Tag Archives: Helen Humes

LESTER YOUNG’S JOY (“Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records: Mosaic MD-8 263)

Although some of us understandably recoil from chronicles of suffering, pain and oppression make for more compelling narrative than happiness does. Think of Emma (Bovary) and Anna (Karenina), their anguish and torment so much more gripping than the story of the main character in Willa Cather’s “Neighbour Rosicky.”  Montherlant, the French writer Larkin loved to quote, said that happiness “writes white,” that it has nothing to tell us.  Give us some despair, and we turn the pages.  It is true in jazz historiography as it is in fiction. Consider the ferociously detailed examination of the painful lives of Bix Beiderbecke and Charlie Parker.  Musicians like Hank Jones, Buck Clayton, Buster Bailey or Bennie Morton, artists who showed up early and sober to the session, are not examined in the same way.

Suffering, self-destruction, misery — those subjects engross us.

And Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959) whose birthday approaches, will be celebrated on WKCR-FM this weekend, is a splendid example of how the difficulties of one’s life become the subject of sad scrupulous examination.

The “Lester Young story” that is so often told is that of his victimization and grief.  And there is sufficient evidence to show him as a man oppressed — from childhood to his final plane ride — by people who didn’t understand him or didn’t want to.  Readers who know the tale can point accusing fingers at a stock company of betrayers and villains: Willis Young, Leora Henderson, John Hammond, the United States Army, a horde of Caucasians (some faceless, some identifiable) and more.

Although he is simply changing a reed, the photograph below is most expressive of that Lester.  Intent, but not at ease.  Skeptical of the world, wondering what will happen next, his expression verging on anxious.

Lester-Young-standing-changing-reed

But there is the music, lest we forget.  It speaks louder than words, Charlie Parker told Earl Wilson.

A different Lester — ebullient, inventive, full of joyous surprises — is the subject of one of the most grand musical productions I have ever seen, an eight CD set on Mosaic Recordsits cover depicted below.  Every note on this set is a direct rejection of the story of Lester the victim and every note tells us that Lester the creator was even more important, his impact deeper and more permanent.

LESTER BASIE Mosaic

Where did this mournful myth come from, and why?

Few African-American musicians received perceptive and sympathetic media coverage in the Thirties, perhaps because jazz was viewed as entertainment and writers often adopted the most painful “hip” jargon.  (I leave aside Ansermet on Sidney Bechet and early analysis of Ellington as notable exceptions.)  So the writings on Lester, some of which were his own speech, come late in his life and are cautious, full of bitterness and melancholy.  He was by nature sensitive and shy, and which of us would feel comfortable speaking to a stranger in front of a microphone?  Yes, the Lester of the irreplaceable Chris Albertson and Francois Postif interviews is quite a bit more unbuttoned, but much of what comes through is despair, exhaustion, suspicion, hurt.  (I make an exception for Bobby Scott’s gentle loving portrait, but that was posthumous, perhaps Scott’s effort to say, “This was the Lester I knew.”)

Even the film footage we have of Lester (leaving aside those jubilant, silent seconds from Randalls Island) supports this image of the suffering Pres, a bottle sticking out of the pocket of his long black coat, elusive, turning away from the world because of what it had done to him.  The mystical icon of JAMMIN’ THE BLUES is to me a mournful figure, even though Lester participates in the riotous closing blues.  The Lester of THE SOUND OF JAZZ evokes tears in his music and in his stance.  And on the 1958 Art Ford show, the song Lester calls for his feature is MEAN TO ME, a fact not cancelled out by JUMPIN’ WITH SYMPHONY SID.  The 1950 Norman Granz film, IMPROVISATION, is a notable exception: in BLUES FOR GREASY Lester quietly smiles while Harry Edison struts.  But the visual evidence we have is in more sad than happy.

Adding all this together, the mythic figure we have come to accept is that of Pres on the cross of racism, a man watching others less innovative getting more “pennies” and more prominent gigs.  Then, there’s the conception of him “in decline,” running parallel to Billie Holiday, “still my Lady Day.”  Although some have effectively argued for a more balanced view — why should a musician want to play in 1956 the way he played twenty years earlier, assuming even that it was possible?  Some critics still muse on the change in his sound around 1942, constructing the facile story of a man bowed down by adversity.  And we are drawn to the gravity-bound arc of a great artist, blooming beyond belief in his twenties, alcoholic and self-destructive, dying before reaching fifty.

But the brand-new eight-disc Mosaic set, taken for its own virtues, is a wonderful rebuke to such myth-making.  If you have heard nothing of it or from it, please visit here.

