Before darkness fell, there was light. And although the stage lighting was sometimes an unusual deep red, one of the places where it shone brightly was the basement of 15 Barrow Street in New York City, Cafe Bohemia.
Here’s a glowing example: radiance created with unaffected skill by Tal Ronen, string bass; Matt Munisteri, guitar; John Allred, trombone; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet. Heroes of mine.
But first . . . their choice of material is not the usual, but A SHANTY IN OLD SHANTY TOWN — one of those popular songs given new life by improvisers. On YouTube, you can find Ted Lewis’ 1932 let-no-heartstring-be-untugged version, the 1940 Johnny Long hit (where the band sings vaguely-hip glee club lyrics) and there’s also a Soundie. But many deep listeners will know it from recordings by Edmond Hall and Coleman Hawkins, then Red Allen and George Lewis and on and on. The harmonies are not the usual, with many traps for the unwary.
The lyrics, not heard here, are a Depression-era fiction (1932) where the speaker rhapsodizes about his decrepit home in the poorest section of town, but inside there’s a “queen / with a silvery crown,” whom I take to be Ma. Another version of “We’re incredibly poor but we’re happy,” which I suspect kept Americans from rioting. Cultural historians are invited to do their best.
I thought “shanty” came from Gaelic, but it’s French Canadian. The shanty on the cover of the sheet music is really rather attractive, with electric wires visible. Even though there’s erosion, it would be listed high on Zillow.
Here’s the luminous performance by these four, shining their particular light:
I am very sentimental about performances like these: without fuss or fanfare, musicians taking little stages in New York City to illuminate the darkness and uplift us. We didn’t know (or at least I didn’t) that it was all going to stop in March. But I see glimmerings and rumblings of new life. For one thing, directly related to the joys above, Jon-Erik Kellso and the EarRegulars will be playing outside the Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, New York City) on Sunday, May 2, 2021, from 1 to 3:30. I expect that our friend Phillip (“the Bucket”) will also be in attendance.
To keep your spirits high, here is a recording that I think few know — a soaring, Louis-inspired version of SHANTY, from 1938, by Willie Lewis and his Entertainers, recorded in Holland, featuring Herman Chittison, piano; Frank “Big Boy” Goudie, clarinet; Bill Coleman, vocal and trumpet — giving that tumble-down shack wings:
Those New York days and nights will come again and are starting to happen . . . .
The JAZZ LIVES quarantine-collection of venerable lively recordings, ever-expanding.
Every Monday night, Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera has been gathering the Hot Club of New Yorkfor a Zoom session from 7-10 PM, playing wonderful 78 rpm jazz records with great flair and great sound. You can become a member here. And there’s more information here.
Last Monday night, one of the sides was Clarence Williams’ MISTER, WILL YOU SERENADE? — whose composer credits read Clarence Williams, (Banjo) Ikey Robinson, and Alex Hill. My money is on Mister Hill. Matthew, who knows things, has suggested wisely that Mister Robinson would have been responsible for the jivey lyrics. I wish I could trace the story I once read that Clarence, late in life, told someone that none of the compositions under his name had been his. Amazing if so.
But this post is about MISTER, WILL YOU SERENADE? — a song of great melodic simplicity, with two-note phrases that have burned themselves into my brain, and lyrics that are unforgettable because they are so much a part of their time that they have a majestic silliness. And we could all use a Serenade. Please join me in Incid. Singing.
Here’s the first version, with Eva Taylor singing first (her voice is catnip) and Cecil Scott, clarinet; Herman Chittison AND Willie “The Lion” Smith, piano; Ikey Robinson, banjo, tenor-guitar; Clarence Williams, jug; Willie Williams, washboard; Clarence Todd, vocal. New York, August 7, 1933:
That recording has so many delights: the almost staid way it begins with Eva’s demure yet emotive delivery, and the underrated Cecil Scott, Chittison’s very “modern” piano — remember, this is 1933 . . . then the short pause while the band has to get it together for the key change into Clarence Todd’s much more exuberant Calloway-inflected vocal AND the rollicking duo-piano background. It may be a Silly Symphony, but it is a symphony nonetheless.
