Tag Archives: Henry Burr

“ALOHA.”

rich-conaty-portrait

RICH CONATY 1954-2016

In the history of jazz, people who do not play instruments do as much, in different ways, to sustain the art without getting equal credit. Think of Milt Gabler, George Avakian, Henry Sklow, Norman Granz, George Wein, Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, and other catalysts. Then there are broadcasters. “Broadcasting” meant something even before radio and television: spreading something widely, effectively: a newsboy shouting the headlines or a farmer distributing seed over a field. Jazz radio broadcasters — in previous decades Martin Block, Art Ford, Fred Robbins, Sid Torin; in our time Ed Beach, John S. Wilson, Phil Schaap, Dan Morgenstern, Alisa Clancy, Linda Yohn and many others – do more than play records. They become our friends, teachers, and benefactors. We look forward to their voices, personalities, and insights. Before there was streaming radio, we arranged our schedules around them; we tape-recorded their programs, which became sweet swinging libraries, introducing us to new artists or rare records.

Rich Conaty, who died of cancer on December 30, 2016, gave his energy and ultimately his life in the reverent and delighted service of the music he loved: the pop and jazz of the teens, Twenties, and Thirties, roughly 1911-1939. For forty-four years, he shared that music on a Sunday-night broadcast on Fordham University’s radio station, WFUV-FM (90.7). Rich’s THE BIG BROADCAST, named in homage to the 1932 film with Bing Crosby, Eddie Lang, the Boswell Sisters, Arthur Tracy, Cab Calloway, and others, was a consistent pleasure.

Rich was enchanted by this music when he was thirteen or fourteen, began broadcasting as a high school student on New York’s Hofstra College radio station. When he had to choose a college, he picked Fordham University because of its radio station, and beginning in January 1973, was on the air every Sunday night, live perhaps fifty weeks every year, taping shows in advance when he went away, perhaps to visit his mother in Florida.

Early on, Rich formed an alliance with Vince Giordano, leader of the Nighthawks, and these two did more to introduce this music to a wider, younger audience than perhaps anyone. Rich said that his program was “for the old and the old at heart,” for his humor was sharply wry (occasionally painfully self-deprecating) but he was most happy to learn that some seventeen-year old was now collecting Chick Bullock 78s or had fallen in love with Lee Wiley. He had other interests – vintage Nash automobiles, cats, and other kinds of vintage pop culture – but was devoted to the music and musicians above all.

Listening to Rich for decades, I was able to trace the subtle development of a scholarly intelligence.  Years ago, his library of recordings was small (as was mine) so he played the Mills Brothers’ TIGER RAG frequently.  As he became the person and the scholar he was meant to become, his awareness, knowledge, and collection deepened.

We’ve heard earnest but ignorant radio announcers – those who call the Ellington clarinetist “Barney Biggered,” or the King of Jazz “Paul White Man,” but Rich knew his music, his musicians, and his history. Every show, he created tributes to musicians, songwriters, and other figures whose birthday he would celebrate: not just Bix, Bing, Louis, Jolson, Annette; his enthusiasm for songwriters and figures, once renowned, now obscure, was astonishing. He had interviewed Bob Effros, Edward Eliscu, Ben Selvin, and Vet Boswell on the air; he was friends with Dolly Dawn, had gotten drunk with Cab Calloway. Connee Boswell sang HAPPY BIRTHDAY to him over the phone; Arthur Tracy performed at his wedding to Mary Hayes (“Manhattan Mary,” who also died too young of cancer).

Rich expanded our knowledge and our joy by playing an astonishing range of music from his own collection of vintage records. Every Sunday that I heard the program, I would say several times, “What is that? I never heard that record before!” and this was true in 2015 and 2016, where it seems as if everything is accessible on CD, download, or YouTube. He spent his life surrounded by 78s – those he had acquired at auction, those he was selling at record shows. Because the idea of THE BIG BROADCAST was not just famous, documented recordings, he would often play a record about which little was known. But he could offer an educated guess about the true band behind the Crown label pseudonym, whether the singer was Irving or Jack Kaufman, when the song had been premiered – much more than statistics gleaned from books. He took requests from his devoted audience, gave away tickets to jazz concerts, and with Bryan Wright, created a series of BIG BROADCAST CDs — I have more than a few — which are wonderful cross-sections of the period.

I should say that his taste was admirable.  He didn’t play every 78 he had found — no sermons, no organ recitals of light classics, no comedy records — but within the “pop and jazz” area I could trust him to play the good stuff, the music that would otherwise be forgotten.  He left IN THE MOOD to others, but he played Henry Burr, Bill Coleman, Jane Green, Johnny Marvin, Fred Rich, Ben Selvin, Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse, Emmett Miller, Eddie Lang, Jack Purvis, Luis Russell, The Sunshine Boys, Kate Smith, Ted Weems, early Ellington, Jean Goldkette, and on and on.

And part of the pleasure of his expertise and of radio in general (at its best, when the programmer is subtle and wise) is not just the delighted shock of one record, but of the juxtapositions Rich created in three-sides-in-a-row.  THE BIG BROADCAST was rather like being invited to an evening at Jeff Healey’s house, where you knew the music would be embracing, uplifting, and educational in the best way.  (I should also say that Rich did talk — digressing into his own brand of stand-up comedy, with little bits of slightly off-key a cappella singing — but music made up the bulk of the program.  He wouldn’t tell you the personnel of the thirteen-piece big band, by choice, I am sure, because it would mean he could play fewer recordings.)