I am writing this review having heard less than one-fourth of this set, and that is intentional.  We do not stuff down fine cuisine in the same way one might mindlessly work their way through a bag of chips; we do not put the Beethoven string quartets on while washing the kitchen floor, and we do not play these Lester Young tracks as background music, or in the car.  To do so would be at best disrespectful.

I think that by now everyone has heard about the virtues of Mosaic’s delicate and thoughtful work.  Fine notes by Pres-scholar Loren Schoenberg, rare and new photographs, and transfers of familiar material that make it shine in ways I could not have imagined.  The music bursts through the speakers and I heard details I’d never heard, not even through forty years of close listening.

The news, of course, is that there are four astonishing discoveries on this set: alternate takes of LADY BE GOOD, EVENIN’, and BOOGIE WOOGIE from the 1936 Jones-Smith, Inc., session, and a previously unknown alternate take of HONEYSUCKLE ROSE by the 1937 Basie band.

Now, what follows may mark me as a suburban plutocrat, but if you’d come to me at any time in the past dozen years and said, “Pssst!  Michael!  Want beautiful transfers of three alternate takes from Jones-Smith, Inc., and I’ll throw in an unissued Basie Decca — for a hundred and fifty dollars?” I would have gone to the ATM as fast as I could.

When I first heard the issued take of SHOE SHINE BOY in 1969 — I taped it from an Ed Beach radio show and treasured it — the music went right to my heart in a way that only Louis did.  It still does, a living embodiment of joy.

And the joy is still profound.  I know this not only because of the feelings that course through me while listening to the Mosaic set, but because of an entirely unplanned experiment earlier this week.  I had lunch with a young musician whom I admire and like, and after the food was eaen we went back to my place — as is our habit — so that I could “play him some Dixieland!” as he likes to say.

But this time I asked, “Do you like Lester Young?” Had he said “No,” I would have invented an appointment with my podiatrist that I had to get to right away, but he answered properly and with enthusiasm.  He had never heard SHOE SHINE BOY, so I put the first Mosaic disc on.  He is someone whose emotions bubble through him, and although he is taller and broader than I am, he capered around my living room, completely ecstatic.  Lester’s magic is potent and undiminished: I could see the music hitting him as hard and sweetly as it had done to me in 1969.

And as I have been listening to this set while writing these words, I am continually astonished — by recordings I heard forty years ago, by recordings I first heard a week ago — not only by how alive they sound, but by the complete picture of Lester’s first decade of recordings, so influential.  Jones-Smith, Inc. Una Mae Carlisle.  Dickie Wells.  The Kansas City Six and Seven, and Lester’s 1943 Keynote quartet.  The Aladdins.  TI-PI-TIN.  I FOUND A NEW BABY with Teddy Wilson, twice. The Philo trio with Nat Cole.  A few Helen Humes sides. The only studio recordings beyond Mosaic’s reach are the Savoy sessions.

The joy is not only Lester.  There’s Count Basie, Walter Page, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Johnny Guarnieri, Doc West, Sidney Catlett, Vic Dickenson, Slam Stewart, Shad Collins, Sweets Edison, Buck Clayton, Eddie Durham, Nat Cole, Red Callendar, Buddy Rich, Buster Bailey, Bill Coleman, Dickie Wells, Joe Bushkin, Benny Goodman, Herschel Evans, Bennie Morton, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Helen Humes . . . and more.

I’ve read a good deal of discussion of this set, of price, of value — as always! — on Facebook, and I won’t reiterate it here.  I will only say that this box is superb listening, provocative and rewarding music.  And as a wise person used to say, “Amortize!” — that is, instead of buying ten lesser CDs, buy this.  And think of the expense as ten manageable chunklets: that’s what credit cards allow us to do. You will be listening to this music for the rest of your life.

Some, reared on Spotify and Pandora — and the idea that everything should be free — will burn copies of the set from jazz Enablers, will wait for the material to be “borrowed” by European labels.  I think this is at best polite theft, and the sole way that we have of keeping enterprises like Mosaic afloat — and there’s nothing like Mosaic, if you haven’t noticed — is to support it.

For those who have their calculators out, the set is eight CDs.  There are 173 tracks.  The cost is $136.00 plus shipping.  There are only 5000 sets being produced.  They won’t be around in five years, or perhaps in one.  (I paid for my set, if you wonder about such things.)

Thank you, Pres, for being so joyous and for sharing your joy with us.  We mourn your griefs, but we celebrate your delight in sounds.  And thank you, Mosaic, for bringing us the joy in such profusion.

May your happiness increase!

