That’s a very important question, I think. Sincerity leads to shared joy; duplicity to heartbreak. Popular song of the great period revels in the second (think of Bing singing WERE YOU SINCERE?) but we know the delight of being told the loving truth.
Helen Ward, aglow.
We all have recordings that touch us, for a variety of reasons. I have too many “desert island discs” to consider the possibility to transporting them all, even metaphysically, somewhere else. But this post celebrates one of them. The song is the clever and touching DID YOU MEAN IT? from 1936. The title had been used nine years earlier and there is a contemporary version, but this song may be most familiar in a recording pairing Ella Fitzgerald with Benny Goodman, a joint venture that happened only once.
But with all respect to Ella and Benny, this is the version that touches me deeply: I have been playing it over and over.
On this venerable disc — part of a copy of a radio broadcast from March 1937 — Helen Ward’s voice comes through with the most earnest candor. You can believe that she believes what she is singing: no tricks, no gimmicks. She is sincere through and through, and she has the most wondrous band of musicians having the time of their lives around her.
The recording has a good deal of surface noice but one can ignore that easily. It’s what was called an “airshot,” in this case, a recording made of a live performance “off the air.” We don’t know the source and the date is not certain, but whoever had the disc prized it and played it often.
We can hear it now, eighty-five years later, through the brilliant diligence of the jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett, who has devoted decades to the reverent study of well-known figures Stuff Smith and Eddie South, less well-known ones Johnny Frigo, Ginger Smock, Harry Lookofsky, Dick Wetmore, Henry Crowder, Juice Wilson, and dozens of others. His CDs are models of presentation of the rarest (and most entertaining) material; his books are serious but never ponderous studies in which the people chronicled are instantly alive in evidence and good stories. Learn more here.
Now, to the music.
The band is Helen Ward, vocal; Teddy Wilson, piano; Stuff Smith, violin; Jonah Jones, trumpet; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; John Kirby, string bass; Cozy Cole, drums.
After a declamatory introduction by Jonah, three choruses: one by Helen (obbligati by Stuff and Teddy), one split between Teddy (thank you, Kirby) and Ben at his best pre-1940 rhapsodic, the last for Helen, even more earnest and tender, if such a thing could be imagined, with Jonah making derisive noises behind her as the room temperature rises and she — without changing very much at all — becomes trumpet-like in the best Connie Boswell manner. Please notice the way the band stops, to hold its breath, perhaps, at 2:42. Was this an arrangement based on Helen’s having performed it with the Goodman band, even though Ella made the Victor record?
The applause that closes this performance sounds artificial, but mine is genuine.
This was broadcast on the radio in March 1937. Listen and ponder: do we have it so much better? I wonder.
Thank you, Helen and colleagues. Thank you, Mort Dixon and Jesse Greer.
Thomas “Spats” Langham is unmatched at what he does — and he does so many things superbly that it’s always a pleasure to encounter him. His energies, his sharp wit, his swing, his lyricism, his delightful acting: there are no blank spaces to fill in. I first met him at Mike Durham’s Classic Jazz Party in 2009, and he was a joy every year. So it’s a great happy surprise to see these four video performances from the Classic Jazz Concert Club in Sassenheim, the Netherlands, on October 27, 2018.
Mister Langham can be heard and seen here on guitar, banjo, ukulele, and vocals. He is joined by the delightful singer Emily Campbell; guitarist Danny Blyth; string bassist / sousaphonist Malcolm Sked; reed star Robert Fowler; percussion superhero Nick Ward.
TAKE ANOTHER GUESS was a hit in 1936 for Ella Fitzgerald and Helen Ward; here there are delightful vocal interpolations from the Combination:
Spats takes us on a wild romp through the song associated with Ukulele Ike, IT ALL BELONGS TO ME:
Emily comes back for BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN (with the verse, of course) — which is its own bowl of Swing borscht before long, with hints of SING SING SING in the clarinet-drums exploration:
Continuing the Asiatic nature of things, Spats sings EVER SINCE I KISSED HER ON THE VOLGA . . . make of that title what you will. I haven’t found out anything about this novelty, except to wonder what patrons at the back of the theater thought they heard of the title:
What a wonderful band. How rich an unexpected gift.
Teddy Wilson was soft-spoken and reticent, so this is a rare interlude, a 1950 radio interview (from WNYC) by Ralph Berton, a good prelude to the recent banquet of Teddy’s recordings on Mosaic Records:
I’ve been waiting for this set every since I heard rumors of it, and it has not disappointed me in the slightest.
But I must start with a small odd anecdote. Like many, I have a mildly unhealthy attachment to Facebook, and when this set entered the emotionally-charged world of FB dialogue, one jazz fan said that he was waiting to read the reviews before purchasing it. It was as if he had said, “I hear about this writer Toni Morrison. I want to read some reviews before buying one of her books.” Substitute “Brahms” or “Modigliani” or “Connee Boswell” and you get the idea. Cue rueful laughter.
Readers of this blog know how fervently I support Mosaic Records (and I don’t get copies for free) so I offer correctives to misperceptions of Wilson and, by extension, the recordings in this box set.
Wilson gets less praise than he deserves, because of unavoidable events in his life and the lives of his contemporaries. One is the looming dramatic presence of Billie Holiday, without debate one of the finest artists in the music but also someone (like Charlie Parker) wrapped in a mythology that blots out those associated with her. The recordings in this set do not have Miss Holiday, so some listeners might perceive them as second-string. True, so far there has been no coffee-table book chronicling a week in the life of, say, Boots Castle. But the singers here are never inept, and some of them — Helen Ward and Nan Wynn, with brief appearances by Ella and Lena (!) — are memorable. Removing Lady Day from the equation makes it possible to actually savor the instrumental performances, and they are consistently remarkable.
His greatest public exposure was as a sideman with Benny Goodman, and the Trio and Quartet records are splendid. But being typecast as the hero’s friend in the movies is not the same as being the hero. I am sure that Wilson could claim a better salary from 1935 on, but it took some time for him to be understood for his own virtues. And there was always Fats Waller and Art Tatum — talk about looming presences.
Wilson’s consistency has, perversely, made him a quiet figure in jazz hagiography. From his introduction to Louis’ 1933 WORLD ON A STRING to his last recordings in 1985, he was recorded so often that there is a feeling of abundance and perhaps over-abundance. There is no single monumental recording — no WEST END BLUES, no BODY AND SOUL, no SHOE SHINE BOY — to bow down to. (Something of the same fate — almost a punishment for excellence — has befallen Benny Carter, for one.) Some have reduced Wilson to caricature: a medium-to-uptempo sliding right-hand piano arpeggio; true, that some of his late performances were beautifully-done but cast in bronze, with few surprises. I wish his detractors might spend an afternoon with a transcribed solo and see how easy it is to reproduce even four bars of it.
He was always himself — balancing elegance and passion — and the recordings in this set are so consistently rewarding that they tend to overwhelm the listener who sits down to ingest them in large gulps. Not for the first time in reviewing a Mosaic box, I have wanted to compel listeners to take the contents as they were offered in 1936: two sides at a time, no more than once a week. In this way, even an “average” side — say, SING, BABY, SING — emerges as marvelously multi-layered. I will point out that these sessions were intended to be “popular” and thus ephemeral: records to be listened to on jukeboxes at a nickel a side: current tunes, music to dance to. I suspect the musicians were paid scale and went home with the idea that they had made some extra money, not that they had made Great Art. They’ve been proven wrong, but in the nicest ways.
