Tag Archives: Hot Five

“AFTER YOU’VE GONE”: BEN COHEN’S HOT SEVEN at BUDE, 2000

Ben Cohen Hot 7 at Bude 1998, courtesy of Alex Revell. L-R: Nick Ward, Terry McGrath, Alex Revell, Mick Clift, Ben Cohen, Geoff Over, Jon Penn.

I came very late to this particular party, but happily the party still rocks on in cyberspace.  Let me explain.  The searing yet also lyrical cornet player, singer, and bandleader Ben Cohen moved to another neighborhood in 2002, when he was 73.  I didn’t take notice of his work until last year, when I heard him on a record featuring the late clarinetist Pierre Atlan, which also starred Humphrey Lyttelton — but one side of the disc was a 1987 session showcasing Ben, whose KNEE DROPS astonished me with its hot fluency and mastery.  I regret that I can’t share this music, but the record is on eBay, like so much else (including two CDs featuring Ben, posthumously).

I contented myself with playing the record many times, then browsing through my shelves, where I found him appearing with Jean Francois Bonnel and Wally Fawkes, among other luminaries.  I looked in Tom Lord’s discography and found that Ben had recorded widely from 1950 to 2000, a very long time to be in one’s prime.

And there the matter would have remained, were it not for the gracious fellow who calls himself JazzVideoMike on YouTube — the link will lead you to his channel, where you will find yourself enchanted.  In real life, he answers to Mike Stevens.

I asked Mike to tell me something of his involvement with Ben, and Mike graciously wrote:

Ben Cohen played in Brian White’s Magna Jazz Band for many years right up to his passing. The Magna played weekly and from about 1990 I went weekly and got to know Ben. I started videoing jazz when I went to the French Quarter Festival in 1995 and bought my first camcorder on Canal Street. I then started going to the Bude and Keswick UK jazz festivals and making videos whenever possible, which I have continued right up to now.

I met Ben at these festivals and found that his style of playing with his Hot 5 & 7 was much more to my taste than his style with the Magna band. His early Louis style playing caused quite a stir, and admiration from many musicians. After 2000 Ben suffered several strokes, but he refused to stop playing and it was a more serious stroke which eventually brought him down.

Ben was a lovely man and greatly admired by many. [Sarah Spencer, below, says that Kenny Davern loved Ben.]  Brian White still says he was the best trumpeter he ever had in his bands. Ben and Alex Revell were the front line along with Chris Barber in his amateur band before Chris made it a full time professional band. Ben was an engineer with his own business and remained a part time musician throughout his career. Alex was a also a noted engineer and designer, and they played together again in Ben’s Hot 5 & 7. Jon Penn was the pianist, and Nick Ward the drummer, both now at Whitley Bay every year.

And here is Mike’s splendid video (let us praise the man behind the camera!) of a ninety-minute plus live session at the Bude Jazz Festival:

Now for a rare treat – a new Ben Cohen Hot Five Seven concert never before published – Launched in 1993, Ben’s Hot Five caused an immediate sensation at the Bude festival that year, since when they have starred at major festivals all over the country. 1994 saw the launch of an even more exciting Hot Seven. Ben Cohen, hailed by Humphrey Lyttleton as today’s finest trumpeter in the “early Louis” style, leads Alex Revell (clarinet), Mick Clift (trombone), Jon Penn (piano), Geoff Over (banjo), and they are joined in the Hot Seven by Terry McGarth (sousaphone), and Nick Ward (drums) with special guest Norman Field (reeds).

Ben Cohen is one of the legendary backroom boys of British Traditional Jazz. He first came to notice in Chris Barber’s amateur band in 1950. He based his style on that of early Louis Armstrong and over the years developed a reputation as a powerful lead player in any band he was in. He stuck religiously to playing the cornet rather than the trumpet and was only ever semi-professional throughout his career. Ben was a popular figure on the UK Jazz scene and for many years led his Armstrong inspired Hot 5.

A brief guided tour: YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU (Ben, vocal); PAPA DIP; GULLY LOW BLUES (Ben, vocal); EAST COAST TROT (featuring Alex and Norman); NO ONE ELSE BUT YOU (Alex, vocal); TAKE YOUR PICK (featuring   Geoff Over); an interlude where the band removed their jackets; MABEL’S DREAM; WEARY BLUES; SOME OF THESE DAYS (Ben, vocal); WILLIE THE WEEPER (Geoff Cole, vocal); I CAN’T SAY (Alex and Norman); ONCE IN A WHILE; ROCKIN’ CHAIR (Ben, vocal); BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA (Alex, vocal); KNEE DROPS; AFTER YOU’VE GONE (closing theme).

The band is marvelous.  But I keep returning to Ben, who is — in the words of his friend and bandmate Sarah Spencer — “hot as heck.”

I am sorry that I never got to hear him in person, and — even more — tell him how much his music moves me.  But here is evidence of gorgeous nimble heat in the best Louis manner.  Thank you, Ben Cohen.

May your happiness increase!

“THE JOYS OF D*******D” (PART ONE): ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, DUKE HEITGER, DAN BARRETT, SCOTT ROBINSON, DAN BLOCK, FRANK TATE, HAL SMITH (Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, September 15, 2017)

Let the truth come out: the glorious pianist Rossano Sportiello loves Dixieland. Yes, that naughty word so scorned by many jazz listeners.

[An update: since I published this blog, with the word spelled out in full, I have been rebuked by several esteemed jazz journalists, a few of them friends, for my daring to print the obscenity, as if I were wrapping myself in the flag of the Confederacy.  “‘D*******d’ is the name given to the kind of music Rossano heard, loved, and played in his Milan youth.  And — should sensibilities still be raw — it’s the name Louis gave to what he played.  Do I need to cite a higher authority?]

Not, as he will point out, the homogenized variety, but the music he grew up listening to: Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, and their noble colleagues.

In 2017, for one of his sets at the much-missed Cleveland Classic Jazz Party, he chose to play the familiar repertoire . . . but with energy and love.  He called on Hal Smith, drums; Frank Tate, string bass; Dan Block, clarinet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone; Dan Barrett, trombone; Duke Heitger, trumpet, to accomplish this.  And even though these songs (or almost all of them) have been played to shreds by less-splendid musicians, they shine here.  Admire the relaxed tempos and fine dynamics: the hallmarks of players who remember what the songs are supposed to sound like, that MUSKRAT and BARBECUE have fine melodies that must be treated with care and admiration.

They began with the song Louis loved so well, STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE:

Again, thinking of Louis, a sweet-and-slow AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’:

Hot Five territory once more, but not too fast, for MUSKRAT RAMBLE:

There’s a second half, to come soon — classic performances, created on the spot.

Thanks not only to these delightful creators, but to Nancy Hancock Griffith and Kathy Hancock for making all this possible.  The Cleveland Classic Jazz Party is now only a sweet memory, but it was a glorious outpouring while it lasted.

May your happiness increase!

(CAFE) DIVINE MUSIC (Part Two): LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO (with MISS MEREDITH AXELROD)

Just beautiful.  Leon, cornet; Craig, guitar; guest star Meredith, vocals — at Cafe Divine (a fine restaurant at 1600 Stockton Street in San Francisco). Leon Oakley and Craig Ventresco play there on the third Sunday of every month, and this session — in two parts — took place on May 18, 2014.

A caveat to start.  Leon and Craig play without amplification, and Cafe Divine is a restaurant, not a concert hall, so you will hear the conversation of the diners. I don’t think that the Savoy Ballroom was reverently still, or the dinners at which Bach and Mozart swung out with their latest compositions.

Their intoxicating music soars.  I told Craig after the first set that he and Leon had performed time-and-space-warping magic: they had made 2014 North Beach into 1928 Chicago, and he agreed: that was their intention!

Here is the second of two tasting menus offered for your delectation. (And here is the first, in case it passed you by.)

SEE SEE RIDER:

TOO BUSY (with Meredith evoking Lillie Delk Christian):

A sweet KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW at the most sweetly romantic tempo imaginable:

The rarely played CHERRY:

Meredith goes south with I’M COMIN’ VIRGINIA:
And I ask you.  Did you ever hear the story of WILLIE THE WEEPER?
I look forward to sessions in the months to come.
May your happiness increase!

(CAFE) DIVINE MUSIC (Part One): LEON OAKLEY and CRAIG VENTRESCO (with MISS MEREDITH AXELROD)

Just beautiful.  Leon, cornet; Craig, guitar; guest star Meredith, vocals — at Cafe Divine (a fine restaurant at 1600 Stockton Street in San Francisco). Leon Oakley and Craig Ventresco play there on the third Sunday of every month, and this session — in two parts — took place on May 18, 2014.

A caveat to start.  Leon and Craig play without amplification, and Cafe Divine is a restaurant, not a concert hall, so you will hear the conversation of the diners. I don’t think that the Savoy Ballroom was reverently still, or the dinners at which Bach and Mozart swung out with their latest compositions.

Their intoxicating music soars.  I told Craig after the first set that he and Leon had performed time-and-space-warping magic: they had made 2014 North Beach into 1928 Chicago, and he agreed: that was their intention!

Here is the first of two tasting menus offered for your delectation.