GRamercy 5-8639

rotary phone

Perhaps, for the Youngbloods in the audience, I should explain.  Older telephone numbers were patterned after words — presumably easier to remember — in the same way some business numbers are (whimsically) 1-800-BUY JUNK.  My childhood phone number began with “PE” for Pershing, the general; now it would simply be 7 3.  All clear?

I love Eddie Condon’s music and everything relating to it.  I wan’t of an age to visit West Third Street, nor the club on Fifty-Sixth, although I spent some delightful evenings at the posthumous version on Fifty-Fourth (one night in 1975 Ruby Braff was the guest star and Helen Humes, Joe Bushkin, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Brooks Kerr and a few others sat in).

This delightful artifact just surfaced on eBay — from 1958:

CONDONS front

The English professor in me chafes at the missing apostrophe, but everything else printed here is wonderful: the names of the band and the intermission pianist.  The reverse:

CONDONS back

I didn’t buy it — so you might still be able to — but I did have fleeting thoughts of taking it to a print shop and ordering a few hundred replicas, more gratifying than the glossy cards with pictures of Tuscany on them.

We don’t need a time machine, though, because a version of that band (with Vic Dickenson, Billy Butterfield, and others) did record, in glorious sound.  Don’t let “Dixielan” Jam or the CD title keep you away.  Savor the sound of Eddie’s guitar.  The music here was originally issued as THE ROARING TWENTIES, and the sessions were produced by the amazing George Avakian:

I did buy something, though — irresistible to me —  that struck a far more receptive chord.  Whether I will use it or frame it has not yet been decided.  I’ll know when it arrives.

SWIZZLE STICK

If you have no idea what this is, ask Great-Grandma, who used such a thing to stir her whiskey sour.

May your happiness increase!

ONE AND ONE (1938)

One of John Hammond’s many good ideas was this two-part (1937/8) small group session under trumpeter Harry James’ leadership, using almost all members of the Count Basie band.  Harry was already a star, he had a deep rapport with the Basie band, and I think this session may have been part of a prelude to Harry leaving Benny Goodman and forming his own orchestra.  Or, more simply, making records equaled fun, money, perhaps fame.

This wonderful session has not received the attention it deserves because of the star system in jazz.  Lester Young is one of my most luminous stars in the musical night sky, but he is not the only one.  This session gives space to musicians less heralded: tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans, who died so very young, and trombonist Vernon Brown.  On other sides, a young Helen Humes sings — beautifully.  I can hear her I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I? in my mental jukebox: how touching she was!

But today our focus is the blues, swung.

ONE O'CLOCK JUMP

The Basie blues-plus-riffs, ONE O’CLOCK JUMP, had been a head arrangement by Eddie Durham and Buster Smith some years before, perhaps 1935.  I have read that the unofficial name for this JUMP was BLUE BALLS, something that was not suitable for the radio audience, although some male listeners would recognize the ailment.

Basie had officially recorded it for Decca in July 1937; Goodman began using it on broadcasts not long after, so it was a piece of common language quickly.

And here is ONE O’CLOCK JUMP, twice.

January 5, 1938, under the supervision of John Hammond.  Harry James And His Orchestra : Harry James, trumpet, arranger; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Vernon Brown, trombone; Earle Warren, alto saxophone; Herschel Evans, tenor saxophone; Jack Washington, alto and baritone saxophone; Jess Stacy, piano; Walter Page, string bass; Jo Jones, drums.

The 78 take:

The “microgroove” take:

I think the tempo is a hair quicker on the second version, although the general outlines of solos and the overall plan of this recording are similar.  But I delight in the intensity and ease of these two discs, and some details stand out immediately: Jo Jones’ accents behind Harry’s solo on each take, for one.  The breadth and passion of Herschel Evans’ sound.  The deep, rich, guttiness of Vernon Brown.  Jess Stacy, for goodness’ sake.

Thank heavens for the recording machine, and for the idea that you could preserve music, reproduce it, sell it, and have it for posterity.  Brunswick Records is as much a wonder to me as is moveable type.  I regret the three minute limit, but these fellows could write an memorable opus in twenty-four bars.

Incidentally, this blogpost is because YouTube gave me an opportunity to present both takes of this recording in sequence, something rarely encountered otherwise.

A postscript: I feel a Vernon Brown blog in gestation — both to celebrate him and to wonder about him.  Until that time, here he is with Goodman, Dave Tough, Harry, Bud Freeman, Dave Matthews, in 1938, live:

May your happiness increase!