The music impresses and moves me on several levels. One is that it is operating at a high level of excellence, hugely professional and still charmingly individualistic. Everyone’s voice is heard: Buster Bailey, Mouse Randolph, Cozy Cole. There are no dull solos; the swing is wondrous, never mechanical. The ensemble playing is the easy mastery of people who play in sections night after night and thus know all there is about ensemble dynamics and blending — but who are also feeling the pleasure of loose improvising amidst respected colleagues. The three-minute concertos are dense with musical information but are easy to listen to, apparently simple until one tries to mimic any part. The soloists are a cross-section of worthies, a list of them too long to type. Check the Mosaic discography.
In addition, the singers — who range from merely excellent on up — are charming reminders of a time when “jazz” and “pop music” were comfortable with one another. Imagine a time when young and old could hear a new recording of a song from a new Bing Crosby movie (let’s say LAUGH AND CALL IT LOVE) and appreciate it, appreciate a Jonah Jones solo — all on the same aesthetic plane. The most creative improvising was accepted as wonderful dance music, an exalted period where highbrow and lowbrow met, where snobberies were not so deeply ingrained, and certainly the audience was not fragmented and sectarian.
The result is an amiable perfection: I never want to edit a passage on a Wilson record. Perhaps paradoxically, I also understand why Bird, Dizzy, and Monk — who admired Wilson and his colleagues deeply — felt the need to go in different directions. What more could one create within this form? How could one’s swing and improvisation of this type be more perfect?
Eight decades later, these records still sound so buoyant, so hopeful. The news from Europe was grim, and became more so. But in the face of apocalypse, these musicians swung, sang tenderly, and gave us reason to go on.
I first heard Wilson early in my jazz apprenticeship; he was one of the first musicians, after Louis, to catch my ear. Blessedly, I saw him in person several times in 1971-4, and I bought the records I could find — the French “Aimez-vous le jazz?” of his 1935-7 solos, the later Columbia two-lp sets of the small groups issued here and in Japan, Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society discs. When compact discs took over, I bought the Classics and Neatwork, the Masters of Jazz compilations. However, I can write what I have written before: this Mosaic box offers music that I’ve never heard before, in splendid sound.
I’ve written elsewhere on JAZZ LIVES of my strong feeling that Mosaic Records is a noble enterprise. Supporting their efforts is that rare double reward: a moral act that offers deep rewards. So I won’t belabor that point here. If you insist that everything should be for free online, that view that troubles me, especially if you expect a salary for the work you do. But I will leave that to others to argue.
I confess that I am writing this review early, rather than waiting until I’ve arrived at the last track of the seventh disc — I have been savoring the earliest sides over and over. And I have been appreciating Loren Schoenberg’s especially fine liner notes — over and above his unusually high standard! — for their subtleties and research. And the photographs. And the splendid transfers. I haven’t even gotten to the unissued sides at the end of the package: 2018 is still young.
For more information, go here— either to purchase this limited edition while it is still available. Or, so the people who say, “Well, how many unissued sides are there in this box? Is it a good value? I already have a lot of this material already,” can make up their own minds. Those unaware of the beauty of this music can be amazed.
And those who, like me, look at this music as a series of aesthetic embraces, can prepare themselves for seven compact discs of joy and surprise, music both polished and warm.
I’ve been collecting jazz records as long as I’ve been fascinated by the music. When I began, so much of the music I craved was not easily available, so I turned to other collectors for assistance, trading items back and forth with those who were generous. I have benefited so much from the kindness of collectors, some of whom who have moved on and others who are reading this post. And I cherish most those who are open-handed. I think of John L. Fell, Bill Coverdale, Bob Hilbert, Bill Gallagher among the departed: the living people know who they are and know how I value them.
One of the open-handed folks I celebrate is collector, discographer, and scholar Sonny McGown. An amiable erudite fellow, he doesn’t feel compelled to show off his knowledge or point out that his records are better than yours.
On this 2015 podcast, Sonny, in conversation with “spun counterguy,” tells of becoming a jazz-loving record collector here. It’s an entertaining interlude with good stories (among other subjects, DON’T BE THAT WAY and POP-CORN MAN) and musical excerpts.
Sonny is fully versed in 78s and 45s, and he understands the power technology has to make generosity easy, to share precious music. The word “broadcast” is apt here: one collector sending another a cassette, mp3, or burned CD is casting very small bits of bread on the waters.
About four months ago, he created his own YouTube channel, “Davey Tough” — and although it doesn’t yet have a large audience by YouTube standards, I am counting on this blogpost to remedy that. Sonny has been quietly offering rare music, well-annotated, one surprise after another. How about Goodman, Jack Teagarden, the aforementioned Dave Tough, Peanuts Hucko, Ray McKinley, Yank Lawson, Helen Ward, Dick Wellstood, Kenny Davern, Soprano Summit, Joe Marsala, Lou McGarity, Bobby Gordon, Charlie Byrd, Tommy Gwaltney, Clancy Hayes, Ralph Sutton, Wild Bill Davison, and other luminaries. And surprises! Some are from truly rare non-commercial records, others from even rarer tapes of live performances in clubs and at jazz parties.
I’ll start with the one performance that I already knew, because it is so much fun: clarinetists Ernie Caceres, Joe Marsala, Pee Wee Russell, playing the blues at a 1944 Eddie Condon concert — backed by Gene Schroeder, Bob Haggart, and Gene Krupa (with Bobby Hackett audible at the end):
Notice, please, unlike so much on YouTube, this is factually correct, in good sound, with an appropriate photograph.
Here’s a real rarity: Dave Tough as a most uplifting member of Joe Marsala’s very swinging mid-1941 band, more compact than the norm, certainly with Joe’s wife, Adele Girard on harp, and plausibly brother Marty on trumpet:
And another performance by the Marsala band with Adele and Dave prominent:
Backwards into the past, in this case 1933, not the familiar version of AIN’T ‘CHA GLAD, although we know the arrangement by heart:
and, finally, backwards into the more recent past, for Pee Wee Russell and Charlie Byrd at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., from December 1957:
These are but a few of Sonny’s treasures. I resist the temptation to rhapsodize both about the sound of Dick McDonough and about Pee Wee, free to explore without restrictions, but you will find even more delights. I encourage readers to dive in and to applaud these good works by spreading the word.
The late Leroy “Sam” Parkins used to say of very special music that it got him “right in the gizzard.” Since I am not a chicken, I have serious doubts that I have a gizzard or where it might be located, but I know when music “gets” me, because I want to hear and see it over and over.
Here are three wonderful performances by the singer Dawn Giblin, pianist James Dapogny, and cellist Mike Karoub — recorded splendidly by JAZZ LIVES’ Michigan bureau chief Laura Wyman of Wyman Video on May 7, 2017. I don’t have the requisite adjectives — all exuberant — to describe the sounds of the Dawn Giblin Trio at Cliff Bell’s . . . but this is a gorgeously intuitive and swinging chamber trio that gets to the heart of the music from the first note. Professor Dapogny and Maestro Karoub are masters of swing and feeling: warmth and swing invented on the spot, and Dawn both reassures and surprises with each phrase.
Experience these wonders for yourself. Your gizzard will thank you.
First, the Harry Ruby – Rube Bloom GIVE ME THE SIMPLE LIFE, a song that many people have taken to heart, and rightly so. But if one listens closely, the bare bones of the melody are one simple rhythmic phrase, moved around for 24 of the song’s 32 bars. . . . so it needs a very subtle singer to vary the emphasis on that phrase so the song doesn’t seem mechanical. I encourage you, on your second or third listening, to pay close admiring attention to how Dawn shades and varies her phrasing so that her delivery is both conversationally familiar and full of small delightful shocks. Hear the climbing way she approaches the final bridge! (More about the song’s provenance below.)