The Hot Five’s ONCE IN A WHILE:

A very moving MEMORIES OF YOU:

Robert Johnson’s HOT TAMALES (THEY’RE RED HOT) which at first I mistook for HOW’M I DOIN’? — being more familiar with Redman than Johnson:

A song I didn’t know, from Amanda Randoph’s repertoire, here sung by Meredith, HONEY, DON’T YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON ME:

A highlight: MABEL’S DREAM:

Meredith offers I’M A LITTLE BLACKBIRD from the Clarence Williams book:

And we close with a spicy MESSIN’ AROUND:

Other bands are playing these songs, and beautifully, too, but no one else is making music quite like this in 2014, I propose. I’ve marked my calendar for the Oakley-Ventresco magical appearances at Cafe Divine, a place that lives up to its name.

May your happiness increase!

May your happiness increase!

“MISS LIL”: LILLIAN HARDIN, HOT COMPOSER / PIANIST: BENT PERSSON, MATTHIAS SEUFFERT, STEPHANE GILLOT, JENS LINDGREN, MARTIN SECK, MARTIN WHEATLEY, MALCOLM SKED at the WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (October 27, 2012)

The splendors of the 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party continue in a set celebrating the compositions and recordings of Miss Lil — Lillian Hardin — in the Twenties.  On the marriage license she was L. H. Armstrong, but she did more than keep house: she wrote songs and led hot recording sessions.  And she was one of the few early women to do these things successfully.  In addition, without Miss Lil, husband Louis might have stayed comfortably as Joe Oliver’s second cornetist for many years . . . material for an alternate-universe science fiction novel.

Lil’s recording career continued on through the Thirties — with a brilliant series of Decca sessions, a few featuring Joe Thomas and Chu Berry — and the Forties.  As a child, one of my first jazz records ever was a 12″ Black and White 78 of “Lil ‘Brown Gal’ Armstrong” with Jonah Jones, J. C. Higginbotham, Al Gibson, and Baby Dodds — among others.  She played and recorded with Sidney Bechet and Chicagoans . . . always exuberant, energetic.

Early on, I remember being swept up in the force and joy of Louis’ Hot Fives and Sevens, and only later coming to the sessions that paired Lil with Johnny Dodds, George Mitchell, and others — powerful music where the players’ delight was absolutely tangible.  As it is here!

Here are a half-dozen 2012 performances featuring Matthias Seuffert, clarinet; Bent Persson, cornet; Staphane Gillot, reeds; Jens Lindgren, trombone; Martin Seck, piano; Martin Wheatley, banjo; Malcolm Sked, bass.

GATEMOUTH (or GATE MOUTH, one of those locutions designed to state that one had a large orifice up front):

PERDIDO STREET BLUES:

MY BABY:

GEORGIA BO BO (from “Lil’s Hot Shots,” the Hot Five on another label, not well-disgused:

DROP THAT SACK (as above):

TOO TIGHT:

May your happiness increase.

A BOX OF BLESSINGS, SLIGHTLY MIXED: “LOUIS ARMSTRONG: THE OKEH, COLUMBIA, and RCA VICTOR RECORDINGS 1925-1933” (Sony Music)

Louis OKEH

As I write this, I am listening to a “new” box set of Louis Armstrong’s recordings.    Issued by Sony Music, it offers his work for OKeh, Columbia, and Victor from 1925-1933.

I am ambivalent about this product — which has nothing to do with the heartbreakingly beautiful music contained within the purple box.  And although I ordinarily go on at length on JAZZ LIVES, I find it easier to write my assessment as a checklist.

THE GOOD NEWS:

181 recordings by Louis, grouped together in this fashion for the first time in the United States.  (The Fremeux label has been issuing multiple CD sets of Louis in chronological order for some time.)  This means the familiar — POTATO HEAD BLUES and I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING — alongside sessions that have not been available for some time, including the wonderful sides Louis made for OKeh in Los Angeles and Chicago, 1930-31.  The set ends with the peerless 1932-33 Victor sides (THAT’S MY HOME, LAUGHIN’ LOUIE) and throws in BLUE YODEL # 9, the collaboration of Louis and Jimmie Rodgers.

Beautiful notes by Ricky Riccardi.  Need I say more?

Lovely photographs, some new to me, photographs of record labels, and a design that — for once — doesn’t decompose as soon as one opens the box.

A reasonable price, if you consider the amount of music purchased.

A recording of WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS that I think not many people have known well.  Courtesy of that same Riccardi fellow, you may hear it here:

THE LESS-GOOD NEWS:

The first two discs (containing the Hot Five and Seven material) are mastered off-pitch, a half-tone low.  This might not bother most listeners, but it makes the music sound slightly sleepy, draggy — which it wasn’t in performance.

The set is not advertised as “complete,” which is accurate.  Missing are the sessions Louis recorded with a variety of singers, including Bessie Smith, Chippie Hill, Hociel Thomas, and Lillie Delk Christian.  I do not know why this is, except perhaps it would have taken more trouble to amass them and the person who is listed as “Project Director,” Seth Rothstein, surely had some reasons, whether economic or aesthetic.  (The last time in my knowledge that those Louis-and-the-blues-singers sides were available is several decades ago: a French vinyl series on CBS, “Aimez-vous le jazz?”)

The absence of this material is irritating because seven or eight of the discs in this set are “short,” with sixteen, eighteen, or twenty tracks.  Readers who can do basic math quickly can figure out just how many additional tracks could have fit in this box.  Or Sony could have squeezed the material onto eight discs and sold it at a lower price.  (When you buy a bag of potato chips and see that the bag contains more air than chips, you can rationalize it — the air is there so that the chips don’t get reduced to dust — but most of us find chips more tasty than chip-scented air.)

THE WRITER MUSES, BRIEFLY:

I always wonder how much thought goes in to the production of one of these box sets, conveniently on sale at the holiday season.  Sony Music has this material in their vaults; they seem to have done nothing to it (checking proper pitch, remastering) except put it in a different box and offer it to us.  It is not exactly a jazz re-gift, but close.  Who did they think was going to buy it?  Some people who lack a historical consciousness will quail slightly at “1925-1933,” because that is OLD MUSIC.  And the deep-down Louis scholars were already thrashing around online before the box came out, so I think their disappointment is palpable.  I also do not know how many people actually are buying CD box sets — as opposed to listening to downloads through their earbuds (two words that have become loathsome to me).

Ultimately, any scrap of Louis Armstrong’s music is beautiful, valuable, irreplaceable.

But Louis deserved better than this set.  We do, also.

Should you buy it if you have unlimited funds?  Yes.

Will you find some aspects of it annoying?  Yes.

May your happiness increase.

BABY SODA JAZZ BAND “AT THE HIGHLINE” (LIVE AND IN PERSON, Oct. 15, 2012)

Yesterday, I wrote a very approving review of the new CD by the BABY SODA JAZZ BAND, which found them at Radegast in Brooklyn with a variety of players including Kevin V. Louis, Jared Engel, Kevin Dorn, Adrian Cunningham, Emily Asher, and Peter Ford —  with guest appearances by Bria Skonberg, Will Anderson, Satoru Ohashi, and Ed Polcer.  Here’s  my blogpost.  (In retrospect, I am sorry that I didn’t call it THAT’S SOME BABY, but it’s too late to change the title.)

Last Monday, October 15, it was raining vigorously in New York City, but I had found out that Baby Soda was going to be playing at the Highline — a combination difficult to resist.  I packed my umbrella and appropriate shoes and headed west.  Oh, I also brought my video camera, tripod, and trusty notebook.  Thus, some fine new performances by Baby Soda . . . for your dining, dancing, and listening pleasure.

Peter Ford led the band from his one-string box bass (which he plays magnificently) and he sang with a sweet, focused surge; Gordon Au played soaring trumpet solos with every risk-taking note in place; Will Anderson built logical clarinet choruses, phrase upon sweet-toned phrase; Emily Asher held it all together with lovely terse trombone lines, then told us the truth when it was her time to solo or sing; Jared Engel kept the rhythm going on both plectrum banjo and lowboy cymbal . . . and the front line passed around one drumstick and a magic woodblock for spare but swinging rhythmic effects.

I don’t ordinarily post incomplete performances . . . but the second half of MUSKRAT RAMBLE was so satisfying that here it is:

As an acknowledgment of the general sogginess, Peter sang I GET THE BLUES WHEN IT RAINS — an overstatement, for the band was making people very happy:

ONCE IN A WHILE is, of course, the Louis Hot Five romp:

WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP, mixing nostalgia, romance, and botany, provoked an almost-band vocal (a power-packed two minutes!):

I GOT A RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES might have been true, but the band seemed happy to play this melancholy Arlen song:

MILENBERG JOYS — at a brimming tempo, never too fast:

MARIE, warbled by the eminent Miss Asher:

THAT’S A-PLENTY for sure:

JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE, that jazz carpe diem, was not the end of the world:

WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS — with no need to grumble about this band:

I went off after this session feeling so elated — Gene Kelly with a knapsack full of heavy video gear, very happy.  Baby Soda can do that to you!  And these performances sound as good at the eighth or ninth playing as they do at the first. I guarantee this.

May your happiness increase.

HOT AND READY: BOB SCHULZ’S FRISCO JAZZ BAND at DIXIELAND MONTEREY (March 3, 2012)

Here is a very generous helping from an old-fashioned stomping band — led by the very amiable cornetist and singer Bob Schulz — that played beautifully at the 2012 Dixieland Monterey Jazz Bash by the Bay.