KEYNOTE SPEECHES: RAY SKJELBRED AND HIS CUBS (plus MARC CAPARONE) at SAN DIEGO, NOVEMBER 27, 2015

Don’t get worried.  JAZZ LIVES hasn’t suddenly turned political, nor will there be any mention of plenary sessions at the great JAZZ LIVES convention.  The “Keynote” I am thinking of, with great affection, is the record label run by Harry Lim in the Forties, which turned out classic after classic, often on longer-running 12″ 78s.  If you’re like me, this label should be immensely dear to you, even if this particular sacred artifact hadn’t been autographed by the leader:

Keynote WettlingAnd this flyer — a new cyber-discovery — evokes some of the same emotions, even for people like myself who now have all the records from that label. “Advanced Jazz” is also pleasing, reminding us that today’s Historical Sounds were once The New Thing:

KEYNOTE ad

Now, this isn’t a post mooning about records made seventy years ago.  I offer two performances created and captured on November 27, 2015, by a band of eminences . . . but the performances so reminded me of the Keynote label that it became a useful jumping-off point.  For one thing, the hot numbers that Lim supervised built up to an almost unbearable tension: after one of those sides, I feel depleted, exhausted, as if the whole band had been jamming in my apartment.  And when the session called for something slower — whether plaintive or a “rhythm ballad,” the time stretched out, as if the players had all the time in the world to tell their stories.

Consider these performances by Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, plus Marc Caparone on cornet.  That’s Ray on piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Clint Baker, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Jeff Hamilton, drums.

The first song, ROCK AND RYE, a product of Earl Hines’ 1934 band, is indeed rocking: it refers to a combination of rye whiskey and rock candy / rock sugar. And since it pains me when people are reaching for information and not finding any of it there, here is a recipe for it.

RockCandyRyeWhiskeyHag

Not entirely tangentially, in a Whitney Balliett profile of Helen Humes, when she was appearing at The Cookery in New York, we hear Barney Josephson telling Helen that she has to drink some, that he had bought a whole case for her.

But enough stories.  Music, please!

And the second selection is a poignant journey through IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN, that Thirties ballad about a broken relationship, a broken-off engagement.  Marc doesn’t imitate anyone, but I always think of this song in connection with trumpeter Joe Thomas (who liked to sing it as well as play it) and who was a particular favorite of Harry Lim’s, which is a blessing, since Joe’s Keynote recordings increase his discography by perhaps fifty percent.  Here’s a portrait of Joe by William Gottlieb, taken at the Pied Piper in New York City (which still stands although with no music) in late 1947:

JOE THOMAS

And here’s the 2015 rendering:

Blessings on the Cubs and on Ray and Marc, and on Paul Daspit, whose dear guidance makes such things happen.  Oh, and there are more videos from this session.  See you at this year’s San Diego Jazz Fest (November 23-27, 2016).

May your happiness increase!

SWEET, WITH A KICK: MARC CAPARONE, RAY SKJELBRED, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH (SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST, Mov. 27, 2014)

Thirty years ago, I would have defined “rock and rye” musically — as a hot riff number written by Jimmy Mundy for the 1934 Earl Hines band.  Then I read a Whitney Balliett profile of Helen Humes, who was then appearing at The Cookery, Barney Josephson’s Greenwich Village Seventies evocation of Cafe Society.  In the profile, Josephson teases Humes that she has to have a drink of rock and rye, that he bought a whole case for her, and she had hardly had any. I filed that away in the cerebral spot reserved for Information You Find Fascinating But Will Never Have A Chance To Offer Because No One Else Really Is Interested In It.

At the November 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest, pianist-philosopher Ray Skjelbred — who admires Hines greatly and knew him in his later years — called the tune, and the other members of his ad hoc quartet fell right in.  They are Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

Photograph by Todd Coleman for SAVEUR

Photograph by Todd Coleman for SAVEUR

But perhaps you’d like to fix yourself a drink before the music starts?  I learned that rock and rye was a cocktail in a bottle, a mixture of rye whiskey and rock candy (to take the edge off the whiskey) sometimes also served with lemon and herbs.  I imagine that it might have been not only delicious but necessary with Prohibition “rye” whose origins might have been dubious.

Here’s the band:

Even if you choose not to imbibe, the music will have the same elating effect.

May your happiness increase!

ON MATTERS OF TASTE, HERSCHEL EVANS HAD DEFINITE VIEWS

HERSCHEL FREDDIE 1937

A newly discovered photograph, circa 1937, of Freddie Green and Herschel Evans, thanks to Christopher Tyle from here.