And here’s the cheerful song — but not too fast:
The shifting densities of Dawn’s voice — emphasis without overkill, hints of gospel, blues, and folk — are delicious.
Here’s a song that makes everyone who sings or plays it comfortable: I think of Ella Fitzgerald in her girlhood, Marty Grosz, Fats Waller, Helen Ward, Rebecca Kilgore, Taft Jordan with Willie Bryant and many others. . . . Sam Stept and Sidney Mitchell’s ALL MY LIFE:
A beautiful tempo and small homages to Teddy Wilson from Professor Dapogny and that most beautiful sound, Maestro Karoub’s singing cello.
Finally, the Romberg – Hammerstein classic LOVER, COME BACK TO ME — a performance that would make indoor plants shoot up in rhythmic joy.
and now the question of provenance, although it’s not something to cause nation-wide insomnia. Consider these two pieces of evidence:
While you’re musing over this, consider how we can have many CDs by the Dawn Giblin Trio in exactly this formulation. It’s a dream of mine. And gratitude a-plenty not only to the musicians, but to Laura Wyman for her very fine video work.
That’s Stuff Smith, one of the supreme beings of jazz violin, who deserves more attention than he received in life and does now. An audio sample from 1936 with Stuff playing and singing (with Jonah Jones, Jimmy Sherman, Mack Walker, Bobby Bennett, Cozy Cole):
This little remembrance of Stuff is because I found two rare paper items on eBay — which you shall see. But before I completed this post, I checked everything with Anthony Barnett, the reigning scholar of jazz violin, who’s issued wonderful CDs, books, and more about Stuff, Eddie South, Ginger Smock, and many other stars and hidden talents. More about Anthony’s ABFable projects below.
Here is a 1947 Associated Booking Corporation (that’s Joe Glaser’s firm) magazine advertisement for both Stuff and Eddie South — Eddie has Leonard Gaskin, string bass; Allen Tinney, piano:
Music instruction books linked to famous artists proliferated from the Twenties onwards, and here is one I had never seen before. I don’t know how deeply Stuff was involved with the compositions and arrangements, but this 1944 folio is a fascinating curio:
Characteristically and thriftily, a mix of public domain songs and a few originals:
The composition looks unadventurous, but this is only the first page. “Who is Lee Armentrout?” is the big question on JEOPARDY, and the answer is here:
How about some more music? “Can do,” we say — a lovely rendition of DEEP PURPLE, a duet between Stuff and Sun Ra, recorded on July 29, 1948 by drummer Tommy Hunter. Ra is playing a solovox which was a piano attachment.
Anthony tells me, “There is a lost recording by Ra and Coleman Hawkins from around the same period (but not the same session). Stuff and Hawk led a band for a couple of weeks around that time with Ra on piano.”
I’ve been writing ecstatically about Anthony’s ABFable discs for more than a decade now: they are absolute models of loving presentation of rare music. How about this: a CD of 1937 broadcasts of a big band, led by Stuff, its members drawn from the Chick Webb band plus other stars — with a young singer named Ella Fitzgerald? Stuff leading a septet drawn from the 1942 Fats Waller band while Fats was touring; a Ray Nance compilation that features acetate recordings of Nance, Ben Webster, Jimmie Blanton, Fred Guy, Sonny Greer — oh, and Ben plays clarinet as well as tenor; more from Ray Perry, Eddie South, and glorious violinists you’ve never heard of. Helen Ward, Rex Stewart, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Joe Bushkin, Jo Jones . . .
It’s self-indulgent to quote oneself, but perhaps this is forgivable: I don’t ordinarily endorse the productions of an entire CD label, but Anthony Barnett’s AB Fable series of reissues is something special: rare music, beautifully annotated and transferred, delightfully presented. Barnett’s notes are erudite but never dull. Each CD I’ve heard has been a joyous experience in preconception-shattering. I used to think of jazz violin improvisation beyond Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli as a mildly inconvenient experience. Grudgingly, I acknowledged that it was possible to play compelling jazz on the instrument, but I was politely waiting for Ray Nance to pick up his cornet. Barnett’s CDs have effected a small conversion experience for me—and even if you don’t have the same transformation take place, they are fun to listen to over and over again.
And — as a musing four-bar break: we are, in 2017, caught between the Montagues and the Capulets, the people who say, “Oh, CDs are dead!” and those who say, “I’ll never download a note.” These CDs are rare creations, and those ignorant of them might be unintentionally denying themselves joy. For more of the right stuff and Stuff — books, CDs, accurate information galore — visit here.
Most jazz aficionados, if asked what pianist / bandleader Teddy Wilson was doing in the recording studio in 1937, would reply that he was a member of the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet — recording for Victor — and creating brilliant small-group sessions with Billie Holiday for Brunswick. Some might check the discography and report that Teddy had also recorded, under John Hammond’s direction, with singers Helen Ward, Boots Castle, and Frances Hunt.
But few people know about one session, recorded on December 17, 1937, with an unusually rewarding personnel: Teddy; Hot Lips Page; Chu Berry; Pee Wee Russell; possibly Al Hall; Allan Reuss; Johnny Blowers. The singer is the little-known Sally Gooding. (All of this material has been released on Mosaic Records’ Chu Berry box set, and two sides appeared on a Columbia/Sony compilation devoted to Lips Page, JUMP FOR JOY, with nice notes by Dan Morgenstern. My source is the French Masters of Jazz label, two Wilson CDs in their wonderful yet out-of-print series.)
Teddy Wilson And His Orchestra : Hot Lips Page (trumpet); Pee Wee Russell (clarinet); Chu Berry (tenor sax); Teddy Wilson (piano); Allen Reuss (guitar); possibly Al Hall (string bass); Johnny Blowers (drums); Sally Gooding (vocal on the first three sides only)
New York, December 17, 1937
B22192-2 MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU
B22193-1 WITH A SMILE AND A SONG
B22193-2 WITH A SMILE AND A SONG
B22194-2 WHEN YOU’RE SMILING
B22195-2 I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME
All of the instrumentalists on this session are well-known. One can imagine Hammond selecting Chu from the Calloway band, Pee Wee and Blowers from Nick’s, Reuss from Goodman. Lips and Al Hall were presumably free-lancing, although Lips may have been on the way to his own big band.
Sally Gooding is now obscure, although she was famous for a few years, making records with the Three Peppers and appearing at the 1939 World’s Fair. Here, thanks towww.vocalgroupharmony.com, you can see and hear more of Sally. And this 1933 Vitaphone short allows us to see her with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band:
WITH A SMILE AND A SONG (by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey) comes from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which had not even been released in theatres when this session was made:
The singer whose voice you hear is Adriana Caselotti. Nearly sixty years later, our own Rebecca Kilgore recorded the finest version of this song for an Arbors Records session led by Dan Barrett:
The obvious question for some readers is “Where’s Billie?” Although Miss Holiday recorded several sessions with Wilson in 1937, I presume she was on the road with Count Basie — which also explains the absence of Lester, Buck, Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones. Hammond and Billie didn’t always get along, and he was trying out other singers when he could. Someone else has hypothesized that Billie would have been opposed to recording a song associated with SNOW WHITE, but this seems less plausible. When she and Wilson reunited in the recording studio in 1938, they did IMPRESSION, SMILING, and BELIEVE, which may add credence to the theory.