Here’s the second Williams version, brighter, with the leader’s potato-ey vocal: Ed Allen, cornet; Cecil Scott, clarinet; James P. Johnson, piano; Roy Smeck, guitar, steel guitar; Cyrus St. Clair, tuba; Floyd Casey, washboard. New York, January 17, 1934:
Notable for me is the emphasis on steady rocking ensemble playing — and the sound of Clarence’s closing inquiry: he means it.
But wait! there’s more! — a frolicsome big band version from the little-known Tiny Bradshaw band: Lincoln Mills, Shad Collins, Max Maddox, trumpet; George Matthews, Eugene Green, trombone; Russell Procope, Bobby Holmes, alto saxophone; Edgar Courance, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Clarence Johnson, piano; Bob Lessey, guitar; Ernest Williamson, string bass; Harold Bolden, drums; Tiny Bradshaw, vocal. New York, September 19. 1934:
The Williams recording looks backwards to chugging leisurely ways (it feels rural in its approach) where the Bradshaw band is aerodynamic, speeding down the Swing highway — beautiful solos (Maddox, Procope, Courance, Matthews?) and an uncredited effective arrangement. That band’s eight Decca sides (autumn ’34) deserve more attention.
Here’s a more recent version, at a lovely tempo, with the verse, the group led by Ted des Plantes with some of my friends : Leon Oakley, cornet; Larry Wright, clarinet, saxophones, ocarina; John Otto, clarinet, alto saxophone; Ted des Plantes, piano; John Gill, banjo; Ray Cadd, tuba, jug; Hal Smith, washboard. Berkeley, California, August 15-17, 1997:
The most contemporary version — reminiscent of a Teddy Wilson session! — by Hal Smith’s Rhythmakers: Marc Caparone, cornet; Alan Adams, trombone; Bobby Gordon, clarinet; John Otto, alto saxophone, clarinet; Chris Dawson, piano; Rebecca Kilgore, vocal, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. San Diego, California, November 29 & 30, 1999.
See if you can go through the next few days without humming a phrase from this song. I dare you.
I love the arc of this chronology — even though I couldn’t produce versions by Mike Durham and Bent Persson — that starts with a rare record from 1933 and ends up with performances by some of my most respected friends.
Life — however you define it — got you down? Has your trusty shield suddenly become Saran Wrap? Has existential dread got you by the windpipe? Are you walking in the shade? Who filled your suitcase with bricks?
Come with us to the Optimistic Cafe.
“Hi! welcome to the Optimistic Cafe, where we brighten your day as we fill your plate. My name is Cleo, and I’ll be your server for tonight. Can I start you off with a burst of possibilities?”
“Hi, Cleo! The lady would like the Waller Platter — dressing on the side, and no arugula in the salad. Is that something the kitchen can do?”
“And for you, sir?”
“I’ll take the Strong Bowl. Rare, please, with extra sunshine, and Chittison dressing.”
“Certainly, sir. I’ll put those orders right in. And everything will be OK.”
Pianist Philippe Souplet makes lovable music. Here is what I wrote about the young man — born in 1967! — in 2010, complete with videos, and thisis my review, that same year, of his first CD, PIANO STORIES. Although he and I have never met in person, as they say in the boroughs, “We go WAY back.”
It took about eight bars of Philippe’s new solo piano CD, KALEIDOSTRIDE, to charm me. In fact, it had that rare and delightful apparent contradiction of effects: I felt both excited and relaxed. I prescribe it for all disorders, emotional, nervous, or physical — and especially for those proud readers who say, “Disorders? Not me!”
Now you can stop reading and begin listening: here are extracts from the CD, to soothe the agitated, to elate the low, to educate the wise, to bring joy:
The excerpts are not identified visually, but if you visit the description beneath this video on YouTube, you will find all the necessary details.
What I find particularly delightful is Philippe’s deep understanding of what this kind of orchestral piano is and isn’t. Yes, it is inherently athletic (try moving your left hand at a Waller tempo for four minutes, never mind about the keyboard or where it might land) but it need not be forceful or loud. As flashy as virtuosic stride playing might be, its heart is not speed or density. What Philippe understands and demonstrates is the winning combination of lightness, subtlety, and lyricism: sweet melodies superimposed over a magic carpet, never faltering, of intriguing harmonies and irrepressible rhythms. Yes, he knows his Waller, his Tatum, his James P. — but he’s also listened hard to Wilson and more “modern” players: I hear Hank Jones as well as Donald Lambert, and that’s high praise.