On a personal note: I, like many others, made cassettes of the program and played them in the car.  I fell asleep to the program on hundreds of Sunday nights.  When I was young and diligent, I graded student essays to it. Although Rich and I had much of the same focused obsession with the music, we met in person only a few times (I think always at Sofia’s when the Nighthawks were playing) and THE BIG BROADCAST was his world — and by extension the health and welfare of WFUV.  So our conversations were brief, before the band started or in between sets.  But my debt to him is immeasurable, and it would not have increased had our conversations been lengthy.

rich-conaty-at-wfuv

I do not know what will happen to Rich’s recorded legacy – more than eight thousand hours of radio. Some shows have been archived and can be heard through wfuv.org, but whether the station will share others as a tribute is not yet decided. More information can be found on the Facebook page devoted to Fans of the WFUV Big Broadcast.

I think of Wild Bill Davison’s puzzled question about Frank Teschemacher, dead in an auto accident in Bill’s car, “Where are we going to get another sax player like Tesch?” Paraphrase the question to apply to Rich Conaty, and the answer is, “We never will.” But his generosity will live on.

Aloha.  And Mahalo.

May your happiness increase!

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THE CONDON-GABLER MUSICAL EFFECT, 1947

Musicians’ relations to their material — whether they choose it or someone else does — are complex.

For some, “the material is immaterial,” which means “I will have a good time playing or singing whatever song is placed in front of me, and I will make it my own.”  In this category, I think of Louis, Lips Page, Fats Waller, Mildred Bailey, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, and many others.  Other musicians like the comfort of the familiar: I think of Jack Teagarden, whose many versions of BASIN STREET BLUES are often full of small delightful surprises.  Yet the familiar can be a trap, encouraging some musicians to “phone it in” or “go through the motions.”

The Blessed Eddie Condon exists by himself in those categories.  Because so much of his musical life was  spent outside of the recording studio, on bandstands and in concert halls, there might appear to be a sameness in his discography, with multiple versions of IMPROMPTU ENSEMBLE — but that “song” was simply a beautiful structure within which his brilliant strolling players could express themselves to the utmost.  Eddie cared very deeply for and about good songs, material that hadn’t been done to death.  That is why (without looking at the discography) you will find few versions of INDIANA, SAINT JAMES INFIRMARY, and none of the SAINTS.  And when he was working with the Blessed Milton Gabler — either for Commodore or Decca or World Transcriptions — the two men shared a love of melodic material.  I don’t know who led the way, but I suspect that Eddie, who remembered songs, might have suggested to Milt a particular favorite of his childhood or the early Twenties: thus, DANCING FOOL; DON’T LEAVE ME, DADDY; IDA; OH, KATHARINA, and this lovely oddity:

TULIP TIME IN HOLLAND

How did this song come to be?  It’s not explicitly a war song — the premise is simply that a pretty Dutch girl is waiting for the singer, and implicitly in the premise is that the singer will be kissed seriously when he shows up.  Were the fellows in the Brill Building making jokes about “two lips” when someone said, “Hey, let’s write a Dutch song!”  Was the “beside me / Zuider Zee” rhyme irresistible?  But it has a forward-looking melody for 1915, thanks to Whiting (I can hear the Wolverines playing this, in my mind) and the lyrics are of their time but not ponderously so.

Here is a contemporary version — not the most famous one by Henry Burr, but a good recording, one I would happily play for a listener insistent that music began with electrical recording or even later:

When Eddie and Milt decided to record this song for Decca, thirty-two years later, it was not a spur-of-the-moment decision.  It wasn’t LADY BE  GOOD or RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE, and one hears an arrangement that (I think) was done by Bobby Hackett, and done prior to the date.  Who could go wrong with Jack Teagarden singing?

The personnel for this August 5, 1947 session is Bobby Hackett, cornet, probably arrangements; Max Kaminsky, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone, vocal; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Ernie Caceres, alto and baritone saxophone; Joe Bushkin, piano; Eddie Condon, guitar; Jack Lesberg, string bass; George Wettling, drums:

Although that is a very short recording, it is full of pleasures: Jack’s trombone lazily ornamenting the melody over the four-horn statement of the theme; Bushkin, immediately identifiable, modulating for Jack’s vocal, with a Wettling accent to encourage everyone; Jack’s gorgeous voice — slightly nasal, Bing meets Louis in Texas, perhaps, streamlined but deeply earnest (with a different horn background — scored obbligati for four horns with Bushkin brightly commenting — beneath him); a Hucko half-chorus, sounding sweetly as if Bud were in the studio; Jack taking the last sixteen bars, vocally, with a scored phrase to finish it all out.  The only thing “wrong” with that record is that it could have had one more chorus and still been a perfectly respectable 10″ 78.

What impresses me at this distance of nearly fifty years is how musical it all is. It doesn’t need to parade its “improvisatory” credentials: “We’re hot jazzmen and singers, you know.”  The Condon-Gabler world didn’t always want to read from scores, but the musicians were perfectly capable of doing so, and the scored passages are expertly played.  I also imagine someone tuning in the radio — AM, of course, in 1947 — hearing this new Decca waxing, a new platter, and thinking, “That’s a great record!”  Which it was and is.

Why am I suddenly delving in to such obscurities?  Well, no record that has Eddie Condon on it is unworthy; the same goes for the rest of the personnel, especially Mister Teagarden . . . and I have been listening to these overlooked Decca sessions — in glowing sound, with many unissued alternates — from the new Mosaic Eddie Condon / Bud Freeman set, which I reviewed here. Ecstatically.

CONDON MOSAIC

I know this Mosaic set might get overshadowed by the latest glorious gift, the Lester Young effusion, and the Condon / Freeman one is already OLD, having come out in mid-2015, but when it’s sold out, don’t ring my buzzer and ask me to burn you copies of discs seven and eight.  You’ve been warned.

May your happiness increase!