There are thirteen songs for your listening and dancing pleasure (a set and a half).  If you think this unlucky, email me and I will do my best to allay your fears.

In the front line alongside Bob, we have Doug Finke — slippery and sly, someone I’d heard with great pleasure on his Independence Hall Jazz Band discs for Stomp Off — and the remarkable and always surprising Kim Cusack, now and again singing a song in what I think of as the subtlest barroom style.

Propelling the band is the dangerously swinging Hal Smith, the steady Jim Maihack on tuba, the engaging Scott Anthony on banjo, guitar, and vocals, and the inimitable Ray Skjelbred.  Quite an assortment of stars — with one purpose only.  You can guess what it is.

ROSETTA:

I’LL BE A FRIEND “WITH PLEASURE,” with its variant title, with a vocal by Scott that certainly makes us forget the original by Wes Vaughn:

THE GYPSY, sung by the romantic Mr. Schulz.  It would be such a pretty tune even if Louis and Charlie Parker had never taken charge of it:

BROTHER LOWDOWN, for Bob Helm:

GEORGIA BO BO, music to dance to:

SAND BAG RAG, featuring Ray:

MISTER JOHNSON, TURN ME LOOSE, where Kim voices the fears of all the potential miscreants in the audience:

THE LADY IN RED — catch Hal’s brushes and the rhythm section’s rocking start:

WHO WALKS IN WHEN I WALK OUT, featuring Kim and the front line in Nijinsky-inspired choreography.  Or is it Busby Berkeley?  You decide:

Then, a brief pause for deep breathing, battery changing, and healing infusions of food and drink.

BEALE STREET BLUES, a la 1954 Condon:

CAROLINA IN THE MORNING, sung sweetly by Scott:

ORIENTAL STRUT, in honor of the Hot Five:

LOUISIANA, with all the proper Bix touches:

I think that music is a tangible good-luck charm, thirteen or not!  Thanks again to Sue Kroninger and the wise folks who make Dixieland Monterey so fine for this rocking music!

May your happiness increase.

OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNIN’: TIM LAUGHLIN, CONNIE JONES, CLINT BAKER, CHRIS DAWSON, KATIE CAVERA, MARTY EGGERS, HAL SMITH (Sept. 5, 2011)

When someone tried to get Thelonious Monk up early for the GREAT DAY IN HARLEM photo shoot in 1958, Monk is supposed to have replied — and I don’t think he was joking — that he didn’t know there were two ten o’clocks in the day.  Perhaps an extreme statement, but many jazz musicians — by habit, temperament, and experience — are nocturnal creatures.  They aren’t terrified of daylight, just unaccustomed to it.

Thus the session that follows is special for reasons above and beyond the fine music that these players produced.  It took place on Sunday, September 5, 2011, at the Sweet and Hot Music Festival — and it began at 9:45 AM.  But no one complained, because they were taking such delight in each other’s company.

And, even better (perhaps a nod to the irritable shade of the late Kenny Davern) it was a totally acoustic session.  No microphones in sight!  That’s the way it’s supposed to be but so rarely is — electrified instruments or a forest of microphones.  Some sound men and women are expert, sensitive listeners, but it’s such a treat to hear acoustic music in a quiet room — it happens infrequently.

All of this wouldn’t matter if the musicians were ordinary . . . but this band is made up of great players, individualists willing to create something synergistic, a musical entity larger than themselves.  Tim Laughlin is a model clarinetist — his sweet, full tone is a pleasure to hear whatever he plays; his swinging playing never lets us down.  Connie Jones is a quiet master, offering one subtle, peaceably emotive solo after another.  He never reaches for a cliche of the idiom or of his instrument, and his knowledge of harmony is so deep that he never plays an expected or an overemphatic phrase.  I think of Bobby Hackett and Doc Cheatham, but also the translucent quality of early Lester Young.  Chris Dawson makes his hard work look easy, spinning airy phrases out as he goes — glistening arpeggios bolster and urge on the soloist, the band — without playing one superfluous note.

Next to these three polished stylists, we have the untrammeled man of jazz, the master of grease and fuzz, Clint Baker, reminding us that if it ain’t gutbucket, it ain’t worth playing.  Clint dosen’t demand the spotlight and is soft-spoken, but is a serious purveyor of darker impulses on his horn.

That rhythm section?  Sweetly propulsive!  Katie Cavera knows her harmony and pushes everyone forward in the most affecting way — a Freddie Green with a West Coast bite (as if Mr. Green had eaten many more ripe avocados in his day).  Marty Eggers plays his bass the old-fashioned way, the Wellman Braud way, without being overpowering or raucous.  And Hal Smith just shines back there at his drum kit: offering the exactly right sound, push, or rhythmic seasoning for this or any other band.

As an extra bonus: no terribly hackneyed “Dixieland” tunes — no muskrats rambling . . . just melodic favorites, some less-played, most at nice rocking tempos.

They started with a song whose title well represents this band’s feeling — a Twenties pop song not often recorded by jazz players, although Louis and the All-Stars did it more than once in 1948 — TOGETHER (an apt description of this band’s overall conception):

SPAIN (by Isham Jones) was ornamented with the Irving Fazola introduction — a lovely touch — and was taken at a sweet tempo (rather than a near-run):

WANG WANG BLUES might have called forth memories of the earliest Paul Whiteman Orchestra . . . . but the easy tempo here evoked the Benny Goodman Sextet of 1945 where the front line was BG and the much-missed Atlanta stalwart, trombonist Lou McGarity (ain’t nobody played like him yet!):

(WHAT CAN I SAY, DEAR?) AFTER I SAY I’M SORRY is not only a song with two identities; it also lends itself to varied approaches and tempi.  Here Tim counts it off as if we really should know the emotional intent — a deep apology — and the band catches the sweet rueful mood immediately — after Chris, a soulful fellow, points the way:

Chris Dawson deserves more attention — he is such a fine (although understated) player that I think many people haven’t given his quiet swinging playing the applause it deserves.  Listen to what he and the rhythm section do to and for Berlin’s PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ:

They called her frivolous Sal.  Enough said — but MY GAL SAL commemorates this lively young woman:

There are two songs called ONCE IN A WHILE associated with Louis Armstrong.  One, a Hot Five display piece; the other, a lovely pop ballad that Louis played and sang with a small group for Decca in 1938 — that’s the one Tim and friends chose here:

Finally, the Louis-Hoagy Carmichael connection (such a fertile partnership over the years) gets its moment with JUBILEE:

Mister Gloom won’t be about / Music always knocks him out — even before 10 AM!  And lyricism at this level makes Mister Gloom pack up and go somewhere else forever.

ESSENTIAL LISTENING: CLINT BAKER’S NEW ORLEANS JAZZ BAND “TEARS”

Some time ago on JAZZ LIVES, I had some fun posting two Desert Island Disc lists of my own — one of the Great Dead, one of the Happily Living.

Now, it’s time to revise those lists — because TEARS, by Clint Baker’s New Orleans Jazz Band, is an absolute delight.

It’s not a respectful museum-piece, but a lively, surprising evocation of many jazz eras — one of those CDs you will listen to all the way through and then want to play again.

Clint Baker is one of those blessed players who can swing the band no matter what instrument he picks up.  On Rae Ann Berry’s YouTube videos (and some of mine), the exciting evidence is there: Clint on trumpet, cornet, trombone, clarinet, guitar, banjo, drums, vocal — all superbly.  On this CD, he plays trombone — moving around stylistically from the hot roughness of the late Twenties to the smoothness of mid-Thirties Benny Morton, all with conviction and wit.  In the front line, he has Marc Caparone (punching out that fine lead in the best Mutt Carey manner or looping around in the sky a la Buck Clayton) and Mike Baird (think Johnny Dodds or Prince Robinson).

But the best front line imaginable sinks without a cohesive, friendly rhythm section — like the one on this CD: Dawn Lambeth on piano (more about Dawn in a minute), Katie Cavera on swinging guitar and banjo (ditto); Mike Fay (did someone say “Wellman Braud”?) and the wonderful Hal Smith, propulsive but always deeply sensitive to the band as a whole.

Katie delivers one of her delicious sweet-tart, almost-innocent vocals on SWEET MAN, which is a treat.  And Clint convinces us of the earnest message of WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM.  But this CD also has a vocal masterpiece: Dawn Lambeth’s pure, yearning I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I?  And Dawn illuminates four more selections — jazz singing at its best.

Clint favors what he calls “musical whiplash,” which has a rather ominous ring to it — but it’s not what happens when you’re driving, engrossed in a new CD.  No, what he means is a wide-ranging repertoire, a band comfortable with playing music from the ODJB, King Oliver, operetta and opera (Saint-Saens!), Twenties pop and novelty tunes . . . all with precision and abandon, intensity and relaxation.

The CD runs 73;34, and the songs are OSTRICH WALK / I CAN DREAM, CAN’T I? / TEARS / SWEET MAN / ONE HOUR / YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU (the Hot Five song, not Jolson’s) / LOVING YOU THE WAY I DO / MY HEART AT THY SWEET VOICE / WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MADE / ORIENTAL STRUT / BLUES IN THIRDS / IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE / WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM.