Of the fourteen performances on this disc, three are “standards”: Strayhorn’s LOTUS BLOSSOM, James P. Johnson’s YOU CAN’T LOSE A BROKEN HEART, and Ellington’s COTTON TAIL. The remainder — with humorous titles — are Philippe’s own, and rather than being improvisations on familiar chord structures, they are charming evocations of the sound and style of pianists he admires. Not imitations, mind you — one Waller cliche after another, for instance — but evocations. I heard some of this music for the first time without access to the notes, and I could say, “Wow, that Tatum-idea is beautifully executed,” or “That young man has been listening hard to Oscar Peterson.” The pianists evoked are monumental: Waller, the Lion, James P., Tatum, Ellington, but also Francois Rilhac, Herman Chittison, and Aaron Bridgers. It’s a delightful recital, and beautifully recorded as well.
The CD is Philippe’s own project and you can order it by contacting him at email@example.com. Each disc is 18 Euros plus shipping, which 3 Euros in France, 5 in EEC, 7 outside EEC — priority mail). PayPal is “the easiest way.”
I hope many people are as impressed by M. Souplet: he deserves your attention.
Timme Rosenkrantz was born a Danish Baron, but he preferred to identify himself as “a little layman with an ear for music and a heart that beats for jazz.” Duke Ellington, no stranger to the nobility, called him “a very unselfish man who dedicated himself to the great musicians he loved and the music they played.”
A jazz fan on a lifelong pilgrimage, Timme arrived in New York City in 1934 and made dear friends of many musicians, writers, and critics. His cheerfully light-hearted chronicle of those journeys has been published (translated and edited by Fradley Garner) as HARLEM JAZZ ADVENTURES: A EUROPEAN BARON’S MEMOIR, 1934-1969 (Scarecrow Press).
One of the most tantalizing sections of that book — full of lively anecdotes — is its discography of private recordings that Timme made between 1944 and 1946: a trove, including pianists Erroll Garner, Herman Chittison, Jimmy Jones, Billy Taylor, Ellington, a young Monk, Eddie Heywood, Willie “the Lion” Smith, hornmen Bill Coleman, Gene Sedric, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Charlie Shavers, Barney Bigard, Bobby Pratt, Jack Butler, Benny Harris, Vic Dickenson, bassists Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, violinists Stuff Smith and Ray Perry, guitarists Bernard Addison and Zeb Julian, drummers George Wettling and Cliff Leeman . . .
A few of these recordings have been issued commercially (the best example being the Smith and Perry sides on Anthony Barnett’s ABFable label) and others less properly or in edited form. I first heard some of the music Timme recorded through the collectors’ grapevine, on cassette, in the Eighties, and it still sounds magical, with musicians stretching out, free from the tension of the recording studio or the imposition of the producer’s “taste.”
You can hear more — although there’s only one private recording — of the music Timme cherished from sessions he produced at THE JAZZ BARON, a site devoted to him, his musical adventures, and the book.
But we are going to be able to peek behind the curtain that has kept those privately recorded sessions private . . . soon, because Storyville Records is issuing what I hope will be the first in a series, TIMME’S TREASURES.
I haven’t heard a copy yet, but I am eagerly looking forward to it. How about ten minutes of solo Monk from 1944 — a six-minute THESE FOOLISH THINGS and a four-minute ‘ROUND MIDNIGHT? Or a quartet of Don Byas, Monk, Al Hall, and an unidentified drummer playing something called LET’S GO for another six? Broadcast material featuring Stuff Smith, Frank Froeba, Byas, and Sidney Catlett? More from Lucky Thompson, and a trio session for Jimmy Jones, bassists John Levy and Slam Stewart?
The liner notes are by Timme’s friends Dan Morgenstern and Fradley Garner. And the Storyville Records site will soon have more information about this exciting release.
Here’s a wonderful example — imperishable — of Timme’s taste: a duet for tenor saxophone (Don Byas) and string bass (Slam Stewart) recorded in concert in 1945:
I call eBay one-stop jazz shopping. Type in “jazz,” click on “Entertainment Memorabilia,” and watch the hours — and sometimes the dollars — fly.