Herschel “Tex” Evans, born in Denton, Texas, did not live to see his thirtieth birthday.  We are fortunate that he was a member of the very popular Count Basie band of 1937-39, thus there are Decca studio recordings and airshots, and that John Hammond set up many small-band record dates for Basie sidemen.  One can easily hear Herschel’s features with the band — BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL and DOGGIN’ AROUND — but some of the small-group recordings are not as often heard.  A sample below.

Here he is with a Harry James small group (among others, Vernon Brown, Jess Stacy, Walter Page, Jo Jones) for ONE O’CLOCK JUMP:

Mildred Bailey with Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall, Jimmy Sherman, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones, IF YOU EVER SHOULD LEAVE:

from the same session, IT’S THE NATURAL THING TO DO:

And HEAVEN HELP THIS HEART OF MINE:

from a Harry James date, I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I? with a sweet vocal by Helen Humes:

Herschel has been overshadowed by Lester Young, and has been seen by many as the artistically conservative foil to Lester’s amazing inventions — but one hears in Herschel something lasting, a deep, leisurely, soulful romanticism.  In sixteen bars at a slow or medium tempo, he emerges as a leisurely explorer of sound and timbre, a man sending romantic love through his tenor saxophone. Listening to Herschel is rather like having a big woolly coat thrown around one’s shoulders on a cold night, his sound is so embracing and so warm.

So we might encapsulate Herschel as a young man who died far too soon and as a great Romantic.

But he was also remembered by his colleagues as a serious discerning person, someone with strong opinions and positions, fiercely defended positions.  The excerpts below come from the delightful book BUCK CLAYTON’S JAZZ WORLD (Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 111, 108):

Herschel Evans was one of the neatest dressers I had ever known and would always take some time to dress. Tex was so immaculate that he wouldn’t go out of his room until everything, and I mean everything, was just right.  He looked more like a very handsome schoolteacher or a lawyer than a jazz musician.  He was very popular with the ladies and didn’t either smoke or drink.  I should say that he was popular with most ladies, because I can’t say that Billie  Holiday was in the same category. From the very first time they laid eyes on each other there was a deep dislike for each other. Neither had done anything to the other, they just couldn’t stand each other and that was the only reason. Sometimes, when Herschel wouldn’t even be aware of Billie looking at him, she would say, “Look at that MF, I can’t stand him.  Look at him, standing back on his legs and sucking his teeth.  He thinks he’s cute.”  And Herschel would do the same thing when Billie wasn’t looking.  He’d say, “Look at that old bitch.  Who the hell does she think she is?” In other words they got along like a cat and a dog, natural enemies if there ever were any (111).

. . . shortly after Basie had arrived in New York and we didn’t know anybody, we were invited by John Hammond to attend a big jam session where Chick Webb was going to play.  Duke Ellington was going to be there with his band, Eddie Condon was going to be there with all his dixieland guys and a lot of other musicians who lived in New York.  Basie accepted the invitation and we all went to this big bash downtown somewhere in New York on the 16th floor.  I don’t remember the address nor the building but there were many, many people there to dig these three big bands and all the other cats.  It was there that I first saw Stanley Dance, who had just been in New York a short while from England; he hadn’t yet married Helen Oakley, who was then very prominent in jazz circles. We arrived at the building where the jam session was being held and went downstairs to listen to whoever was playing at the time and before we were to play.  I think Duke was playing.

After digging the Duke for a few minutes I noticed that I had forgotten my little bottle of trumpet-valve oil which I needed, so I went back to the dressing room to get it.  While I was looking for it in my trumpet case Herschel Evans came in and there were only the two of us in the room.  I don’t know why he came in but a few minutes later, after we had talked about the  guys jamming downstairs, he noticed Walter Page’s sousaphone mouthpiece laying on a table, where I guess Page had left it before he went downstairs.  “Well look here,” said Herschel when he saw Page’s piece, “I won’t be hearing that damned sousaphone anymore.” Herschel hated it when Page would play the sousaphone sometimes in our arrangements.  So he goes over to the table, picked up Page’s mouthpiece, went over to the window and threw it out.  Out the window from sixteen stories up.  Then he looked at me and said, “Don’t tell anybody.”

I said, “Hell, it’s none of my business.  Why should I say anything about it?” Then he went to where Freddie Green’s pork-pie hat was hanging along with Freddie’s coat.  He walked over to the window again and threw it out of the window too.  Then he went back downstairs to the big session.  When it was all over and we went upstairs to put our instruments away Page was fuming about not finding his mouthpiece and Freddie couldn’t find his pork-pie hat. Herschel hated pork-pie hats too.  So they both just had to come back to the hotel without the mouthpiece and the hat.  I don’t think they ever knew what happened.  I know I never told them. Herschel just went in and acted like he didn’t know from nothing (108).