Need more information?  It’s all here: http://www.katiecavera.net/ctb_tears.html

LOUIS GETS THE GROCERIES

“No I don’t try to make an art of my music,” Louis Armstrong once said. “Music is a day’s work and we all ought to do a day’s work. That buys the pork chops.”

The quotation comes from Brian Harker’s new book, the result of a decade’s study of these irreplaceable but often misinterpreted recordings:

I’ve heard only good things about this book and can’t wait to read it myself (I will report back): here’s the link to Mother Amazon —

http://www.amazon.com/Armstrongs-Recordings-Oxford-Studies-Recorded/dp/0195388402/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1301153143&sr=1-1

DROP THAT SACK!

Before the words begin to flow, here’s some convincing evidence, courtesy of my videographer friend Elin Smith — Thomas Winteler’s Jazz Serenaders with Bent Persson playing POTATO HEAD BLUES, recorded at the 2010 Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival:

Thomas and his Jazz Serenaders have recorded DROP THAT SACK! — a CD of music associated with Louis and Sidney Bechet, including their collaborations and ending with two songs associated with later Bechet.  The songs are ONCE IN A WHILE / ALLIGATOR CRAWL / SAVOY BLUES / ORIENTAL STRUT / TEXAS MOANER / DROP THAT SACK! / OLD-FASHIONED LOVE / BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA / PUT ‘EM DOWN BLUES / NOBODY KNOWS YOU WHEN YOU’RE DOWN AND OUT / DON’T FORGET TO MESS AROUND / PERDIDO STREET BLUES / DOWN IN HONKY TONK TOWN / STRANGE FRUIT / VIPER MAD / PETITE FLEUR.

The musicians are Thomas, clarinet, soprano sax; Bent Persson, trumpet, cornet;  Rodolphe Compomizzi, trombone;  Jean-Claude “Lou” Lauprete, piano; 
Pierre-Alain Maret, banjo, guitar; Henry Lemaire, bass; Jean Lavorel, drums.

I hadn’t heard or heard of Thomas before the 2010 festival, but Bent Persson made a special point of recommending him to me — and when Bent recommends another musician, I take it seriously.  Thomas is a superb player; like Bent, he understands not only the records but the idiom, and can nimbly become Bechet or Johnny Dodds while sounding like himself — no small accomplishment.  And the CD is a delightful representation both of the Masters and of the twenty-first century musicians doing them honor.  It’s always a pleasure to hear some of the less-recorded Hot Five and Hot Seven material, and this band is able to summon up the deep melancholy of STRANGE FRUIT as well as the jubilant elevation of VIPER MAD.

Ideally, one would buy a copy of the CD from Thomas at a gig, but for those who aren’t flying around Europe in search of the real thing, the financial details are:

Send your address and 30 swiss francs or 22 euros to :
   Thomas Winteler
   ch. du levant 10B
   1299 Crans-près-Céligny
   Switzerland

(the price includes postal costs)
 

You can find out more about Thomas and his friends (including his substantial discography complete with music clips) at his website, http://www.winteler-music.ch/. 

Finally, some speculative etymology.  I think with affection of the Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky, who wrote in his novel THE COWARDS (or his novella THE BASS SAXOPHONE) of his difficulties with jazz-related English (he was a youthful amateur tenor player during the Second World War): encountering “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” for the first time, he was puzzled by the word-by-word translation: could it really mean “Walking pompously with an animal carcass roasted whole”? 

I have the same feelings about “Drop that sack!”  Is it really an old-time racially-based joke about chicken-stealing, or did it mean, “Let’s get out of here” or “Get rid of that unattractive person”? 

It adds something to the resonance of the words that DROP THAT SACK was one of the two titles that Louis recorded “anonymously” with Lil’s Hot Shots for a competing label while he was under contract to OKeh — trying to hide Louis’s conception and sound would be like pretending the great Chicago Fire wasn’t burning . . . . but I wonder if there are hidden meanings to the expression, just as we later learned that “Struttin’ with some barbecue” was a pre-PC way of saying, “Walking proudly with my beautiful girlfriend.” 

Suggestions, anyone?

LOOKING FOR LOUIS, THEN AND NOW

But which one?  The sound on the records, the iconic image on the television screen, or the actual person?

In the spring of 1967, I was fourteen — someone who had been secretly listening to Louis Armstrong records for a few years.  And I was fortunate enough to be alive when Louis was popular — HELLO, DOLLY! was still vivid in his repertoire and in people’s memories so that he appeared on the Hollywood Palace, with Danny Kaye, alongside Herb Alpert and the Tiajuana Brass, on Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson.

I don’t recall how I learned that Louis and the All-Stars would be playing a concert at the Island Gardens in Hempstead, New York, only a few miles from where we lived.  But the Gardens were terribly far off for me: I had been to New York City but never on my own, and Hempstead had a bad reputation at night.

I begged my father to let me go to the concert, promising that I would not inconvenience anyone but would take a bus there and back.  I think I was a particularly awkward child, myopic and naive, and I am sure that my father shuddered at the thought of me making my way in the bus station.  Both he and my mother enjoyed a wide range of music, although not jazz, and they tolerated the loud rhythmic sounds that came through the floor of my upstairs bedroom.  At least if I was upstairs playing Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland, they knew where I was.  Other children were far more rebellious.

As a result of whatever behind-the-scenes negotiations I can’t imagine now, my father told me that he would take me to the concert, attend it, and take me home.  I was delighted — and the memory of his generous impulse pleases me now.  I wonder only why my mother didn’t want to join us.  Perhaps it was frugality; perhaps there was something she wanted to watch on television that night; she might have welcomed a night to herself.

I was bad at waiting, but as the days ticked down to the concert, it ballooned in my thoughts.  Although I had a pocket Instamatic camera (capable of poor pictures under most circumstances) I never thought of bringing it along. Perhaps I feared that my father would suggest to Louis that he pose with me (or the reverse) and I didn’t take much pleasure at seeing myself in pictures then.  I hadn’t yet been introduced to the cassette recorder, so that was a number of years in the future.  But I could and did spend a good deal of time obsessing over getting Mr. Armstrong’s autograph.

The problem was — in what format?  I had a few of his records, but found reasons to undermine the idea.  The soundtrack of THE FIVE PENNIES somehow didn’t seem appropriate, nor did SATCHMO’S GOLDEN FAVORITES or HELLO, DOLLY!  I could have brought along my precious 10″ LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND GORDON JENKINS, or TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, or even my more recent acquisition, LOUIS ARMSTRONG AND HIS HOT FIVE, a Columbia record produced by George Avakian.  I may have had a half-dozen more, but the idea got more and more complicated.  I didn’t know how deeply Louis loved his own recordings, and I might have thought, “What if he says, ‘I don’t like this record,’ and that ruins the whole encounter?”

I had spent countless hours next to the phonograph’s speaker drinking in the 1927 STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE and its triumphant outchorus, the sweet ruckus of the 1947 AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, the glorious melding of Louis and Gordon Jenkins.  But one by one I dismissed them all.  What would I do with an autographed record album?  How would I display it?  Would it evoke the proper response in Mr. Armstrong, in the one chance I had to approach him?

I’ve read of studies in how much choice people are comfortable with, the extreme end being placing a child at a breakfast table with ten or twelve boxes of cereal . . . and the result is a child in tears.  I didn’t begin to cry at any point in my autograph-considerations, but ultimately I swept all the possibilities away and thought of the simplest situation: a plain unadorned piece of paper for Mr. Armstrong to sign.  True, the 3 x 5 index card I chose lacked character, but it could cause no offense.

I don’t remember going to the concert, although I would guess now that I gave my indulgent father a journey-long informal talk on why Louis Armstrong was important.  And I don’t remember him asking me to be quiet: he understood hero-worship even if he would have chosen a different object for it.

The Island Gardens, which may no longer exist, was a large hall with a semi-circular roof — rather like an elongated Quonset hut — and many rows of pale-grey metal folding chairs.  I am sure we were there early, seated in the front row, and my father bought me the official concert program.  (I may still have it.  As a jazz irrelevancy, I remember that it listed Buster Bailey as the clarinetist, although he had died not long before.)

Then, with no fanfare, no massed bands at the airport, Louis and his musicians entered through a doorway to the right.  I don’t remember what anyone was wearing, but they came in casually, with no one seeming to notice.  They were chatting to themselves.  Probably the bus was parked right outside the door, or had Louis been driven from Corona, perhaps a half-hour away?  I am sure I said in a near-hysterical whisper to my father, “There he is!” and my father would have said, “All right, then, go up and get his autograph.”

Timidly, I got out of my seat, clutching my program and my blank index card.  I remember approaching Louis, with Tyree Glenn standing nearby.  I would not have made any particular impression on any of the musicians: I didn’t have a trumpet case; I wasn’t an attractive young woman.  But this was going to be one of the great moments of my life up to that point: I was going to stand on the same ground as my hero and speak with him, and he would see me.

And (in retrospect) I wanted him to recognize the intensity of my devotion: “Mr. Armstrong, I might say, while everyone around me has been listening to the Beatles and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, I have been in love with your music.  I know every note on this record, and this one, and this one.  I have tape-recorded all your television appearances . . . I ask for your records for birthday presents!”