Treasures abound. Of course, one has to pick delicately through the signed photographs of Sir Laurence Olivier in THE JAZZ SINGER, the forged Louis Armstrong signatures, the absurd pricing (“MEGA RARE!”) but surprises and delights await. Here are a few recent ones.
Willie Lewis (leader of the Entertainers, a band most of us know because of its work with Benny Carter and Bill Coleman) — a silhouette inscribed to his friend, trumpeter George Brashear. I am not planning to buy this, but think the image would make a perfect Twenties-jazz-geek-scholar t-shirt:
Here’s a particularly delicious Entertainers recording — a nice stroll through STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY with a glorious Bill Coleman solo and a closing bridge given over to Herman Chittison. (The YouTube site offers more than thirty of the band’s sides — all mislabeled, so you will have fun figuring out which tune goes with which title):
Then, an autographed picture of Mildred Bailey — her particularly loopy girlish handwriting makes me sure that this one is authentic:
How anyone could fold such a treasure in thirds is beyond me. And the reverse is equally interesting to scholars of Thirties music:
Someone was delinquent and did not RETURN THIS PHOTO, but I approve, because how else would we have seen this?
And now . . . autographs from the Basie band of 1939. Most of them are easy to decipher, and I think the bottom one is arranger Andy Gibson:
The price the seller is asking is high — over three thousand dollars — but we can enjoy Lester Young’s childlike handwriting for free.
That’s written on the back of this snapshot — originally taken by drummer Walt Gifford, later held by jazz enthusiast Joe Boughton:
I am assuming that it was taken in the Boston area, but Wettling is the main attraction. In the great tradition, Wettling played drums for the band — caring more for that than for any extended solo, although his four-bar breaks at the end of Eddie Condon recordings (Commodore, Decca, and Columbia) are justly famous. He wasn’t as dramatic as some of his more celebrated peers, but any group that had Wettling in the rhythm section could relax, secure that the tempo would be steady, that every accent or sound would make sense as a complementary part of the whole.
Here are two samples of George at work — atypically visible as well — along with Wild Bill Davison, Billy Butterfield, Cutty Cutshall, Vic Dickenson, Ed Hall, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Al Hall, and Eddie himself — from a 1964 television program:
and — nearly a quarter-century earlier, sounds only:
If you follow the recordings he left behind — with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, Joe Sullivan, Hot Lips Page, Lou McGarity, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Lee Wiley, Louis Armstrong, Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, Muggsy Spanier, Jess Stacy, Frank Teschemacher, Frank Melrose, Boyce Brown, Paul Mares, Omer Simeon, Wingy Manone, Jimmy McPartland, Joe Marsala, Red Norvo, Mildred Bailey, Pete Brown, Jack Teagarden, Joe Bushkin, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Paul Whiteman, Coleman Hawkins, Max Kaminsky, Danny Polo, Herman Chittison, Joe Thomas, Mezz Mezzrow, Benny Carter, Miff Mole, Brad Gowans, Marty Marsala, George Brunis, Ed Hall, Wild Bill Davison, Rod Cless, James P. Johnson, Yank Lawson, Jerry Jerome, Billy Butterfield, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Cary, Benny Morton, Jonah Jones, Errol Garner, Billie Holiday, Bujie Centobie, Red McKenzie, Chuck Wayne, Lucky Thompson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Martha Tilton, Connee Boswell, Sidney Bechet, Frank Newton, Bing Crosby, Art Hodes, Doc Evans, Bob Wilber, Tony Parenti, Charlie Parker, Ralph Sutton, Barbara Lea, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Kenny Kersey, Frank Signorelli, Milt Hinton, George Duvivier, Urbie Green, Marian McPartland, Stuff Smith, Big Joe Turner, Buck Clayton, Claude Hopkins, Nat Pierce, Jimmy Jones, Marty Napoleon, Buster Bailey, Shorty Baker, Tyree Glenn, Kenny Davern, and many others — you will always hear rewarding music.
I bought myself a truly gratifying holiday present:
For details from the Fresh Sound website, click here.