Here are “the rejected takes” — each one mislabeled on YouTube:
MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU (from another 1937 film, HAVING A WONDERFUL TIME, also known as HAVING WONDERFUL TIME, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Ginger Rogers — and Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Red Skelton, early on):
This version — for those who know Billie’s — is taken at a jaunty tempo, which makes the melodic contours seem to bounce.
All I can say is that both Chu and Lips Page leap in — not at high volume or extremely quickly — with swing and conviction. (I love Lips’ flourish at the end of the bridge.) Sally Gooding’s singing is not easy to love for those who know Billie’s version by heart, but she is — in a tart Jerry Kruger mode — doing well, with quiet distractions from Pee Wee and the bassist. Wilson is energized and surprising, as is Pee Wee, and there is a moment of uncertainty when one might imagine Chu and Lips wondering whether they should join in, as they do, yet the record ends with a solid ensemble and a tag.
The first take of WITH A SMILE AND A SONG:
I love Chu’s introduction, and Teddy sounds typically luminous as the horns — almost inaudibly — hum harmonies behind him. (When was the last time you heard a front line play so beautifully behind a piano solo?) Then, Pee Wee at his most identifiable, lyrically sticking close to the bridge but with two of his familiar turns of phrase leading into a Lips Page interlude — sweetly restrained, as if modeling himself after Buck Clayton. Sally Gooding, who may have seen the sheet music for the first time only a few minutes ago, sounds slightly off-pitch and seems to sing, “With a life and a song,” rather than the title. But she gains confidence as she continues, and her bridge is positively impassioned (although her reading of the song is less optimistic than the lyrics). No one should have to sing in front of a very on-form Pee Wee, whose obbligati are delightfully distracting. When the band comes back for the closing sixteen bars, they are in third gear, ready to make the most of the seconds allotted them, although it is far from a triumphant ride-out (think of the closing seconds of WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO, in contrast). The rhythm section is quite restrained, but the bassist, Al Hall or not, adds a great deal.
The second take of WITH A SMILE AND A SONG has, alas, eluded me on YouTube (thus I cannot post it here). It is similar in its outline to the first take, although everyone seems more comfortable with the song. I wonder if Gooding had had real trouble avoiding her singing “life” on the first take, so each time she sings — correctly — “smile” on this version, there is the slightest hesitation, as if she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t make the mistake again. You’ll have to imagine it.
WHEN YOU’RE SMILING:
The conception of how one could play this simple tune had changed since Louis’ majestic 1929 performance, and with four star soloists wanting to have some space within a 78 rpm record, the tempo is much quicker and the band much looser (hear Lips growl early on). The ambiance is of a well-behaved Commodore session or three minutes on Fifty-Second Street, the three horns tumbling good-naturedly over one another. In fact, the first chorus of this record — lasting forty-five seconds — would stand quite happily as the heated rideout chorus of another performance. Behind Wilson, the rhythm section is enthusiastically supporting him, Blowers’ brushes and Hall’s bass fervent. When Chu enters, rolling along, he has a simple riff from the other two horns as enthusiastic assent and congregational agreement; his full chorus balances a behind-the-beat relaxation characteristic of Thirties Louis as well as his characteristic bubbling phrases. Behind Pee Wee, the guitar is happily more prominent (did someone think of the lovely support Eddie Condon gave?) and Lips’ phrases at the end are — without overstatement — priceless.
I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME:
Like SMILING, this 1930 song was already a classic. Wilson is sublimely confident, chiming and ascending, followed by a tender, perhaps tentative Lips (had Hammond asked him to play softly to emulate Buck?): the eight bar interludes by Chu and Lips that follow are small masterpieces of ornamented melody. Wilson’s half-chorus has the rhythm section fully audible and propulsive beneath him. Pee Wee, who had been inaudible to this point, emerges as sage, storyteller, and character actor, transforming the expected contours of the bridge into his own song, with hints of the opening phrase of GOOFUS, then Wilson returns. (What a pity Milt Gabler didn’t record those two with bass and drums for Commodore.) Chu glides on, his rhythmic motion irresistible, then the guitarist (audibly and plausibly Reuss) takes a densely beautiful bridge before the too-short — twelve seconds? — rideout, where Blowers can be heard, guiding everyone home.
“Rejected” might mean a number of things when applied to these records. Did Sally Gooding’s vocal error at the start of SONG convince Hammond or someone at Brunswick (Bernie Hanighen?) that the session was not a success? Was Hammond so entranced by the combination of Billie and the Basie-ites that these records sounded drab by comparison? Were there technical problems? I can’t say, and the participants have been gone for decades. The single copies of these recordings are all that remain. I am thankful they exist. This band and this singer are musical blessings, music to be cherished, not discarded.
I’ve been admiring Molly Ryan’s singing — and her instrumental bandmates — for almost a decade now. Her latest CD, her third, LET’S FLY AWAY, is a beautifully elaborate production, consistently aloft.
Here are the details. The CD features a theme (hooray!) — the delights of travel, with some ingenious choices of repertoire: WANDERER / BEYOND THE BLUE HORIZON / FAR AWAY PLACES / LET’S FLY AWAY / FLYING DOWN TO RIO / A RAINY NIGHT IN RIO / SOUTH SEA ISLAND MAGIC / THE GYPSY IN MY SOUL / THE ROAD TO MOROCCO / UNDER PARIS SKIES / TRAV’LIN’ ALL ALONE / IT’S NICE TO GO TRAV’LIN’ / ANYWHERE I WANDER . . .
and alongside Molly (vocal and guitar) some of the finest jazz players on the planet: Bria Skonberg, Randy Reinhart, Dan Barrett, Dan Levinson, Adrien Chevalier, John Reynolds, Joel Forbes, Mike Weatherly, Mark Shane, Dick Hyman, Kevin Dorn, Scott Kettner, Raphael McGregor, with arrangements by the two Dans, Levinson and Barrett.
When I first heard Molly — we were all much younger — I was immediately charmed by her voice, which in its youthful warmth and tenderness summoned up the beautiful Helen Ward. But Molly, then and now, does more than imitate. She has a gorgeous sound but she also knows a good deal about unaffected swing, and in the years she’s been singing, her lyrical deftness has increased, and without dramatizing, she has become a fine singing actress, giving each song its proper emotional context. She can be a blazing trumpet (evidence below) or a wistful yearner, on the edge of tears, or someone tart and wry.
The band, as you’d expect, is full of great soloists — everyone gets a taste, as they deserve, and I won’t spoil the surprises. But what’s most notable is the care given to the arrangements. Many CDs sound as if the fellows and gals are on a live club date — “Whaddaya want to play next, Marty?” “I don’t know. How about X?” and those informal sessions often produce unbuttoned memorable sounds. But a production like LET’S FLY AWAY is a happy throwback to the glory days of long-playing records of the Fifties and Sixties, where a singer — Teddi King, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Carmen McRae — was taken very good care of by Neal Hefti or Frank DeVol or Ralph Burns, creating a musical tapestry of rich sensations.
Now, below on this very same page, you can visit the page where LET’S FLY AWAY is for sale, and hear samples. But Molly and friends have cooked up something far more hilariously gratifying — a short film with an oddly off-center plot, dancers, visual effects, hard to describe but a pleasure to experience:
Yes, it does make me think of Mildred Bailey’s WEEK-END OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY, but perhaps that association is my own personal problem.