Exhibit A:

sousaphone mouthpiece

and Exhibit B (although the more characteristic hat seems to have been black):

 

porkpie hat

Now, this narrative is not to be construed as JAZZ LIVES’ endorsement of such capricious behavior.  Theft of property is a serious offense.  However, there were no police reports of any innocent passers-by below suffering a concussion because of a sousaphone mouthpiece dropped from sixteen floors up (perhaps a calculation for a swing Galileo?) and perhaps someone with less exalted fashion standards than Herschel’s took the pork-pie hat as a stylish gift from Heaven.

Some may see Herschel’s behavior as deplorable, and I wonder what would have happened had he time-travelled to my apartment and opened my clothes closet: what would have remained on my return?  (I don’t have any pork-pie hats, but I surmise there is a goodly assortment that would offend his sensibilities.)

However, Freddie Green kept the Basie band afloat long after this mysterious incident, and if he felt a deep wound he never told anyone.  (There is a new biography of him coming out soon; I will immediately check to see “Evans, Herschel,” in the index.)

And think — if you can — of the Basie rhythm section anchored not by string bass but by sousaphone.  The mind reels.

I like people who not only state their principles but who put them into action.  So I miss Herschel Evans, singular musician and man of definite tastes.

May your happiness increase!

GOODBYE, RED BALABAN. FAREWELL, BOB GREENE

I’ve written very sparingly about the deaths of jazz musicians in JAZZ LIVES — for one reason, thinking that turning this blog into an ongoing necrological record was at odds with its title. But without saying that one musician is more important than another (Bobby Gordon, Frank Wess, Al Porcino, Jim Hall, Chico Hamilton, Sam Ulano, and a dozen others I am not mentioning here) I want to write and share a few words about two deaths of late 2013.

One was the bassist / guitarist / singer / impresario Leonard “Red” Balaban, the other, pianist Bob Greene.  Both of them were ardent workers in the jazz vineyards, and both (in their own subtle ways) did as much to advance the music as more-heralded musicians.

I had occasion to observe and interact with Red Balaban many times in 1972-5, again in 1975-the early Eighties, and once in 2013. In the summer of 1972, I learned from reading the listings in THE NEW YORKER that Sunday-afternoon jazz sessions were being held at Your Father’s Mustache (once Nick’s, now a Gourmet Garage — sic transit gloria mundi) on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street.  I and several friends made pilgrimages there.  The Mustache was a huge hall with sawdust on the floor, creaking long tables and wobbly chairs.  But for a nominal admission charge and the purchase of food and drink of dubious quality, we could sit as close to the bandstand as possible and (often) illicitly record the music.  The house band — Balaban and Cats — harking back to Red’s heritage in show business with the Chicago movie theatre chain created by Balaban and Katz — was usually a sextet, with Red playing string bass and singing, occasionally guitar or banjo, rarely tuba.  He called the tunes in consultation with the guest star, chose tempos, and led the session.  The Cats I remember were Marquis Foster, Buzzy Drootin, Dick Wellstood, Bobby Pratt, Chuck Folds, Red Richards, Sal Pace, Kenny Davern, Joe Muranyi, Dick Rath, Herb Gardner, Ed Polcer, Doc Cheatham, and I am sure there were others.  The guest stars, stopping in from Olympus or Valhalla, were Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, Buddy Tate, Jo Jones, Dicky Wells, Vic Dickenson, Benny Morton, Bob Wilber — enough stiumlation for a lifetime.  I was a college student with limited funds, so I didn’t see every session: missing Gene Krupa, Al Cohn, Lou McGarity, and others.  But I did see Eddie Condon in the audience, which would make the Sunday sessions memorable even if no music had been played.  And his daughter Liza was there now and again, photographing the musicians.

A few years later, I saw Red occasionally as a member of Mike Burgevin’s little band at Brew’s, playing alongside Vic Dickenson and other luminaries.  Eventually, Red and Ed Polcer created the “last” Eddie Condon’s, on 54th Street, and I went there when I could — the house band, as I recall it, included Ed, Vic, Herb Hall, Jimmy Andrews, John Bunch, Connie, Kay, Ronnie Cole, and another galaxy of visitors, including Helen Humes, Al Hall, Jimmy Rowles, Brooks Kerr, Marty Grosz, Bob Sparkman, Ruby Braff, Joe Bushkin, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones.  At Condon’s one could also see Billy Butterfield, Dan Barrett, Soprano Summit, Zoot and Al — a midtown oasis, now gone.