It’s possible that some readers might be unfamiliar with the Keynote Records catalogue, so if the tiny portraits above don’t pique your interest, here are a few words. Between 1941 and 1947, with the bulk of its sessions taking place in 1944-6. this independent jazz label produced a wide sampling of the best jazz records ever made — from the New Orleans jazz of George Hartman to the “modern sounds” of Lennie Tristano and Red Rodney. Keynote was the expression of one man’s intelligent taste — the Javanese jazz fan and producer Harry Lim (1919-1990). Lim’s records neatly balance written arrangements, head arrangements, and improvised solos. Many of the Keynote issues were recorded for issue on 12″ 78s, thus giving musicians room to create in more leisurely ways. In fairness, the Keynote sessions were not the only ones taking place in the wartime years: Lim’s issues ran parallel with Commodore, Blue Note, Hot Record Society, Signature, and even smaller labels — Asch, Jamboree and Wax among them. Keynote featured jazz players who were already stars: Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Red Norvo, Benny Carter, Sidney Catlett, Teddy Wilson, Johnny Hodges, Slam Stewart, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Count Basie (pseudonymously), as well as improvisers of equal worth who were often not given their due: trumpeter Joe Thomas, Milt Hinton, Bill Harris, Willie Smith, Kenny Kersey, Jonah Jones, George Barnes, Johnny Guarneri, Emmett Berry, Aaron Sachs, Herman Chittison, George Wettling, Hilton Jefferson, Tyree Glenn, Gene Sedric, Juan Tizol, Rex Stewart, Pete Brown, Cozy Cole, Charlie Shavers, Nick Fatool, Bujie Centobie, Irving Fazola, Allan Reuss, Dave Tough, and many others. Three particularly remarkable sessions brought together like-minded but singular horn players: trumpeters Eldridge, Thomas, and Berry; saxophonists Hawkins, Don Byas, Tab Smith, Harry Carney; trombonists Vic Dickenson, Harris, Claude Jones, and Benny Morton.
Several things need to be said about the new Fresh Sounds reissue. For one, it is a “European bootleg,” which will repel some collectors of this music, and I think rightly so. However, the Keynotes have never been issued in any systematic way on compact disc — in their home country or otherwise. And the Fresh Sound set concentrates, with a few exceptions, on issued material. I don’t know whether this was a choice designed to entice listeners who find alternate takes annoying, or to keep the set’s price attractive. (I bought mine on Amazon for $94, which seems a good value for 243 sides.) The sound is good, although I haven’t compared it to any 78 or vinyl issues. True Keynote devotees will, of course, have their own copies of the comprehensive vinyl issue of the label’s offerings, and the Fresh Sound box won’t replace that.
The reissue history of the Keynote recordings is characteristically odd — leaving aside the comprehensive vinyl set — with early vinyl assortments assembled by instrument (trumpet, trombone, or saxophone), then later ones featuring stars Hawkins, Young, Woody Herman sidemen, Norvo, Tristano, etc. As I write this, I am taking great pleasure in the sixth disc — selected at random — hearing sessions led by Barney Bigard, Horace Henderson, Bill Harris, Willie Smith, Corky Corcoran, and Milt Hinton — a fascinating cross-section of timeless jazz recorded in 1945. “Fresh Sound” is an apt description for these sides recorded more than half a century ago.
Fresh Sound producer Jordi Pujol made an intriguing and ultimately rewarding choice when looking for documentary material to fill the 125-page booklet. He included a careful history of the label — sources unknown — which tells a great deal about how these sessions came to be. (I feel, once again, that we should all give thanks to selfless men such as Harry Lim.) Then, rather than reprint the enthusiastic, empathic notes written by Dan Morgenstern for the Keynote vinyl box set, Pujol returned to the archives of DOWN BEAT and METRONOME for contemporary reviews and session photographs. The photographs — although many of them have been reproduced elsewhere — offer a few treasures: Lester Young, Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart, and Sidney Catlett at their December 1943 session, and photographs from the jam sessions Lim created before Keynote began recording regularly: one, in particular, caught me: a 1940 Chicago session featuring Rex Stewart, Lawrence Brown, Earl Hines, John Simmons, Tubby Hall . . . and the elusive Boyce Brown. The reviews from the contemporary jazz magazines are both grating and revealing. One might forget just how hard those writers and editors worked to appear breezy, slangy, hip — Catlett is referred to as a “colored tubman” in one review — and how severe they were in assessing what now seem masterpieces, using “uneventful,” “nothing distinctive,” “routine,” “pleasant,” “don’t emerge as anything too special.” Lester Young is referred to as “Les,” his tenor sound as “muddy-toned.” That the music survived this critical approach from writers who were its advocates says much about its durability. Here, by the way, is a side DOWN BEAT termed a “fiasco” and gave it a grade of C. I rest my case:
I think I got more than my money’s worth. You might agree.