And tomorrow — yes, tomorrow, Thursday, September 3, at 9:30 PM — Molly and friends are having a CD release show at Joe’s Pub, with Dan Levinson, Mike Davis, Vincent Gardner, Dalton Ridenhour, Brandi Disterheft, Kevin Dorn. You may purchase tickets (they’re quite inexpensive) here. Details about the show here, and Molly’s Facebook page.
Purchase a digital download of the CD (with two hidden tracks) OR the physical disc itself (with twenty pages of liner notes and wonderful art / photographs) OR hear sound samples here.
Airborne, delightful swing. Why not FLY AWAY? Let’s.
A very prescient autograph collector captured Benny, Gene, Helen, and Frank Froeba (at the “piana”) in mid-1935.
For a newspaper story, Miss Lee Wiley in 1933, billed as “Indian radio singer.”
The other side of the news story: “Just as I finally learned how to knit.”
An Israeli film poster!
From Facebook, thanks to Stephen Hester: someone made a pilgrimage! Cutty Cutshall, Freddie Ohms, Walter Page, Wild Bill Davison, Edmond Hall, and the Master himself. “Good luck” for sure. And “Best regards.”
The Beloved and I were in the presence of magic at the Allen Room (Jazz at Lincoln Center) last night when singer Catherine Russell welcomed us in.
I don’t mean that she just began her show by saying, “I’m glad you are all here,” as artists usually tell an audience.
But from the first phrase of her opening song, I’M SHOOTING HIGH, she turned the Allen Room into something warm, making us feel both as if we were in her own magically cozy space. Although she was stylishly dressed, in front of a ten-piece band, with the great New York street scene viewed from above, none of this distracted her from her great purpose: to lift us up through sweet swinging music.
She is such an expert performer that she made her art — clearly the result of great attention to detail — seem natural and intuitive, as if she and the band had just gotten together to have a good time.
Her delight in being with us was genuine. When a couple, arriving late, made their way to their seats down front, Catherine beamed at them and said the most encouraging thing, “Welcome, welcome!” — and we relaxed even more, knowing that she meant it.
What she was welcoming us to was a musical evening of the most gratifying kind. It was inspired by Louis Armstrong, for one, always a good start. Most of the songs she and the band offered were connected to Louis, but she remained herself: no growl, no handkerchief, no mugging. Rather she understood and demonstrated what Louis was all about — deep romance, great fun, rocking rhythm, daring improvisations. Love, whether eager celebration or brokenhearted lament — was her theme. And there was another man inspiring her performance: Louis’ friend, pianist, and musical director for many years: Luis Russell, who (by the way) happened to be Catherine’s father. Pops and Daddy, if you will.
She drew most of her material from the great period of the Louis / Luis collaboration — 1935-42, the songs now collected on the great Louis Mosaic box set, so we got to exult with her for I’M SHOOTING HIGH (“Got my eye / On a star / In the sky”), dream along with I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, swing out on I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, mourn to I COVER THE WATERFRONT, laugh out loud to PUBLIC MELODY NUMBER ONE. Catherine’s vision of Louis reached back to the Twenties for STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, SUGAR FOOT STRUT (now, finally, I know what the lyrics are talking about!), and a romping EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY.
And it expanded to include BACK O’TOWN BLUES and LUCILLE, songs with which she had a very personal connection. The first of those two — written by Louis and Luis — was the flip side of Louis’ 1956 hit, MACK THE KNIFE. For some, that fact would be only a jazz-fiend’s winning Trivial Pursuit answer. But for Catherine it was so much more. The royalties from BACK O’TOWN BLUES enabled her parents, Luis and Carline Ray (Catherine’s mother had been in the audience for the first show) to purchase their first new car — a two-tone blue 1956 Mercury. Even from row N, the Beloved and I could see how much that car had meant to the Russells from Catherine’s very warm retelling of the story. And the very touching LUCILLE had been written by Luis in 1961 for Louis to try — a loving tribute to Lucille Wilson Armstrong . . . and, not incidentally, a beautiful song, now fully realized by Catherine.
She also showed her great emotional range in a dark reading of NO MORE, a sultry evocation of ROMANCE IN THE DARK, a hilarious I’M CHECKIN’ OUT, GOOM-BYE (evoking Abbey Lincoln, Lil Green, and Ivie Anderson, respectively).
Catherine is also an astonishing singer, if you haven’t guessed by now. She has a perfectly placed voice, with power and depth but a kind of reedy intensity (she can sound like an alto saxophone but more often she reminded me of a whole reed section coming out of her long lithe frame). Her sound is sweet yet pungent. She has great dramatic intensity but she never seems as if she’s “acting.” From somewhere inside the song, she lights the way, matching her readings of lyrics and melody exactly to the emotions . . . making familiar songs feel roomy and new. And rhythm bubbles up through her — she was always in motion, rollicking around the stage, expertly dancing, embodying joy in person.
And the band was just as delightful: let me write their names here again to celebrate them: Matt Munisteri, Mark Shane, Lee Hudson, Mark McLean, Jon-Erik Kellso, Dave Brown, John Allred, Scott Robinson, Andy Farber, Dan Block. New York’s finest! Each one of them had something deliciously incisive to bring, from McLean’s saucepan-percussion reminding us of Zutty Singleton on SUGAR FOOT STRUT, Allred’s plunger-dialogue on GOOM-BYE, Scott Robinson’s soprano taragota on NEW CALL OF THE FREAKS (a whole surrealistic play in itself, with the horn section picking up their paper parts to read the unforgettable Dada poetry: “Stick out your can / here comes the garbage man. . . . “). Kellso, once again, became the Upper West Side Louis, and Matt swung us into bliss — to say nothing of the eloquent gents of the sax section, Mister Brown to You, the reliable Hudson keeping it all together, Mark Shane pointing the way — Jess Stacy to Catherine’s Helen Ward. The brilliant arrangements by Matt, Jon-Erik, and Andy gave us a rocking big band distilled to its essence.
The Beloved and I enjoyed every note. We would be there tonight if we could. If you can, stop reading this post right now and get a pair (or more) of tickets for the Saturday night shows — 7:30 or 9:30. Or if that’s not possible, do what I did and buy Catherine’s latest CD, STRICTLY ROMANCIN’ — it has some of the same songs and almost the same band.
I would have been eager to visit clarinetist Ron Odrich’s monthly session at San Martin on East 49th Street, New York City (it happens the first Tuesday of each month) for his swooping playing — and the lovely work of his colleagues James Chirillo (guitar); Gary Mazzaroppi (string bass); “Cenz” (drums). But last Tuesday’s session was even more special because it allowed me to hear one of the quiet masters of jazz in person.
I refer to trombonist George Masso: veteran of the late Forties Jimmy Dorsey band (a band whose trumpet section had Charlie Teagarden and Maynard Ferguson!) and then right-hand man to Bobby Hackett, Ken Peplowski, Barbara Lea, Spike Robinson, Harry Allen, Wild Bill Davison, the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, Warren Vache, Ed Polcer, Joe Wilder, Urbie Green, Helen Ward, Al Klink, Scott Hamilton, Ruby Braff, Tom Pletcher, Maxine Sullivan, Mike Renzi, Kenny Davern, Carl Fontana, Dave McKenna, Eddie Higgins, Randy Sandke, Charlie Ventura, Dan Barrett, Dick Hyman, Bob Wilber, Lou Columbo, Ralph Sutton, Jake Hanna, Woody Herman, and the King of Swing himself.