But when I got close to my hero, the unspoken telepathic communication didn’t happen.  And I was not able to put my impassioned inner monologue into words.  So I simply approached — noticing that he was smaller than I would have expected, having seen him only on record covers and television — and waited.

I hope I waited until he saw me, but I may have put my blank card in front of him and said, nervously, “Mr. Armstrong, would you sign this?”  He barely registered that I was there.  He signed his name and handed the card back, then continued the conversation I probably had interrupted.  For forty years before, he had been signing his name on pieces of paper: what was an extraordinary experience for a little boy hovering in front of the great man was something the great man did every day of his life.

At fourteen I was anything but audacious, so I didn’t even think of saying, “Hey, Mr. Armstrong, what about me?  I love your music!”

All I could do was to turn to Tyree Glenn and ask him for his autograph, which he neatly signed in the space Louis had left.

Disappointed, I went back to my seat and showed my father, who asked me, “Did he say anything to you?”  “No, ” I said — not whimpering, but probably close to it.  I didn’t embellish on that, as I recall, but I might have been thinking, “Here’s the man who seems to be continually having a good time, his features animated by a wonderful grin.  He didn’t look at me.  He didn’t look happy.  Did I do the wrong thing?”

I don’t remember much about the All-Stars show that followed.  Louis, I am sure, gave his all.  He got the audience clapping along on HELLO, DOLLY!  Tyree and he clowned around; Marty Napoleon rippled up and down the keyboard; Buddy Catlett and Danny Barcelona did their features; Jewel Brown (the performer who most intrigued my patient father) sang.  I don’t remember the clarinetist at all, although Ricky Riccardi, my guide in such things, tells me it was probably Johnny Mince.  And Louis?  What I remember most is watching him sit, at the rear of the bandstand, sipping from a paper cup of water, while his All-Stars played.  He seemed drained.  I remember noticing this, but I was wrapped up in my own disappointment.  My ears and eyes may have been so full of the iconic Louis that I was unable to take in the human man in front of me.

I thanked my father when it was all over and we went home.  I had my program and my card (the latter of which I still have — an emotionally-charged piece of paper) and I never got to see Louis again.

The closest I came was being in New York City in early 1971 and seeing posters (two stapled together) around lampposts advertising his appearance at the Waldorf-Astoria, a place that was even more beyond my reach than the Island Gardens had been.  Then he died.

I went on collecting his records, making myself even more of a worshipful Louis-acolyte, and musically he has rarely let me down: in fact, as I have grown older, I have come to hear more in his playing and singing, which both can bring me to tears.

But I have also harbored a small kernel of disappointment, even resentment — both of which are of course unreasonable, but hurt feelings are often not grounded in fact.  How could I have expected Louis to see me, a nearly speechless child, and recognize, “This boy loves my music!  This kid has been listening to my records for years!  He loves me!” if I was unable to say so?

And Louis may simply have been exhausted.  Ricky tells me that Louis’s health was none too good in early 1967, so perhaps he was gathering his strength for a night of exertion.

It has taken me a long time, as much as I revere Louis’s music, to forgive the man for looking right through me.  But it is the adult’s responsibility to do so.

Certainly we expect far more than we should of artists: not only do we demand that they perform up to and beyond our expectations, night after night, but we also crowd around the stage door, asking to be seen, to be acknowledged, when all they may want is to unwind in peace.

Because of the larger-than-life persona Louis created through his music, I expected him to be more than human — to transcend his mortal self.  And when he proved to be — to my eyes — ordinary, life-sized, I was disappointed.  And I remained so, in a small corner of my self, for years.  There is that child-self that is prone to such disillusionments, whether they come from our heroes or our families.  With luck, we never quite leave it behind but it comes to govern us less.

I can imagine an alternate universe where I have stature, where I have brought my Hot Five recording, where the sight of it makes Louis beam — not only recalling the music, but beaming upon the child who has brought him such tribute, obviously a child who understands . . .  But such incidents perfected after the fact are mere indulgences, and I must acknowledge that Louis is dead, 1967 is a long way gone, and I can only have what actually happened, not what should have.

But ultimately Louis was there that night in 1967.  And he remains with us.

HOLA, LOUIS!

The song remains the same, but the labels become multi-lingual.  No harm done!

y mas . . . .

y mas . . . .

Adios, amigos!

LISTENING TO LOUIS?

I’ve just read David Rickert’s assessment of “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946)” issued by Mosaic Records in 2009, an essay published in ALL ABOUT JAZZ.  Rickert’s on the right path, but I found many of his statements confusing, even contradictory.  But before some eager commenters leap to his defense, I am not in the ad hominem trade, merely puzzled.

Here it is, unedited:

As far as recordings by trumpeter Louis Armstrong go, the Decca recordings don’t generate much interest. Prior to them came the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, the most influential jazz recordings ever made and the template for everything that was to come. Afterward came the superb pop recordings for RCA, which showed a masterful entertainer more respected for his vocal prowess than his trumpet playing. The Decca years represent Armstrong’s adolescence: a bit gangly, sometimes awkward, and filled with questionable choices amidst the bold assertions of identity. Part of the problem may be that the Decca recordings have been available somewhat helter skelter over the years. Who better to provide some coherence than Mosaic? The label has compiled everything that Armstrong recorded for Decca, brilliantly remastered from the original metal parts or discs, and with thorough liner notes from jazz veteran Dan Morgenstern to boot. With this seven CD set, it is finally possible to assess this set completely and perhaps more firmly establish them as the great records they are. Critics of these recordings gripe about the subpar quality of the song choice, which is surprisingly inferior given the astounding amount of good songs that were written at the time. A quick glance at the tracks will confirm this suspicion; there are quite a lot of second tier songs (you can often spot them just from the title.) At the time, Joe Glaser had recently become Armstrong’s manager and quickly obtained the services of Jack Kapp at the newly launched Decca label to record him. And record they did—166 tracks over 11 years that also span the infamous recording ban. Kapp saw Armstrong as a novelty act, someone whose numbers might be a little corny and superficial and easy on the ear. In this regard he had much in common with pianist Fats Waller, another mugger who recorded piffle. But also like Waller, Armstrong was always able to turn even the most insignificant material into something special, even if it wasn’t perhaps high art. He also correctly assumed that his performance would carry the material, and more often than not it did. There are some undeniable misfires here, such as a few numbers with a Hawaiian theme, and some gospel numbers, along with a few numbers like “When Ruben Swings the Cuban” that even Armstrong can’t redeem. But there are also quite a few numbers that Armstrong absolutely nails and turns into masterpieces, such as “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque,” “Tiger Rag,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Satchel Mouth Swing” and “Jubilee” proving that a terrific song and superb musicianship can always combine to make musical gold. Anther problem for some critics is the quality of the sidemen. There are really no stellar musicians on the stand, but rather serviceable sidemen capable of playing the charts and managing a decent solo when prompted. Clearly the focus here was on Armstrong and the rest of the band was only called upon to provide sturdy accompaniment and little else. Thus, unlike the Hot Five and Seven Recordings, there’s no pianist Earl Hines or trombonist Kid Ory to keep Armstrong on his toes and match his chops (although truth be told, few could keep up with him). The novelty here is hearing Armstrong navigate the world of big band coming from the smaller groups he had employed earlier. The recordings start out startlingly sweet and progressively get hotter, matched by terrific charts from Sy Oliver and Joe Garland. Armstrong was also paired with other artists from the Decca label such as saxophonist Glen Gray, reed player Jimmy Dorsey and bassist Bob Haggart, all white musicians, and pairings that helped erase the color lines that existed. There are also a few visits with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and a reunion with soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, as well as early appearances with guys like guitarist Dave Barbour who would go on to greater things. Oh yes, and the first pairing of Armstrong and singer Ella Fitzgerald. Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great. A sampling of the best of these records would show how truly great this period was. Mosaic’s warts and all approach necessarily includes some questionable material. But with the Mosaic touch, don’t be surprised if these recordings reemerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.

Rickert ends his piece generously: he won’t “be surprised if these recordings emerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.”  But he begins with the rather curious statement that these same recordings “don’t generate much interest.” 

I wonder if the second statement is a matter of commerce rather than artistic merit.  The Deccas were never reissued intelligently at home.  Rather, they came out in blurts, “Jazz Classics,” “Collector’s Items,” “Golden Favorites,” and several well-meanin but incomplete attempts.  It was left to Gosta Hagglof  to issue the Deccas logically and completely on CD.   

It’s always tempting to see a jazz artist’s career in terms of the progression of record labels, but in doing this, Rickert presents some debatable generalities.  The Hot Five and Seven recordings are “the most influential jazz recordings ever made”; the later Victor sessions produced “superb pop,” where Armstrong’s singing overshadowed his trumpet playing. 

How about the “influential jazz recording, BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and the “superb pop” of JACK-ARMSTRONG BLUES or PENNIES FROM HEAVEN? 

Rickert’s underlying assessment of Armstrong’s career might be something like this: “Louis played pure New Orleans jazz up until 1929, and then was corrupted into “pop” commercialism, with short detours back to Eden when he recorded with homeboys like Bechet and when he played W.C. Handy.  But had he stuck to POTATO HEAD BLUES, what a body of work he might have created!  Alas, poor Satchmo!  I knew him well, before he became popular, that is.” 