Home is where you can hear the music of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Joe Thomas, Coleman Hawkins, Herman Chittison, George Wettling, Chick Webb.
It’s where your Beloved opens the door. The address doesn’t matter.
1) Ricky Riccardi’s lovely survey of THAT’S MY HOME from 1932 to 1961 here.
2) And a new discovery: Louis performing THAT’S MY HOME in Tokyo, 1963, here.
3) And a query. I’ve never seen the original sheet music of THAT’S MY HOME. Has anyone? I did find out online that the opening line of the verse is “I’m a thousand miles away,” and that there was a 1961 sheet music edition with Acker Bilk on the cover. But, beyond that?
The trumpet master Joe Thomas, aplacid, reserved man, didn’t make as many recordings as he should have. But he played alongside the finest musicians: Jack Teagarden, Vic Dickenson, Red Norvo, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Herman Chittison, Benny Carter, Barney Bigard, Joe Marsala, Buck Clayton, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Edmond Hall, Art Tatum, Pete Brown, Claude Hopkins, Kenny Kersey, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Russell, Buddy Tate, Tony Scott, Dicky Wells, Oscar Pettiford, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Maxine Sullivan, Benny Morton, Bobby Gordon. Harry Lim (of Keynote Records) was a special champion of Joe’s and featured him on many sessions.
Here is a 1945 recording — during the great flourishing of small independent jazz labels — on the Jamboree label, which issued perhaps twenty discs in all, most featuring Don Byas; one session under Horace Henderson’s name; another was the only session under Dave Tough’s name — featuring our Mr. Thomas. One of the Byas discs, recorded by Don, Joe, and the mighty rhythm section of Johnny Guarneri, Billy Taylor, and Cozy Cole, is JAMBOREE JUMP — a groovy 32-bar head arrangement:
My ears tell me that JUMP has a close relationship with STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, exceedingly familiar chord changes for that period. The line sounds at first simple, something out of a child’s scale exercise — but it turns more adventurous. There is a suggestion of a phrase we know from DIZZY ATMOSPHERE as well. Swing and Be-Bop were adjacent, simultaneous, rather than two epochs as the journalists wanted us to believe.
Byas swoops and hollers, evoking Ben, over that concisely effective rhythm section, with Guarneri offering his own synthesis of Waller and Basie over Taylor’s powerful bass and Cole’s restrained drums — their sound somewhat swallowed by the whoosh of the 78 surface, although his bass drum is a swing heartbeat.
The quartet glides for two minutes until Thomas announces himself with one of the upwards arpeggios he loved, a sea creature leaping gracefully through the ocean’s surface. His repeated notes never seem mechanical or over-emphatic: he just states he has arrived! Joe, as Whitney Balliett pointed out, had listened hard to the Louis of the Hot Seven period, although Joe always kept his cool. What follows might seem simple, undramatic for those anticipating the attack of an Eldridge or an Emmett Berry. But Joe knew how to structure a solo through space, to make his phrases ring by leaving breathing room between them. Like Bix or Basie, Joe embodied restraint while everyone around him was being urgent. His pure dark sound is as important as the notes he plays — or chooses to omit. Although his bridge is a leisurely series of upwards-moving arpeggios, it is more than “running changes.”
A simple phrase, in Thomas’s world, is a beautifully burnished object. And one phrase flows into another, so at the end of the solo, one has embraced a new melody, resonant in three dimensions, that wasn’t there before, full of shadings, deep and logically constructed. The band returns for the last statement of the theme, but it’s Joe’s solo I return to.
Louis, speaking about playing the trumpet, praised as the greatest good “tonation and phrasing.” Joe’s tone, dark and shining, makes the simple playing of a written line something to marvel at, and each of his notes seems a careful choice yet all is fresh, never by rote: someone speaking words that have become true because he has just discovered they are the right ones for the moment.