Obviously, if all those people had called upon Mr. Masso, he was special: this I already knew from the recordings: his accuracy and fine, broad tone — his remarkable combination of swing-time and ease with a broad harmonic palette and astonishing technique, always in the service of melody and logical improvisations.
Two additional facts you should know before you watch the videos that follow (featuring superb playing by everyone in the group). George Masso is one of the most gentle, humble people it will be my privilege to know — so happy that a fan (myself) would make a small pilgrimage to hear and capture him (his lady friend June is a dear person too, no surprise).
Mister Masso is eighty-five years old, obviously one of the marvels of the age. Cape Cod and Rhode Island must agree with him. And his playing certainly agreed with everyone there.
They began their set with TANGERINE:
I’M OLD-FASHIONED, taken at a walking tempo:
BLUE BOSSA, lilting and graceful:
A romping I FOUND A NEW BABY:
And — not dedicated to anyone in the room! — George’s ballad feature on OLD FOLKS:
P.S. I hope George comes back to New York City — with his trombone — soon! In April, Ron’s guest star will be baritone saxophone wizard Gary Smulyan.
One more photograph from Helen Ward’s collection, through the generosity of Sonny McGown, another souvenir of that 1953 Goodman-Armstrong concert tour. I don’t recognize the hall, but here Helen is in front of the “Goodman” Orchestra. She always sounded the same — friendly, warm, sweetly affectionate — from her first records to her SONGBOOK, perhaps forty years later.
The photograph below comes from Helen Ward’s collection, courtesy of my friend Sonny McGown. It’s amazing — an onstage jam session from one of the 1953 concerts that began with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. After Benny chose not to go on with the tour, Gene Krupa led his band — and obviously a good time was had by all. See who you can identify:
From the left, I see George Auld and three other saxophone players, Steve Jordan (guitar), Israel Crosby (bass), a Goodman trombonist and bespectacled Vernon Brown, Trummy Young behind Vernon, a short fellow in a light suit whose name escapes me, Cozy Cole behind him, Ziggy Elman, an unidentified trumpeter and Charlie Shavers in front of Arvell Shaw.
I think I hear an uptempo blues . . . but whatever it is, the sound I imagine is angelic. Wow!
P.S. Sonny pointed out to me that Willie Smith (on left) has his back to the camera, Al Stewart is the unidentified trumpeter . . . and the closing jam session was typically THE SAINTS. So now I know what I’m hearing.
Mildred Rinker was born one hundred and ten years ago today in Tekoa, Washington. Her mother, Josephine Lee Rinker, was an enrolled member of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe. Mildred’s early childhood was spent on the family’s tribal allotment near DeSmet, Idaho, where she spent many happy hours riding her pony, Buck.
The Rinker family moved to Spokane’s North Central neighborhood when Mildred was thirteen, and she graduated from St. Joseph’s School. Mildred and her younger brother Al spent many happy hours singing and playing piano under the instruction of their mother, an excellent pianist who could play both classical and ragtime music.
Mildred’s musical talent inspired both her brother Al and one of his band mates, a singing drummer named Bing Crosby, who once said, “I was lucky in knowing the great jazz and blues singer Mildred Bailey so early in life. I learned a lot from her. She made records which are still vocal classics, and she taught me much about singing and interpreting popular songs.”
Shortly after her mother’s death from tuberculosis in 1917, Mildred moved to Seattle and found work singing from sheet music at a local music store. Her career path led her throughout the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, eventually settling in Los Angeles, where she joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and became the first full-time female big band singer in America. Mildred Bailey’s groundbreaking achievement opened the door of opportunity for later jazz greats including Billie Holiday, Helen Ward, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Mildred Bailey’s earliest recordings were made in 1929, and she recorded nearly three hundred songs over the years, several of which became best-sellers. Mildred had her own radio show in the 1940s, and was voted either first or second most popular female jazz vocalist in the first three annual Esquire Magazine jazz polls. The most famous artists from the swing era recorded and performed with Mildred, including Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams, Coleman Hawkins, the Dorsey brothers, and Artie Shaw.
In 1944, Time magazine reviewed her show at the Café Society in New York and called her “just about the greatest songbird in the U.S.” Mildred and her husband, pioneer xylophone and vibes great Red Norvo were known as “Mr. and Mrs. Swing” during this phase of her career.
Mildred Bailey died on December 21, 1951 in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she lived on a farm with her beloved dachshunds, Spotty and Susan. In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of stamps honoring legendary jazz and blues singers, including “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey. One jazz historian said of Mildred, “She had a magic. So many people down the line, so many singers, benefited from her, owe debts to her – and they don’t even know it.”
Thank you, Mildred, for the trail you blazed and the beautiful songs you left behind. You demonstrated that a little girl from an Idaho Indian reservation can dream big dreams, and make those dreams come true. We’ll never forget you. Thanks for the memory!
(For those of you who haven’t heard of Julia Keefe, I promise that you will. She’s more than an articulate Mildred Bailey fan; more than a diligent researcher — who provided these pictures of a seventeen-year old Mildred about to leave Spokane for the big time (the pictures came from Mildred’s niece, Julia Rinker Miller, whose father was Al Rinker) . . . she’s also a 20-year old jazz singer with a future. She reveres Mildred and sings some of her songs, but Julia is wise enough to know that imitation is both impossible and no one’s idea of flattery. More from and about her in future!) And Julia went to the same Spokane high school, Gonzaga Prep, as that fellow Crosby . . . it’s a small world after all.
I have been listening to Mildred Bailey’s singing since the early Seventies, when I found the three-record Columbia set devoted to her recordings from 1929-47. And she never fails to move me — with her tenderness, her technique, her wit. But Mildred has very few champions these days. Even the late Whitney Balliett, whose taste and judgment were unparalleled, wrote that Mildred succeeded neither as a pop singer or a jazz one. And if you were to ask the most well-informed listener who the greatest women jazz singers are, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would head the list (if not two dozen others ranging from Diana Krall to Shirley Horn to Ella Logan to Marion Harris) . . . but Mildred is forgotten, or all but forgotten.
It can’t be because of her race. We finally have come to accept that White folks can swing, can’t we?
Some of her invisibility has to do with her elusiveness. Billie and Ella have established, defined “personalities,” which ironically might have little relationship to what they sang. “Billie Holiday” as an iconic figure equals self-destructive heroin addict, short-lived victim, a tortured figure, someone for whom MY MAN or DON’T EXPLAIN was painful autobiography. Subject of a bad melodramatic movie; a ghost-written “autobiography” and several biographies as well as documentary films. And the most accessible visual image of Billie is from the 1957 THE SOUND OF JAZZ — careworn, rueful, lovely. There is the engaging rasp of her voice in te Thirties, the moody cry and croak of her later recordings.
“Ella Fitzgerald” is sunny exuberance, scat-singing, someone making a jazzy version of the American songbook accessible to anyone in the Fifties who owned a record player. A cheerful endurance, whether alongside Chick Webb, Louis, Basie, or Ellington. Everyman and woman’s identifiable Jazz Singer, easy to understand.
Today marketers call this “branding,” boiling down the unique self into a few immediately recognizable qualities — as if people were products to be put in the shopping cart in a hurry.
Then there is the issue of size.
In Charles Peterson’s 1939 photographs of Billie that I have posted recently, we see a seriously chubby young woman. Ella was always a large woman, but no one said anything about it. Some astute listeners did not worry about a woman singer’s weight. Think of Wagnerian sopranos. Think of Kate Smith. Did anyone care that Connee Boswell could not get off the piano bench? And men are forgiven a great deal.
