago) went like this: “We begin at 11:30 AM in front of 3940 Broadway (a prominently numbered building situated on the NE corner of Broadway and 165th St.) and, after strolling at a fairly leisurely pace, end up at the corner of Lenox Ave. and W. 125th St., near Sylvia’s Restaurant.   I’m always willing to take people further, if they wish, to see Minton’s, down on W. 118th St, near where Otto Hardwicke and Benny Carter once lived.   For those arriving from downtown for a tour, I always suggest taking a subway (either the A or the 1) to the 168th St. station, then walking three short blocks south to our meeting point.  People purchase tickets for those Harlem tours online through my website.  And many of my fellow strollers have surnames suggesting that they’re overseas visitors to the city.”

It costs $25 for two hours, and each participant takes home a free jazz CD. 

I want to see where Otto Hardwicke lived.  Don’t you?

CHARLES PETERSON’S VISION

This is the second part of what I hope will be a long series on the jazz photography of Charles Peterson, who mystically saw the essence of jazz.  00000005

Here’s Peterson the documentary photographer — his casual, offhanded shot of a quartet led by Sidney Bechet, who is characteristically both in command and absolutely at the service of the music he is creating, the experience ecstatic and powerful.  What I find fascinating are the expressions on the faces of his sidemen: Cliff Jackson (whom I remember seeing in later photographs as white-haired) looks up at the Master to see where the currents of music are going; Eddie Dougherty, a wonderful and little-known Brooklyn-born drummer, seems anxious, although he may have only been caught in mid-comment, and Wellman Braud is quietly gleeful, rocking in rhythm.  They seem small objects drawn into Bechet’s vortex.  The photo suggests that any cohesive jazz group forms itself into a unit, but each musician retains his or her essential personality, and in this picture we see the quiet tension between the Selves and the Community.  And this photo brings up another of Peterson’s unintended gifts to us: how many people ever were fortunate enough to be at the Mimo Club in Harlem to hear this quartet, much less at this moment on February 16, 1942?  But — with a substantial record collection, some memory and imagination — we can invent the music that this band is creating. 

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This is a new split-second capture from a famous jazz session and photo shoot: the Commodore Records session of April 20, 1939, where Billie Holiday recorded STRANGE FRUIT, YESTERDAYS, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, and FINE AND MELLOW.  The musicians are bassist Johnny Williams, trumpeter Frank Newton, altoist Stanley Payne, and tenorist Kenneth Hollon.  Billie is holding a long-noted syllable; is it the “Yes” in YESTERDAYS?  And she is very young, very beautiful, also giving herself up to the music, her hands folded, her eyes almost-shut, Peterson’s lighting capturing her mouth, chin, and throat.  What distinguishes this portrait from others at this session is Billie’s lovely and obviously-treasured fur coat.  I find it ironic, seventy years after the session, that there is such a gap between Billie in her fur — which she deserved more than anyone — and the material she sings with such deep emotion.  One song, most famous, describes lynchings in the South; another describes a “fine and mellow” lover who doesn’t treat his woman well; a third and fourth describe bygone happinesses, all gone now, and the blues one sings when one’s lover has left.  And Billie sang these four songs as if her heart would break . . . wearing that fur coat.  Later in the session, of course, she got warm and took it off.  And no doubt the irony didn’t occur to her and she would have laughed it off if someone pointed it out, “Lady, you look too good to be singing those blues!”00000010