I offer JAMBOREE JUMP as prelude to something even more marvelous.
Harry Lim, the guiding genius of Keynote Records — which, session for session, was consistently rewarding — loved Joe and featured him often. The Pete Brown All-Star Quintet had a splendid rhythm section and the contrast between Joe’s stately sweetness and Pete’s lemony ebullience. IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN shows off not only the contrast between them, stylistically, but also in tempos — this 12″ 78 (another one of the independent labels’ of the time’s great ideas — thank Milt Gabler and Alfred Lion) contrasts sweeping elegance with double-time romping.
That song might well have been Joe’s choice. I was fortunate enough to see him in person a few times in the early Seventies, and he took this song as a kind of personal utterance. I don’t know if the lyrics meant something deep to him — he was happily married to the singer Babe Matthews for many years — or if he associated the song with some event or place in his past, but he played it and sang it as if he had composed it. And given Joe’s delight in the possibility of repeated notes in his soloing, TALK provides ample opportunities in its written melody. (Like DARN THAT DREAM, it is a song that — played mechanically — could grow wearisome quickly.)
Here’s the Keynote recording, beautifully annotated by its generous YouTube creator:
If you’ve heard little of pianist Kenny Kersey, his chiming, serious solo introduction is evidence that he is another unheard master.
Then Joe comes to the fore in a sorrowing embellishment of the theme. Hear his vibrato, his tone — without stating anything in melodramatic capital letters, he says, “What you are hearing is very serious to me. It comes from my heart.” Indeed, I think of the great later Louis of THAT’S FOR ME. Joe is somber and tender at once, lingering over a note here, adding a small ornamental flourish, as he does at the end of the first sixteen bars, almost in a casual whisper, his brass voice trailing away.
Around him, the elements are in place: the warm resonance of Milt’s notes; the gentle timekeeping of J.C. Heard; Kersey, pointing the way; the sweet understated agreements provided by Pete’s alto.
When Joe would sing TALK OF THE TOWN, he would get even more emphatic on the bridge. A song that begins, “I can’t show my face” already starts passionately, but the bridge is a drama of disappointment and betrayal: “We sent out invitations / To friends and relations / Announcing our wedding day. / Friends and relations gave congratulations. / How can you face them? / What can you say?” Here, Joe’s trumpet rises to depict this heartbreak without increasing his volume or adding more notes. The run that begins the second half of the bridge is Joe’s version of an early Thirties Louis phrase in sweet slow-motion.
Something startling comes next, and although I have known this recording for several decades, I can’t prepare myself for it: Pete Brown and the rhythm section go into double-time. Pete loved to push the beat, and perhaps the idea of playing TALK OF THE TOWN as an extended ballad seemed too much of a good thing. I also wonder if Pete knew that to follow Joe in the same fashion was not a good idea*. Whatever the reason, the spirit of Roy Eldridge playing BODY AND SOUL at double-time is in the room. Although Pete’s rough bouncy energy is initially startling, his bluesy vocalized tone is delightful, and the rhythm section digs in (Heard’s soft bass drum accents suggest Catlett). And there’s the SALT PEANUTS octave jump at the end of the bridge, too.
It’s left to Kersey to return everyone to the elegiac tempo set at the start, and he does it beautifully, although the section has to settle in. Joe returns, declamatory and delicate. Where many trumpeters of the period might have gone up for a high one, Joe repeats the title of the song as if to himself.
I have loved Joe Thomas’ work for forty-five years, having heard him first on an Ed Beach radio show with the Keynote SHE DIDN’T SAY YES and then on a Prestige-Swingville session led by Claude Hopkins and featuring Buddy Tate. His playing still moves me. Although his simple notes are not difficult to play on the trumpet, to play them as he does, to learn how to sing through metal tubing is a lifetime’s work. There were and are many compelling Louis-inspired trumpeters, and they all brought their own special joy. But there was only one Joe Thomas.
Thanks to SwingMan1937 for posting JAMBOREE JUMP and to sepiapanorama for IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN. These generous YouTube folks have excellent taste!