Finally, I got to meet Red once again, after a lapse of decades, at the October 2012 house party created by Joel Schiavone and Jeff Barnhart. I introduced myself as someone who had good reason to be grateful to him for those Sunday sessions, and we chatted a bit.

Thanks to CineDevine, we have two samples of Red, late in his career, gently entertaining the room, with assistance from Jim Fryer, Jeff Barnhart, and others.  In a Waller-Razaf mood:

and something pretty from Rodgers and Hart:

A musician I respect, someone around in those New York years, had this to say about Red: “Not only did he love the music, but thousands upon thousands of dollars went through his hands and into the hands of musicians.  What he did with Condon’s # 3 is part of New York City jazz history.  He was a kind man who came from a very interesting family.  He wasn’t Ray Brown or Bob Haggart, but he kept jazz alive.”

Without Red Balaban, I doubt that I — and many others — would have heard as much memorable music as we did in those New York years.  So we owe him a great deal.  And he will be missed.  Another view of Red can be found here.

Pianist Bob Greene also left us late in 2013.

Bob devoted his life to celebrating Jelly Roll Morton and his music. He wasn’t the only pianist who has done so, but his emulation was fervent. I saw him summon up the Master at Alice Tully Hall in 1974 with a lovely little band (Pee Wee Erwin, Ephie Resnick, Herb Hall, Alan Cary, Milt Hinton, Tommy Benford).  They couldn’t quite turn that austere space into a Storyville bordello or the Jungle Inn (it would have required an architectural reconstruction taking years) but the music floated and rocked.  Across the distance of the decades, I think of Bob as a brilliant actor, committed with all his heart and energy to one role and to the perfection of that role — not a bad life-goal.

Bob was respected by his peers.  Mike Lipskin said, “Bob was a fine performer of Jelly Roll Morton compositions, and devoted much of his life to keeping the memory of this giant early jazz pioneer alive. I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert many years ago.”  And a man we just lost, Bobby Gordon, told me, “I have fond memories of Bob for 40 years. He was always enthusiastic about music. I recorded with him 40 years ago and most recently for Jazzology. It was wonderful to record with him again, and a joy to be with such a remarkable talent. I will miss him……..a dear friend.”

Here’s a beautiful expansive piece by Hank O’Neal, a very lively evocation of Bob:

The first time I saw Bob Greene, he was playing a poor electric piano with a fairly loose ensemble, on the back of a flat bed truck. The band on the truck was trying, unsuccessfully, to recreate the feeling generated by old time bands on wagons in New Orleans. It is a long way from New Orleans to Manassas, Virginia, and 1967 was a half a century removed from those heady days in the Crescent City. I don’t remember the enterprise stirring up much support for the first Manassas Jazz Festival, but Bob was on board because his old friend, Edmund “Doc” Souchon was also there, and Doc had probably asked him to come along. I know it happened because I have a snapshot to prove it. In another snapshot from the same day he’s playing cornet.

You had to look pretty hard to find out anything about Bob. He’s not well-known today, rarely mentioned in any of the standard jazz reference books, and you have to dig pretty deep to come up with any information at all, but the bits and pieces are there if you look for them. And the story and the music he’s made along the way are both wonderful.

Bob’s first love was Benny Goodman, Jess Stacy and the swing guys who were all over the place when he was a teenager. He could still, when asked, do the best imitation of Stacy I’ve ever heard, but at some point he heard Jelly Roll Morton, and was hooked. Until his death in 2013, he remained one of the foremost exponent of Jelly’s music in the land. There are other guys who could play more notes, play King Porter Stomp louder or Fingerbuster faster, but when it came to really delivering the goods, with just the right mix of technique, exuberance and sentiment, nobody else even came close.

There are other guys who play Morton’s compositions well, in the style, often with more sheer technique, but, for the most part, this is just a portion, usually a small portion, of their repertory. The music of Jelly Roll Morton and some of his circa 1900 contemporaries, made up about 90 percent of Bob’s playbook, and the telephone doesn’t ring very often these days, or any other days for the past few decades, for someone to play a recital of Morton’s music. Which was just fine for Bob. He never had any intention of being a full time musician. The world was just full of too many other things to try.

Bob made his first recordings in 1950 with Conrad Janis (Circle) and in 1951 with Sidney DeParis (Blue Note) and recorded intermittently for the next sixty years, whenever it was convenient. His performance schedule was about the same. He played in and around New York City in the 1950s and Washington D.C. in the 1960s because he was writing some pretty fancy stuff for assorted notables to read on radio or in political speeches. Goodness knows what else he may have been up to. When he wrote a book about the OSS exploits of his cousin, Paul Blum, he had no difficulty gaining access to the highest levels of the intelligence community. But back to the music.