Hard at work is all I can say.  The caption states that this is the Summa Cum Laude band — led in part by Bud Freeman, arrangements by valve-trombonist Brad Gowans — performing at Nick’s in December 1938.  The band must be negotiating some serious ensemble passage, for they all look so intent.  Bassist Clyde Newcome stares out into space, as does Pee Wee Russell; Gowans and Freeman, especially Brad, are watching the band warily, or perhaps Brad is reading the music off the stand in the center.  I would guess that the drummer is Al Sidell, but I would hope that it is Stan King* — drummers shuttled in and out of this band.  The rather somber effect of this picture suggests to me that the band is playing one of its medleys of current hits (you can hear them on the airshots in 1939-40 from Chicago’s Panther Room at the Hotel Sherman . . . grown men of this artistic stature playing SIERRA SUE, but what can I say?)  Serious business indeed.  (In his later comment, Mike Burgevin points out that I left out Max Kaminsky.  How did I do this?)  *Don Peterson confirmed that the drummer is indeed Stan King — one of jazz’s entirely forgotten men. 

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This photo lets me imagine a time before I was born when James P. Johnson could wear his pin-stripe suit and play the piano, which is what he was meant to do.  It was taken in 1946, on a “Jazz on the River” cruise organized by Rudi Blesh and Art Hodes to go up and down the Hudson River.  From left, there’s the hand of an unidentified bassist, James P., Baby Dodds, Marty Marsala on trumpet (with the appropriate handkerchief) and guitarist Danny Barker — some of the same crew who turned up on the THIS IS JAZZ radio broadcasts.   But my secret pleasure in this photograph comes from the pretty woman whose head seems (although much smaller) in the same plane as James P.’s.  She is tidily dressed; her cardigan, pulled together at the collar, reveals a neat floral blouse beneath; we sense that she wears a neat wool skirt.  Her eyeglasses gleam in Peterson’s flashbulb; her hair is demure; her modest lipstick is in place.  Her hands are decorously in her lap.  Yet it’s clear — although she is prim, restrained, the last person to whoop and knock over her highball — that she is deeply pleased by what she hears.  As much as Bechet or James P., she is in the grip of the music, wanting it to go on forever. 

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Berenice Abbott told Hank O’Neal that most of photography was having the patience to wait for the right moment.  I’ll end this series with a superbly right moment — with only two musicians, Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett, playing at the “Friday Club” jam sessions held at the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan — this one on February 17, 1939.  Hackett here is much as I remember him, up close, in 1972: a small, slender man, neatly dressed, dark eyebrows, thin wrists with black hair on them.  Here he is all of 24, and so small that while standing he is only inches taller than Condon, sitting.  The expression on his face might be a smile or it might be that he is working hard to bring off a particular nuanced phrase.  But our attention is drawn to Condon, also young and healthy.  Condon called Hackett “The Impostor,” because — with his peculiarly ornate wit, he said “Nobody can be that good.”  The teasing compliment almost slips away, but you get the point.  What is more important in this picture — more than Condon’s neat attire — is his grin, his head turned in delight and pleasure and admiration towards Hackett, who is clearly playing something marvelous, inimitable, lovely.  Condon is astonished by what he’s hearing, but he’s expected no less from Bobby.  This photograph captures the joy (and the labor) of this music better than any prose. 

Thank you, Charles Peterson!

P.S.  It didn’t surprise me that Peterson’s offspring were particularly talented in music, film, and writing.  His daughter, Karen Yochim, a successful country-and-western songwriter, lives in Louisiana, has written extensively about Cajun culture for newspapers and magazines — and is branching out as a crime novelist.  Peterson’s granddaughter Schascle “Twinkle” Yochim (her name is Cajun, pronounced “Suh-Shell”) is a professional singer with several CDs, concentrating on soul, rock, and to a limited extent, country-and-western. She’s also a songwriter, with songs accepted in feature films currently in production.  

After a career in the Navy, Peterson’s son, Don, worked for the Navy Department in Washington, DC, doing motion picture & television scriptwriting.  Don also wrote scripts for many film and television productions.  He retired in 1986 and now concentrates on marketing his father’s photographic legacy, most lavishly accessible in the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.