This harks back to the ideological wars of the Forties, Moldy Figs arguing with Be-Boppers over whose music was “authentic,” over how one defined “the real jazz.”  I thought we were past those quarrels.

Louis didn’t elevate jazz to the pantheon while lamenting that he was forced to play “pop.”  I doubt that he ever complained in the studio, “Hey, Mr. Kapp, this is piffle you’re asking me to mug.”   

In fact, if you admire what creative improvisers do with their material, what could be better than Louis did with ON A COCOANUT ISLAND?  Did it take more inventiveness for Fats Waller to swing THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART than the MINOR DRAG?  I would think so, but for these musicians, it was all music.  Perhaps even trying to play WHEN RUBEN SWINGS THE CUBAN is a heroic act in itself, and the discographies of many revered jazz musicians show equally unpromising titles. 

To his credit, Rickert recognizes that Armstrong was able to “redeem” many of the song choices and make them “something special.”  But he may confuse the musician, the record company, and the song. 

It is easy to view Armstrong as a good-natured pawn in the hands of White manipulators Jack Kapp and Joe Glaser, Kapp coming in for special excoriation for trying to make Louis a “novelty act.”  But record companies then and now wished to sell records — and, after years when companies went bankrupt, one can hardly blame Kapp for trying to ensure broad popular success. 

If Kapp viewed Armstrong as a “novelty act,” he also did so with his best-selling and most popular artist Bing Crosby, who recorded an even wider range of material with great success.  And the idea of “questionable material” might be one that the artists rarely asked.  And the idea of good songs and bad might be undercut by the results.  Does Billie Holiday sound less like herself on WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO than on YESTERDAYS?  The genius of jazz musicians lies in their ability to transform and transcend the most banal material — it is only in retrospect that jazz critics, praising “forward-looking” and “harmonically adventurous” music, make such distinctions.  I GOT RHYTHM and the blues were perfectly satisfying for Charllie Parker and Sonny Rollins to improvise on.  So, rather than assume that nefarious forces compelled Louis to record SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, we should marvel at what he did with it.  (As an aside, some of his recordings I find most gratifying are the least “jazz-inflected”: consider his Fifties recording of TREES, for one.)    

Rickert, as I do, teaches English, and I admire his equating Louis with Shakespeare.  But I find what follows condusing: “Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great.” 

Should we care how many people admire a particular piece of art?  What has popularity to do with merit? 

And if Rickert could point out to me where “academia” and “Pottery Barn,” meet, I’d be grateful.  I’d even meet him at the clearance sale table.  I applaud the idea of Louis as King Lear — majestic, commanding the winds.  But I don’t think that Louis had to pass through suffering to arrive at true awareness: his music shows that he had reached a deep awareness early.

Ultimately, I wonder if Mr. Rickert was victimized by circumstances in writing his review.  Mosaic box sets — in this case, seven compact discs — are initially overwhelming, not well-absorbed in one or two hurried gulps.  I wonder if he was sent this box with perhaps two weeks to listen to it and write about it.  He would either have had to work his way through the set — rather like doing homework — or to listen to it in pieces, hoping to find the figure in the carpet. 

In either case, I admire his fairness: praising Mosaic, attempting to situate Louis in a cultural context.  But he’s missed some of the beauties of these recordings. 

It’s perfectly understandable to look back to Louis’s partnership with Earl Hines as a high point.  But the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings are in some sense artificial, because Louis never worked with those groups.  The Deccas, for better or worse, represent some of the material Louis was performing every day with working bands.  But to become nostalgic for Kid Ory is to neglect J. C. Higginbotham.  And if you’re looking for a musician perfectly paired with Louis, able to keep up with him and to spur him to new heights, I would submit that Sidney Catlett is the man. 

I would ask Mr. Rickert to listen to WOLVERINE BLUES for Catlett alone, to THANKS A MILLION and SOLITUDE for the beauty of Louis’s expressive singing and playing.  Follow that up with the sides recorded with the Mills Brothers, those dreaded Hawaiian sides, and more.  Only then can he or anyone get a true picture of Louis’s achievement . . . and that might take a good deal of time.

SAN FRANCISCO JOYS (March 24, 2010)

Rae Ann Berry took her video camera to Cafe Divine yesterday (that’s March 24, 2010) to capture the inspired duo of Clint Baker (trumpet, trombone, and more) and Craig Ventresco (the guitar-orchestra).  These two videos are a special kind of jazz — the music that musicians play for themselves when they’re alone or when no one is listening too closely.  It’s hot, fervent, and adventurous — if you make a mistake, you moan and keep playing, for this kind of relaxed playing needs a mistake or two to be real. 

Here Clint and Craig perform a properly slow-moving version of SAVOY BLUES, from the Hot Five book:

And — also circa 1926 — here’s ORIENTAL MAN, complete with verse:

Divine stuff!  I’m looking forward to meeting Rae Ann — in a non-cyber incarnation — this weekend in San Francisco, where I can say THANK YOU! in person.

CELEBRATING “MISS LIL” on RIVERWALK (March 4, 2010 – )

During the week of March 4, 2010, the “Riverwalk” jazz program — featuring Jim Cullum’s Jazz Band and perhaps a guest or two — will be honoring Lillian Hardin Armstrong, someone who deserves attention even when it’s not Women’s History Month. 

Lillian Hardin Armstrong was known as “Miss Lil” to her fellow musicians in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.  On 1945 record labels, she was heralded as “Lil ‘Brown Gal’ Armstrong” — not an offensive racial reference, but a reminder of one of her hit tunes.  But most people know her as one of the earliest (and perhaps most successful) women in jazz and as Louis Armstrong’s second wife and co-composer. 

It’s easy to dismiss Lil Hardin Armstrong as an improviser.  In early recordings, one hears her piano as competent at best: a steady but hardly swinging approach to the music.  Correct and emphatic but not terribly inventive.  And it is ungracious but inevitable to imagine how much more the Hot Five might have swung had Teddy Weatherford or Cassino Simpson or Earl Hines been the pianist. 

But she was one of those musicians we cherish because she improved — by the Thirties, her Decca recordings (now almost impossible to find) show an ebullient vocal personality.  Her compositions were cheerful swing material, and at least one of them — JUST FOR A THRILL — is wonderfully moving.  She knew enough to surround herself with the best players of the period, Chu Berry and Joe Thomas among them.  And she had learned a good deal about playing swing piano — if you compare her recordings from 1926 and a decade later, it’s clear that she had travelled a long distance, not only in concept, but in Hot execution.

But we celebrate her for more personal reasons.  Many married men roll their eyes when they discuss the power that their wives hold in the household and beyond.  “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” Rumpole of the Bailey calls his Hilda.  “The Power Behind The Throne,” says another.  “I’ve got to call home and get my marching orders,” said one of my professors in college, years ago — with some vestige of affectionate resignation.

And Louis Armstrong’s bandmates called him “Hennie,” short for “hen-pecked.”  So Miss Lil, by her own account, was a woman who would say, “Do it this way or I won’t stick around a moment longer.”  She told Louis that she wasn’t going to stay married to a second-trumpet player, and that he had better play first, lead the band. 

But her way — she was ambitious for her husband in ways that he wasn’t — benefitted both Louis and the course of the music.  He would have been more than content to play a supportive role to his musical father, Joe Oliver, for a long time.  But Lil saw what was happening: that Joe was keeping Louis down so that Joe wouldn’t be outshone by the younger man.  She directed Louis’s career until he was a star.  So we owe her thanks for being so — overbearing.  And Louis, late in life, although he was ungenerous about her skills as a pianist and improviser, thanked his pushy wife for aiming him in the directions his talent said he should go.

So when the Riverwalk series (given over to the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and illustrious guest stars) devotes a program to Miss Lil, with the subtitle, “Behind Every Great Man,” it has real validity.  And fine jazz.  The program wil air the week of March 4, 2010 — and, as an extra bonus, the Riverwalk people have included audio clips of Lillian Hardin Armstrong telling her own story. 

Here’s the link where you can find out more AND hear Lil herself reminisce: http://www.riverwalkjazz.org/jazznotes/behind_every_man/

And I’m sure that the Cullum band will do justice to STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE (which I’ve heard was originally a pretty waltz by Lil before Louis changed the tempo) as well as JUST FOR A THRILL and other delights.   

P.S.  If you want to learn more about Miss Lil after you’ve heard the Riverwalk tribute, be sure to visit Chris Albertson’s blog — not only did he record her with a great romping Chicago double-sized band, but he’s also published long sections of her typed autobiography, fascinating stuff.  The first section is http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2009/09/louis-lil-and-little-gangster.html; others follow.

JAMMIN’ AT NICK’S: Jan. 11, 2010

On January 10, 2010, the energetic Rae Ann Berry captured these performances by the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation Staff and Directors Band — jamming at Nick’s at Rockaway Beach in Pacifica, California.  It wasn’t the Nick’s of “sizzling steaks” and fabled memory, where Eddie Condon and his friends played before Eddie decided to open his own club in 1946, but the ambiance was the same.  In fact, both selections — SUNDAY and AM I BLUE? — are played at those nice medium tempos that musicians of a certain age and musical education associate with Condon.  And the solos — compact and eloquent — would have pleased him greatly. 