But in pop music, listeners tend to be much more fickle, visually oriented, even shallow. It is difficult to escape Mildred Bailey’s appearance. She was fat, and not “fat” in a jolly way — not the way that some Twenties blues singers could use to their advantage: Helen Humes or Edith Wilson singing about their weight as a sexual asset (Miss Wilson’s lyric: “Why should men approach with caution / For this extry-special portion?”). Aside from laughing at herself during the January 1944 Metropolitan Opera House jam session — while singing “Pick me up / On your knee” in SQUEEZE ME, she and the band are chuckling at the difficulty of such a task — Mildred did not joke about her size, nor did she make it part of “an act.”
Many listeners want their popular icons to be erotically desirable. Sex sells; sex appeals. Eventually, as they age, singers pass an invisible boundary and become Venerable. Think of all the cover pictures of singers, male and female, posed as if on magazine covers — Lee Wiley reclining on a couch on one of the Fifties RCA Victors; Julie London smoldering, her long red-blonde hair flowing. Misses Krall and Tierney Sutton, today. (I receive many new CDs by young women who consider themselves singers. They look like models. They credit a hair stylist, a wardrobe consultant, a make-up artist. I think, “Can you sing?”)
Consider Mildred’s contemporaries: pretty, svelte, apparently youthful forever: Peggy Lee, Edythe Wright, Helen Ward, even Doris Day. But Mildred’s photographs make her look matronly, and she is making no effort to woo the viewer.
Let us even give audiences of the Thirties and Forties the benefit of the doubt. If you did not live in a big American city, how many opportunities would you have to see Mildred Bailey and to judge her on the basis of her size rather than her art? Possibly you saw her on the cover of a piece of sheet music or stared at the label of one of her Vocalion 78s, heard her on the radio. No film footage exists of her.
There is the nature of Mildred’s art. Many artists have one approach, whether they are singing EMPTY BED BLUES of SILENT NIGHT. If she was singing DOWNHEARTED BLUES, she was lowdown and melancholy (while swinging); LITTLE HIGH CHAIRMAN and GIVE ME TIME brought out different kinds of tenderness. On CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU and ARTHUR MURRAY TAUGHT ME DANCING IN A HURRY, she was hilarious. IT’S SO PEACEFUL IN THE COUNTRY was calm and pastoral, THANKS FOR THE MEMORY rueful, knowing. And IN LOVE IN VAIN is, althought masterfully understated, a heartbreaking performance. Versatility is bad for branding; it confuses the consumer.
As a band singer — the first woman to be hired in that role — with Paul Whiteman and her husband Red Norvo, she recorded a good many songs that were forgettable: THREE LITTLE FISHIES, for one. Perhaps the girlish quality of Mildred’s upper register may have disconcerted some listeners, who would prefer their jazz singers to be plaintive and husky. But arguing over the definitions of a jazz singer and a pop singer seems a silly business. Do you like what you hear?
Although we can feel both fascinated and sympathetic while considering Billie’s difficult life, Ella’s poor childhood, Mildred would have had a hard time making diabetes and obesity intriguing to us.
I also suspect that those who ignore her Mildred do so not because her voice displeases them, but because she subliminally represents OLD. I don’t mean OLD in the sense of the past, but in the sense of elderly, of senior citizen. What bad luck made Mildred identify herself “The Rockin’ Chair Lady?” Of course, her performance of Hoagy Carmichael’s ROCKIN’ CHAIR was superb; she took it as her theme song. But — when we want our stars to be aerobically bouncy — for Mildred to portray herself as immobilized, unable to get out of her chair, was not a good way to market herself. (And artists were products even in the Thirties.)
Alas, poor Mildred. Were she to apply for a job and be turned down because of her appearance, she could sue, win, and collect a substantial settlement. But dead artists can’t sue an ignorant public for discrimination.
Listen to her sing.
COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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Although I keep muttering to myself, “I really don’t like jazz violin all that much,” I find myself entranced by the new CD that the jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett has just issued on his ABFable label. It features about an hour of live jazz from the Embers night club — with pianist Joe Bushkin, violin wizard Stuff Smith, under-praised bassist Whitey Mitchell, and the irreplaceable Jo Jones. In addition, there’s a fourteen-minute solo private tape of Stuff, solo, exploring some of his compositions, as “Sketches for a Symphony.”
Is it the rarity of the performances? I admit that might initially be captivating — but if you gave me the most unknown / rarest music by someone whose work I couldn’t tolerate, I would listen for sixty seconds and take it off. The music itself is splendid: Bushkin’s energetic playing (his characteristic arpeggios and ripples) never falters, and he seems to be having the time of his life, and his trumpet playing is much more convincing than I remember it as being. (He must have been practicing!) Stuff, although not featured throughout the hour, is in peak form, able to swing ferociously with the minimum of notes, possessed of true jazz passion. Whitey Mitchell plays so well that he had me fooled: I would have sworn that Bushkin’s regular bassist, the beloved Milt Hinton, was there under an alias. And then Jo Jones is in prime form, delighting in playing in this band. He and Bushkin had a special rapport — I saw it once, years later, when they came into the midtown Eddie Condon’s and sat in with Ruby Braff and Milt Hinton for an extended, riotous YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY that became MOTEN SWING perhaps ten or twelve minutes later.
But what captured me more than anything else was the intimacy of the two sessions presented here. I was not attending jazz clubs in 1964, being too young, but the taping of the Embers session is done from the bandstand microphone (as far as I can tell) so we get all the musicians’ asides, the teasing, the inside jokes. It has the feel of being part of the band — and part of a vanished scene, as when Bushkin ends the set by saying that they’ll be back at 2 AM, but they can be found at P.J. Clarke’s or The Strollers in the meantime. And the private tape that Stuff made (for himself, or as a demonstration of themes for a larger work?) is entrancing because it is quite clearly a composer playing for himself: you can hear him breathe. It’s a divine kind of eavesdropping on a Master.
Barnett’s CDs have always been wonderful productions: the music is presented as clearly as the original sources allow, there are many rare photographs, the annotations are through without being stodgy.
But wait! There’s more! Something to look forward to. . . .
This one is scheduled for 2010. Did you know that Stuff Smith had a radio gig (sponsored by an eye lotion, Lucidin) for which he assembled an all-star band, drawing on his own group and Chick Webb’s aggregation — including the youthful Ella Fitzgerald? (An early broadcast for Lucidin had him leading a small combo with Jonah Jones, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, with vocals by Helen Ward.) I’ve heard some of this music, and it is spectacular — the height of the Swing Era, I think. So look for this next year! For more information (and to order any of Barnett’s CDs and books), visit www.abar.net. Even if you think you don’t like jazz violin!
A gathering of individualists, playing the blues in two moods.
PeeWee Russell, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Wild Bill Davison, Eddie Condon, Morey Feld. The film, made for Canadian television, purports to capture what it was like after hours at Condon’s club (the midtown version) in December 1963. How close it is to reality is anyone’s guess. Did Helen Ward, looking so pretty here, drop by to sing when there was no camera crew in attendance, and was there usually someone sitting at a table, sketching?
But the music that initially feels tenuous, ready to fall off the edge into disunity, comes together surprisingly. The sounds are genuine, and so are the smiles on everyone’s face at the close. “All the Olympians,” to quote Yeats.
Thanks to Bob Erwig for posting this on Dailymotion, and to David Weiner for reminding me about it.