*About Pete Brown’s double-time section. I came across another YouTube presentation of IT’S THE TALK OF THE TOWN — Connee Boswell’s lovely 1933 reading with the Dorsey Brothers in an orchestra directed by Victor Young — and she lifts the tempo, too. Perhaps it was a swing convention when the song was first introduced? (The picture of the singer isn’t Connee but Jo Stafford, by the way.)
The history of jazz is full of musicians, both reliable and inventive, who don’t become stars. Drummer George Wettling is one of the most neglected, although he had a recording career that lasted more than thirty years, finding him alongside Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, Milt Hinton, Wild Bill Davison, Coleman Hawkins, Wingy Manone, Frank Teschmacher, Joe Thomas, Herman Chittison, Bobby Hackett and a hundred other first-rank players.
Here’s a film clip of Wettling, playing ROYAL GARDEN BLUES in an all-star Condon group (minus Eddie, who was recovering at the time), featuring Davison, Ed Hall, Cutty Cutshall, Willie the Lion Smith, and Al Hall.
The cameraman was fascinated by the front line, so we get to see Wettling only intermittently, but we certainly hear his pushing accompaniment, although his playing is anything but overbearing. Wettling’s style focused on his snare drum, and his rolls and accents, his rimshots and commentary, are drawn from the drummers he heard in Chicago and the Midwest in the Twenties: Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton. But the style is fluid, not a relentless two-beat, and Wettling continually changes his accents and volume while pushing the band along exuberantly, playing differently behind the full ensemble, behind the Lion, with Hall, propelling the end of Hall’s chorus and playing tag with the emphatic Wild Bill. Wettling doesn’t demand the listener’s attention by volume or pyrotechnics. Rather, his drums seem to say, “Listen to us.” And when we finally get a chance to focus purely on Wettling, in his brief exchanges with Al Hall, it is over too soon — but we can admire his conciseness (not an extra stroke or beat, nothing wasted or superfluous) and his swinging embrace of pure time — he never speeds up or slows down, or loses the thread of the music. And although his four-bar break is simple, it is a Wettling trademark: how much percussive variety and energy he could put into sixteen beats!
It’s odd that in jazz, where drummers become stars, Wettling didn’t get his share of attention and adulation. Musicians knew him and hired him — Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Paul Whiteman, Muggsy Spanier, Jimmy McPartland, Miff Mole, Billy Butterfield, Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, and he was a first-call studio and recording drummer. But Wettling didn’t want to lead bands; I sense that he was happy to let someone else handle the audiences, the payroll, the clubowner: he wanted to play, and play he did. I also suspect that being associated for so long with Eddie Condon, someone with a strong personality, made have put Wettling in the shadows . . . although Condon said once that all he needed for a romping band was Wettling. And the magnificent drumming that lifts Berigan’s Victor recording of I CAN’T GET STARTED is Wettling’s; hear him, as well, on perhaps seventy-five percent of the Commodore Records classics.
But he’s not well-known these days, which is a pity. Hear him on the Commodores, on the Doctor Jazz broadcasts, on the Condon Town Hall concerts, on the magnificent Fifties dates Condon did for Columbia. Put all your preconceptions about formulaic “Dixieland drumming” aside and listen to Wettling — fluid, energetic, responsive, fully engaged and lively.
Here’s that rare thing — three minutes of Wettling solo in the middle Fifties, titled IT AIN’T THE HUMIDITY (IT’S THE BEAT). No fireworks, no crashing “technique.” Timeless and hot, the drums singing their own melodies.
Should you ever encounter Hal Smith, Kevin Dorn, Jeff Hamilton, Chris Tyle, or Nick Ward — ask them, “What do you think of George Wettling?” And stand back!
I’ve been listening to Wettling for forty years now — he’s on many of my favorite records! But what made me write this post was a little anecdote I just heard. A musician I know, now in his seventies, told me that his older brother had been in the audience for Louis Armstrong’s 1947 Town Hall concert, where the drummers were Sidney Catlett and Wettling. When it was time for Wettling to play, the musician’s brother (seated in the balcony) saw Catlett come upstairs and take a seat — the better to delight in what Wettling was doing and how beautiful it sounded in the hall.
If it was good enough for Sidney Catlett and Eddie Condon, it should be good enough for all of us!