MY MOTHER AND THE COTTON CLUB

Sometime before 1928, my mother, a curly-headed child, is leaning out of a window, fascinated by the passers-by on — let us say — 135th Street in Harlem. In that same year, in a different part of the city, my father, dressed in a suit and a shirt with a painfully high collar, but having trouble hiding a smile, sits in the photographer’s studio, his mandolin on his lap. 

My mother’s image exists only in my imagination; I can pick up the framed photograph and stare at it.  These are my parents as the children I never knew, well before I was even an idea.  But music ties these memories together, and ties them to my life.   

At this late date, with my adolescence forty years gone, I think of how many hours I spent in my upstairs room in the suburban house my mother kept tidy, my father maintained.  I was constantly playing jazz records, surely too loudly.  The archaic but thrilling music of the 1920s and 1930s.  Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Eddie Condon, Bessie Smith. 

My mother died in 2000, my father in 1982.  What do I recall of their stories of their own childhoods? 

She told me about wanting a dog as a child and her grandfather bringing her “a white ball of fur” when she was sick in bed with scarlet fever, a dog that grew up to be a beloved chow. 

My father told me of his (entirely unaggressive) gang of Brooklyn boys – all with nicknames.  I remember only that one was Doc, another pair Itch and Scratch.  And their joke — perhaps beloved in his generation, his neighborhood? — to go under the window of your apartment and holler up to your mother, “Ma!  Throw me down a roll and a glass of water!” 

In my childhood, years later, while my father was working around the house, he sang the pop hits of his adolescence — in snippets, so that I didn’t know that they were real songs until I heard Bing Crosby and others sing them, twenty years later: “Lullaby of the Leaves,” “A Faded Summer Love,” “I Faw Down and Go Boom,” and more. 

cotton-club1

Some years after my mother died, my sister said, casually, “Did Mom ever tell you about the Cotton Club?”  I know I said, What?” and stared at her.  “Mom said that when she was a little girl — they lived in Harlem, you know — she would look out the window or sit out on the front stoop and watched the beautifully-dressed black people — so beautifully dressed with fine hats and gloves — on their way to the Cotton Club.”  I imagine one of them might have looked like the beautiful woman in this James Van Der Zee photograph.

vanderzee pretty girl

It pains me now that I did not know this, and that my mother (even with those Harlem rhythms of my records, years later, pounding above her head in her suburban kitchen) never thought to tell me.  I could have said, “Mom, what did those people look like?”  “Did you ever walk by the Cotton Club in the daytime?  The Savoy Ballroom?  The Renaissance?” and on and on.  I console myself that what is now critically interesting to me might not have occupied a great deal of space in her memory.  I didn’t think to ask my father, “When did your family get a radio, and what programs do you remember listening to?  Did you ever see any swing bands live?”   

Of course, my mother’s story is a myth, easily punctured and brought down to earth by facts.  I gather that the audiences at the Cotton Club were white.  And did the entertainment start so early that she was able to sit on the steps, perhaps on a hot summer night long after little girls were supposed to be asleep, watching the people?  Was she up early in the morning watching them come home?  Did she see musicians and dancers on their way to other clubs?  Could she have unwittingly seen someone whose music I now revere?  What details was she unwittingly misremembering?  But none of those details truly matter.  The fuzziness, the half-wrongness of the story is essential to its charm, its enchantment. 

That story is one of only a few windows I have into the life of my parents before I was born, before I saw them as My Parents, In Charge Of Everything.  I recall with cinematic force those rare moments when they gleefully revealed something of their youthful romantic selves.  Once, because of a record I was playing, they broke out of Being Parents to show me, in the living room with its gray rug, how they danced the Shag in the mid-forties.  That bit of unexpected choreography lasted no more than twenty seconds, but it is indelible today. 

There’s no moral to this tale, no implicit suggestion to readers, whether they are parents or children.  Many of the questions that we want to ask we can no longer ask, and the dead take their past lives and their untold stories with them.  But the glimpses they give of what it was like Before The World Was Made are tantalizing, lovely, elusive.