My esteemed correspondent Mr. Jones (“Stompy” to his poker friends) writes,
You mentioned Eddie Condon’s Floor Show. We got a TV early, in the fall of ‘49. There were lots of little musical programs in those early, primitive days of live TV: Morton Downey, the Kirby Stone Quartet, a black pianist-singer named Bob Howard, others. I think they were all 15 minutes. They were filler; the stations didn’t have enough programming to fill their schedules. (Hey, we thought it was exciting to watch a test pattern!)
I watched Eddie Condon’s Floor Show (on channel 7) before I knew anything about jazz. I remember immediately noticing this trumpeter who played out of the side of his mouth. They had a regular segment in which someone from the studio audience (probably 15 people dragged in off the street) requested songs for the band to play. Once somebody requested “Rag Mop”. In those days, when a novelty like “RM” hit, it hit huge. For a few weeks it would be everywhere, I mean everywhere – then it would disappear without a trace. (The same thing happened with “One Meatball” and “Open the Door, Richard”.) Well, it was the fall of ‘49 and the Ames Brothers’ record of “RM” had just hit – only it hadn’t hit Condon and his cohorts, so when somebody requested it, the Condonites were incredulous and dismissive. I remember them laughing derisively saying “There ain’t no such song” or some such. Too bad they didn’t know it was just a blues. Wild Bill would have played the hell out of it.
You can see our Stromberg-Carlson with 12-1/2” screen in the attached photo, taken during my Bar Mitzvah party in Jan. ‘52. Amazing that such larger-than-life memories (Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, the Army-McCarthy hearings, Edward R. Murrow, Sugar Ray Robinson, Toscanini conducting with fire in his eyes, countless Dodger games, Jackie Gleason breaking his leg on live TV, my first encounter with Wild Bill Davison) could have come out of such a little box!
That one of my readers saw the Eddie Condon Floor Show on television is wonderful and startling. For those of you who aren’t as obsessed as I am with this particular bit of jazz history, I will say briefly that Condon, who was organizing jazz events before most of us were born, had angled a few brief television programs in 1942 — when the medium’s reach was unimaginably small. Then, in 1948, he began a series of programs that offered live hot jazz with everyone: Louis, Lips Page, Billy Butterfield, Roy Eldridge, Muggsy Spanier, Jonah Jones, Jimmy McPartland, Cootie Williams, Wild Bill Davison, Dick Cary, Jack Teagarden, Cutty Cutshall, Benny Morton, Brad Gowans, Big Chief Russell Moore, Peanuts Hucko, Ernie Caceres, Sidney Bechet, Pee Wee Russell, Willie the Lion Smith, James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, Gene Schroeder, Sammy Price, Ralph Sutton, Cliff Jackson, Joe Bushkin, Teddy Hale, Avon Long, Jack Lesberg, Zutty Singleton, Sid Catlett, George Wettling, Kansas Fields,Buzzy Drootin, J. C. Heard, Buddy Rich, Lee Wiley, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah vaughan, Thelma Carpenter, June Christy, Johnny Desmond, Helen Ward, and on and on . . .
In case some of the names surprise you, Condon’s appreciation of good music was deep and never restrictive. Ironically, his name is now associated with a blend of “Dixieland” and familiar routines on Twenties and Thirties pop songs.
Some music from the Floor Shows was preserved and eventually issued on the Italian Queen-Disc label. To my knowledge, nothing from these recordings (and the collectors’ tapes) has made it to CD.
In addition, no one has found any kinescopes (they were films of television programs, often recorded directly from the monitor or set) of the programs. We continue to hope. Perhaps one of my readers has a pile of 16mm reels in the basement. Let me know before you begin the obligatory spring cleaning! My father was a motion picture projectionist, so such things are in my blood.
During the Swing Era, it seemed that swinging women singers (the trade magazines called them “chirps”) were everywhere: Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Maxine Sullivan, Helen Ward, Peggy Lee, Anita O’Day, Connee Boswell, Ivie Anderson, Helen Humes, Teddy Grace, and two dozen others. Now, many years later, the ranks have thinned to a very precious few. Many of the more famous “jazz singers” veer unattractively into melodrama of one kind or another. I won’t sully this blog by listing their names, but they have little relation to the art as we know it.
What might jazz singing consist of — leaving aside the more colorful extremes exemplified by genuises such as Leo Watson and Betty Carter? How about a neat yet undefinable mix of these qualities: feeling (strong yet controlled), understanding of the lyrics and their emotional potential, innately swinging time, a sense of humor, clear delivery, an ability to improvise on the same level as the best instrumentalists . . .
Molly Ryan, whose new CD I am celebrating here, SONGBIRD IN THE MOONLIGHT, knows the jazz tradition but isn’t trapped inside it. She has a lovely pure voice, with an especially crystalline upper register, but she isn’t imprisoned by that either.
When I first heard Molly sing a few years ago, I thought she had good qualities in abundance: she swung, she was enthusiastic without overacting, she had fine time and clear diction, and she sang as if she knew what the words meant. Her second choruses didn’t simply repeat her first, and she sounded greatly like Helen Ward. Now, I’m not always in favor of what Barbara Lea called “Sounding Like” as an artistic goal, but Helen Ward was someone special, her vocal beauties not always recognized. She was passionately earnest without being histrionic, and she had a sweet little cry in her voice — hard to explain but instantly recognizable.
Molly’s CD shows that she has completely understood the lessons Ward taught on every record date. Even better, Molly sounds very much like herself. And what, you might ask, does that sound like? The flip answer would be, “Buy the CD and find out for yourself,” but my readers deserve better. Molly’s voice is sweet without being sticky, with a certain winsomeness. She isn’t venturing into the dark land of High Tragedy on this CD, except for her evocation of “All the Sad Young Men”. She swings easily and conveys feeling with great style. A gentle tenderness imbues every track. I particularly appreciated her warm approach to “I Was Lucky” and “Around the World,” although she drives “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” in fine style.
The Twenties tradition was that there usually was a gap between the soloist and the accompaniment, or the singer and the band — Bessie Smith sang majestically but her colleagues were sometimes leaden. Or we waited for Putney Dandridge to finish so that Chu Berry could play. Here, Molly exists easily and comfortably on the same high level as the fine jazz players around her: Dan Levinson on clarinet and tenor; Mark Shane on piano; Kevin Dorn on drums; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet, on three of the eighteen tracks.
In Levinson’s graceful clarinet playing I hear a good deal of Mr. Goodman, but he isn’t merely copying the King’s pet phrases. He is mobile without being ornate, always to the point. His tenor playing, smooth and persuasive, reminds me of Eddie Miller (someone whose name you don’t hear often, which is a pity). And his homespun singing in “By Myself” is quietly charming. Kevin Dorn knows all there is to know about irresistibly swinging brushwork that urges the band forward without drmanding the spotlight. I’d like everyone to pay much closer attention to Mark Shane — his solos dance and glitter; his accompaniment lifts and enlivens. Shane’s four-bar introductions are wonderful compositions in themselves. And Jon-Erik is in splendid empathic form on “It’s Wonderful,” “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie,” and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.”
This is a wonderfully-realized CD, with beautifully intimate recorded sound courtesy of Peter Karl, a rewardingly diversified repertoire, insightful and gracious liner notes . . . . I couldn’t ask for anything more except for a sequel in the immediate future. For more information about Molly, visit her website at www.mollyryan.com. To purchase this CD, email email@example.com., or visit www.loupgarous.com. Of course, both Molly and Dan will have copies at their gigs, which will afford you the double pleasure of hearing them live and taking home a jazz souvenir.