The players are Bob Schulz, cornet; Bill Carter, clarinet; Marty Eggers, piano; Bill Reinhart, bass; Scott Anthony, guitar; and Virginia Tichenor, drums.  It’s possible, if you get into the right mindset, to imagine — in your mind’s ear — that this is a session for Commodore or Decca, with Bob’s serious, flexible lead (Marsala, Max, or Muggsy), Bill’s curlicues (reminiscent of Pee Wee, Cless, or Marsala) and a strong rhythm section driven by Scott’s swinging guitar and Marty’s Stacyish piano.  And — with apologies to the dozen fine trombonists I know — the simple two-man frontline is eager, dancing, and light on its feet.

Ignore the dancers; ignore the conversation: the music’s delightful.  No one was embarking on a studious repertory recreation: they just got in the spirit and stayed there.  All hail!  (And Rae Ann has posted another substantial handful of performances by this band with guest singer Pat Yankee, doing old favorites and Hot Five tunes.  Rewarding stuff!)

O RARE BENT PERSSON (and FRIENDS)!

Last night — Thursday, July 9, 2009 —  I witnessed the kind of jazz creativity and bravery that at times left me with tears in my eyes. 

The occasion was a concert organized by the Swedish trumpeter / cornetist / Louis Armstrong scholar Bent Persson, one of my heroes, in tribute to his hero Louis: “YOUNG LOUIS,” which — in two hour-long sets — demonstrated much about Louis’s first six years of recordings as well as the majesty of players now alive. 

The band was a stellar international crew: Mike Durham, tpt, joining Bent at the start and finish, as well as being a most adept and witty master of ceremonies; the gruff trombonist Paul Munnery; the brilliant reedman (clarinet and alto this time) Matthias Seuffert; the nimble pianist Martin Litton; the remarkable plectrist (banjos and guitar) Jacob Ullberger; the very fine brass bassist Phil Rutherford; the frankly astonishing percussionist Nick Ward.  The concert took place at the very modern Sage Gateshead in Newcastle, UK — lovely acoustics and a sound engineer at the back who was truly paying attention!  I attempted to videotape the whole thing (being a man of daring but not much discretion) but was stopped by an usher who whispered ferociously that there was NO photography of any kind allowed and I would have to leave if I continued . . . so I stopped.  But I did capture the band’s second song, a stately rock through King Joe Oliver’s WHERE DID YOU STAY LAST NIGHT? — much as it might have sounded in Chicago, 1922-23.  My video doesn’t capture everything — but you can see the graceful arcs of Nick Ward’s arms behind his drum set: I had a hard time taking my eyes off of him.   

Lovely as it is, that performance can’t summon up all of what I found so moving in this concert.  It wasn’t a pure repertory performance, where musicians strive to reproduce old records “live”; no, what was fascinating was the fervent interplay between the Past and Now, between the Great Figures and the living players onstage.  Everyone in this band knew the original records, but they were encouraged to dance back and forth between honoring the past by playing it note-for-note and by going for themselves.  Thus, Bent created solos that sounded like ones Louis might have — should have! — recorded, and his bravery and risk-taking were more than heartening.  I have never seen him in person, and he would give the most timid of us courage to learn the craft, to shut our eyes, and to make something new.  His playing on POTATO HEAD BLUES was immensely moving — watching him dare the Fates and declare his love for Louis in front of our eyes.  Bent also sang in several performances — mostly scatting, but once or twice delivering the lyrics in a sweetly earnest way — another example of an artist going beyond the amazing things we’ve already come to expect.  It was also delightful to watch the musicians grin broadly at each other as the beautiful solos and ensemble work unfolded.   

The concert moved briskly from Louis’s sojourn with Oliver to his work with Clarence Williams small groups, his own Hot Five and Seven, an evocation of Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards, Louis’s duet with Earl Hines, his Hot Choruses (as reimagined by Bent over a thirty-year period), with more than a few surprises.  One of them — gloriously — was the appearance of bass saxophone titan Frans Sjostrom for a version of BEAU KOO JACK by the trio called, so correctly, the Hot Jazz Trio (their one CD is under that name on the Kenneth label): Bent, Jacob, and Frans.  Wonderful both in itself and as a reinvention of that brightly ornate recording.  Sjostrom stayed around for the final ensemble celebration on HIGH SOCIETY, which brought tears to my eyes.   

I am posting this on Friday morning, hours before the Whitley Bay extravaganza — some 130 bands playing in rotation for three days in four simultaneous locations — is scheduled to begin.  There’ll be more magnificent, moving jazz, I am sure!  It promises to be both uplifting and overwhelming.  (And, as an extra delight, I am joined here by two of my three Official British Cousins — Bob Cox and John Whitehorn — men of great humor, generosity, and sensibility — whom I first met at Westoverledingen, Germany, in 2007, when we were rapt attendees at another Manfred Selchow jazz festival.  Always nice to have friends nearby!)

A postscript: at the concert, copies of an otherwise unknown compact disc were for sale — a recording of a similar YOUNG LOUIS concert from 2002, with many of the same players.  I snapped up one copy (paying for it, of course) and by the end of the concert, the CDs were all gone.  Let us hope that Bent and Co. choose to reissue that one and other versions.  I’m going to treasure it, as well as my memories of the concert I experienced.

ALISON KERR CELEBRATES JABBO SMITH

This is a wonderful piece by the Scottish journalist and friend of jazz, in celebration of one of the music’s most free spirits, the trumpeter Jabbo Smith.  I would add only that the 1961 sessions she refers to have priceless playing not only by Jabbo, Marty Grosz, and Mike McKendrick — but astounding solos and ensemble alchemy from clarinetist Frank Chace. 

The Contender

In Jazz Profiles on June 24, 2009 at 1:07 am

Jabbo 1 Amongst the many notable jazz anniversaries of recent months, one important one has been pretty much universally overlooked. December 2008 was the centenary of a trumpet legend with whom jazz history has been particularly careless. He was lost, found and lost and found again – so it’s almost fitting that his centenary went by unnoticed. Even in death, he’s an elusive character.

His name was Jabbo Smith, and, at the peak of his powers and the height of his celebrity, he was regarded by many as the only serious challenge to Louis Armstrong’s position as the greatest trumpet player of them all. But just over a decade later, he had slid out of the limelight and was all but forgotten.

Born in Georgia in December 1908, Jabbo Smith was christened Cladys to complement the name of a cousin, Gladys, who was just a few days older. His mother, who played the church organ, struggled to raise him by herself. Eventually, when Jabbo was six, she was forced to hand him over to the care of the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina. This institution supported itself by teaching the children to play music and then sending its student bands all over the country, to all the major cities. Jabbo quickly mastered trumpet and trombone and was duly sent out on tour from an early age. He invariably used these excursions as a launchpad for an escape bid..

When he was 14 years old, he ran away and remained free for three months, during which time he worked with a professional band in Florida. Two years later, he left the orphanage for good and headed for his half-sister’s home in Philadelphia. There, he immediately found work.

In 1925, at the age of just 17, he was playing in one of the most popular bands of the day, the Charlie Johnson band in New York – having already made his recording debut with no less a bandleader than Clarence Williams.

Jabbo – whose nickname came from an Indian character in a William S Hartman western – was already beginning to be regarded as something of a sensation when he replaced Bubber Miley for the Duke Ellington band’s November 1927 recordings of Black and Tan Fantasy. So impressed was Ellington with Jabbo’s playing that he offered him a job. Happy with the Charlie Johnson band and unimpressed by the money being offered, Jabbo turned him down – a move which he may not have regretted, but subsequent generations of his admirers undoubtedly have.

He went on, in 1928, to join Fats Waller, James P Johnson and Garvin Bushell in the band playing for the Broadway show Keep Shufflin’ – the results can be heard on the four numbers this band, known as the Louisiana Sugar Babies, recorded together.

Keep Shufflin’ closed suddenly in Chicago in 1929 when its backer, Arnold Rothstein, notorious as the mobster who had fixed the 1919 baseball World Series, was the victim of a gangland murder. Jabbo may have found himself stranded in the Windy City, but the show’s impromptu closing had fortunate results for jazz recording history: the Chicago-based Brunswick Record Company offered him the chance to record 19 sides designed to compete with Louis Armstrong’s hugely successful Hot Five and Hot Seven records, which were making money by the bucket-load for the rival Okeh label.

For what became the definitive Jabbo Smith sides, Jabbo not only led the band, which was assembled by the banjo player Ikey Robinson and christened the Rhythm Aces, but he also wrote all the numbers and sang on many of them – in his distinctive scat style. He was still only 20, and his youthful energy simply explodes out of tracks such as Sau-Sha Stomp, Take Your Time and Boston Skuffle.

Not only that, but his style of playing is dazzling. He was technically brilliant, completely at ease playing in the upper register and able to deliver one fantastic break after another. In 1955, the bass player Milt Hinton was quoted as saying: “Jabbo was as good as Louis then. He was the Dizzy Gillespie of that era. He played rapid-fire passages while Louis was melodic and beautiful.” Another trumpet great who was around at the same time as both Jabbo and Louis was Doc Cheatham who said that in the late 1920s, Jabbo was as good as Armstrong but that they were “very different players and that Jabbo shouldn’t be judged by comparisons”.