After Bob climbed down off the back of the truck during the ill-fated parade in Manassas, I discovered he could also play a real piano and when he played Morton it was special. As I’ve suggested, he made up in spirit and authenticity what he may lacked in a formidable technique. Not that he made mistakes, he didn’t, but to this particular pianist, passion was the point, not technique. He had all he needed to get his point across. Much in the same as Thelonoius Monk. Other people played Just A Gigolo better than Monk, but nobody played it with more quirky feeling.

The first time I really heard Bob was when I was asked to round up the gear to record a band to be led by the then legendary, now largely forgotten drummer, Zutty Singleton. The gear came from Squirrel Ashcraft, the recorder, microphones, even the take-up reels. It was February 12, 1967, I remember the date with great affection because it was the very first commercially released record I ever worked on. It was also my first encounter with Zutty, still a marvelous drummer, and the only person I ever heard in person who could almost simulate a melody on the drums.

Bob Greene was a strong presence among many exceptional players that day and the highlight of the recording, to me at least, was a duo, just Zutty and Bob, on Cake Walking Babies From Home. I don’t know if Jelly ever played the tune, but if he did, he would have played it like Bob played it that day, and maybe Zutty would have been around to make sure. This was Johnson McRee’s first record for his Fat Cat’s Jazz label, and except for a solo outing by Don Ewell, perhaps the best record he ever produced.

In the 1970s, I asked Bob to record for Chiaroscuro on many occasions, but he always declined. There was always a semi-legitimate excuse. He was the only person I asked to record in those years who didn’t jump at the chance, including Bob’s first idol, Jess Stacy. In the late 1970’s Bob assembled his World of Jelly Roll Morton band, made a fine record for RCA, played Carnegie Hall a few years and toured successfully with the group. But most of the time he was in between New Orleans, Paris, Tokyo and New York, rarely in any place for very long. He slowed down long enough to record all the Jelly Roll Morton tracks for Louis Malle’s fine film, Pretty Baby and he enthralled audiences with his Jelly Roll show at numerous Floating Jazz Festivals. I recorded one of these shows in the late 1980s. Maybe I’ll listen to it one day and see if it should be released.

In 1994 we produced an event for Cunard on Queen Elizabeth 2, a 12-day survey of the music of New Orleans, and Bob was on board, as both Jelly Roll Morton and as the pianist with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The New Yorker’s noted critic, Whitney Balliett, was also on board, in disguise as Baby Dodds, tastefully accompanying Bob on a snare and cymbal. Romantic that he was, Bob fell in love with the ship and was heartbroken when he learned that much of the furniture in the ship’s Theater Bar, where he held forth nightly with Whitney, was to be taken off QE2 when it reached New York, and given to the Salvation Army. He decided he had to have a table and four leather chairs and set about finding a way to work it out.

When we docked, I left via the crew gangway, and saw Bob at the other end of the pier in heated conversation with a man in a Salvation Army uniform. Longshoreman were hauling the furniture and putting it inside a truck. I later learned that Bob got his furniture. The deal was for a table and four leather chairs, in the best condition possible, delivered to his home on 92nd Street. In exchange, Bob promised to assemble a band, including Whitney, to play for a Salvation Army Christmas party. A decade or so later Bob moved out to the end of Long island and that old Theater Bar furniture moved with him, a few miles closer to Southampton. This is the kind of thing that appealed to Bob.

If Bob had worked at a career in music half as hard as he worked at getting that furniture, who knows what might have happened? But perhaps nothing would have happened, which is the case with most people who try to have a career in jazz, and he wouldn’t have had nearly as good a time as he had for the past 91 years. He was one of a handful of pianists I’d go out of my way to hear because he always made me happy. He had the same effect on others.

In November 2006 he toured Japan and a lot of other people went out of their way to hear him. After that he began working on a project to present a Jelly Roll Morton show at Jazz At Lincoln Center but it didn’t work out. A year or so after that he asked what I thought of getting him together with Joshua Bell for some duets. I thought it sound like a good idea, that Bell could do a lot worse. That didn’t work out either but an awful lot did and the music that resulted with simply wonderful.

Bob and friends:

MAMIE’S BLUES (2006):

I THOUGHT I HEARD BUDDY BOLDEN SAY (2010):

TIGER RAG (2011):

Thinking about these men, all I can say is this.

Not everyone is a Star, but everyone counts.  And fortunate are those who can follow their life’s calling and share their passions with us.

May your happiness increase!