Despite his astonishing and highly individual style of playing on the Brunswick sides, Jabbo couldn’t shake off hims image as an Armstrong imitator – much to his chagrin. The record company pulled the plug on the Rhythm Aces recordings because the records weren’t the commercial success that they’d hoped for. A year after their release, Jabbo went to Milwaukee and spent several years playing with different bands there and in Chicago. He seems to have drifted between the two cities. Late in his life, he told the trumpeter Michel Bastide: “You get into a little trouble in Chicago – you run to Milwaukee… You get into a little trouble in Milwaukee – you run to Chicago.”

In 1936, the bandleader Claude Hopkins heard Jabbo as he passed through Milwaukee and signed him up for two years. Then, in 1938, Jabbo made what would turn out to be his last recordings for over 20 years, when he recorded four more of his own compositions for Decca – including the gorgeous ballad Absolutely and the jaw-droppingly complex Rhythm in Spain.

Jabbo slid into obscurity but seems to have been content to do so. Although he was wild and unruly as a young man, he has been described by many who knew him later in his life as a quiet, introverted character – something of a loner – who seems to have been quite happy to take whatever came his way. He certainly never sought fame – which is just as well, because he never again reached the heights he scaled when he was just 20.

Jabbo was more or less forgotten about by the mid-1950s when Milt Hinton’s comments for the Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya oral history prompted renewed interest in him. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that he was tracked down to Milwaukee and brought to Chicago for a recording session with a local rhythm section which included the guitarist Marty Grosz.

Grosz has described Jabbo as a free spirit, someone who followed his own path. It’s an assessment which ties in with Milt Hinton’s statement that if Jabbo made enough money for drinks and women in any small town, he would stay put. Michel Bastide, whose Hot Antic Jazz Band toured and recorded with Jabbo in the trumpeter’s seventies, believes that Jabbo was easily distracted by women and might have fared better in his musical career if he had had someone to look after him and advise him in the way that Lil Hardin did for Louis Armstrong.

When Jabbo was tracked down in 1961, he hadn’t touched his trumpet for nearly two decades and had been working for Avis car hire for many years. He said that he had married and settled down in Milwaukee, playing trumpet in a nightclub at first. When the club closed down, he simply put his horn under his bed and found himself another job. But he did continue composing.

After his rediscovery in the early 1960s, Jabbo seems to have retreated from the limelight once more. He next popped up in the mid-1970s when the impresario George Wein invited him to New York to receive an award as one of the greatest living musicians in jazz history. This time, he was back to stay: he began practising the trumpet again thanks to the encouragement of the clarinettist Orange Kellin who invited him to New Orleans, to play in his band. This led to his being hired for the show One More Time which earned him euphoric reviews.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jabbo enjoyed a last blast of glory. He played the New York jazz clubs and worked with such diverse names as Thad Jones and Don Cherry. He also toured in Europe, in the company of a French jazz band which had been born out of a shared love of his recordings. The members of the Hot Antic Jazz Band – led by trumpeter Michel Bastide – spent three years mastering Jabbo’s 1929 repertoire and were thrilled when he agreed to come on tour and record with them.

Their affection for him and enthusiasm for his music clearly paid off: the resulting LPs (Zoo and We Love You Jabbo) are delightful and provide a happy ending for what could have been yet another sad jazz tale. Jabbo Smith died in January 1991, leaving his trumpet to the Antics’ Michel Bastide.

RECOMMENDED LISTENING

* Jabbo Smith: The Complete Jabbo Smith Hidden Treasure Sessions (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10352) is newly out

* Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces 1929-1938 (Classics Records 669)

“HAPPY BIRDLAND TO YOU!” (MAY 6, 2009)

The Beloved and I went to Birdland last night, video camera and tripod at the ready, to celebrate.  Not an occasion of our own, but to raise our glasses and cheer a long run that shows no sign of abating.  It’s the Wednesday night gig of David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band (a/k/a/ the Gully Low Jazz Band) — which celebrated its ninth anniversary.  As David correctly pointed out, a two-week gig in jazz is a rare thing.  So for the LACB to be on the stand for approximately four hundred and fifty Wednesdays in a row is testimony to their endurance, the love they generate in their audiences, and the lasting appeal of the music they play and the exuberant way they play it.  It also says something about the enduring appeal of the man whose music they celebrate, but that should be obvious to everyone by now.

This Wednesday’s gig wasn’t a riotous affair.  True, a tidy little cake with one candle appeared during the second set, but the general atmosphere was superficially quiet.  But that’s a good thing in a jazz club when it is the attentiveness of a great band (musicians who listen to each other!) focused on their material and the quiet of a happy, perceptive audience, listening closely — people sitting straight in their chairs, grinning, tapping their feet, applauding in the right places.  A hip band, a hip crowd.  Just how hip was the crowd?  How about George Avakian, Daryl Sherman, Dan Morgenstern, Lloyd Moss, the Beloved, and myself.

The band was a first-class version of David’s floating ensembles: Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Vincent Gardner on trombone and vocal; Anat Cohen on clarinet; Mark Shane on piano; David Ostwald on tuba and commentary; Kevin Dorn, “young Kevin,” on drums.  Here’s some of what they played — for those of you beyond midtown.

About the music: they began this Wednesday as they always have, in tribute to the Louis Armstrong All-Stars of blessed memory, with a nostalgic WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN that segued, after Kevin kicked it off, into a rousing BACK HOME AGAIN IN INDIANA.  (For wise commentary on Louis and the All-Stars, be sure to visit Ricky Riccardi’s site, “The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong,” and save your dimes (get some cash for your trash!) for his book on Louis’s later years, to be published in 2010 by Pantheon.

ROYAL GARDEN BLUES is a song that has been flattened down somewhat by formulaic playing by many jazz bands of varying quality, but it was first a tribute to the place where Louis and King Oliver amazed everyone, so it has to be taken seriously.  And Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang did a pretty good version of it as well.  (So did Count Basie and the Benny Goodman Sextet, so the song — and its routines — are durable for sure.)

Don Redman’s pretty rhythm ballad, SAVE IT PRETTY MAMA, was recorded twice by Louis — in 1928 with his Hot Five, and in 1947 at Town Hall.  In these days of economic uncertainty, saving whatever “it” might be seems like a good idea, and Vincent Gardner sings the simple lyrics with conviction and a bit of amusement.

W.C. Handy’s compositions drew on traditional folk and blues forms, and ATLANTA BLUES is one of his most lively, also memorably recorded by Louis in his 1954 Columbia tribute, a recording produced by the venerable and venerated Mr. Avakian.

I don’t think Louis ever recorded SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART but it’s certainly a lasting tune.  Here, the spotlight falls on a quartet: Anat, Mark, David, and Kevin, at points summoning up the happiness that was the Benny Goodman Trio.  Or Mildred Bailey’s recording with Teddy Wilson.  (Mark knew the verse and played it splendidly.)

Finally, a delightful surprise: the Wednesday manager of Birdland, Brian Villegas, is also a fine singer: he joined the band on IT’S ALL RIGHT WITH ME — and it was more than all right with us.  Wishing you fame and happiness, Brian!

If you couldn’t make it to Birdland last night to join in the festivities, you missed something dee-licious, as Louis would say.  But some of the same hot jazz and good energy will be there next Wednesday from 5:30 – 7:15, and the Wednesdays into the future.  I’m sure David will accept belated felicitations with his usual graciousness.

LOUIS, AN ECSTATIC EXPERIENCE

louis-posterSam Parkins, bless him, sent me the backstory (or is it “prequel”?) to his 1945 Louis experience, which I posted as LOUIS AND “THAT MODERN MALICE”:

A note from now – January 2009: It’s impossible to overstate Louis’ nearly-vanished position in the early 40s, when I came into jazz sentience.  To us hep-cats he was only slightly more ‘there’ than Alphonse Picou (whom no one had heard of).  We’d heard of Louis, but he hadn’t mattered for years.  I did have a high school classmate who kept a wind-up Victrola and some 78s in the garage, but when he tried playing me some red-label Columbia Hot Fives they didn’t register so he gave up.  Benny and Duke (oh all right – and Glenn Miller) were pretty nearly all there was.

So the following trip was – well – a trip: 1945 was a hell of a year.  A half-dozen big things happened: I got drafted, Roosevelt died, VE day, I heard Louis Armstrong for the first and almost last time (drunk in Geneva – the other time – doesn’t count), VJ day, Bird and Diz first record, Stravinsky writes “The Ebony Concerto” for the Woody Herman band… I was let out of basic training end of March just after VE day and given a chance to go back to college for engineering.  Seemed vastly superior to heading for the Pacific so I didn’t tell them I had already switched to a music major at Cornell, and fetched up at the University of Kentucky, where the girl/boy ratio was 5-1.  Cool.

I’d been there three days – and met a girl acquaintance downtown on the main (and only) drag by the drugstore. Saturday afternoon.  There’s no possibility of transcribing this but I’ll try: “Yawgnjlnnye?”  It evolved that Louis Armstrong was playing at the Joyland Ballroom that night and was I going?  Joyland was the classic American amusement park and ballroom, built by the trolley company, always at the end of line to get customers out on weekends.  Think Coney Island.  So I took her.  At least I took her, bought tickets and got her in the door.  Then Louis started to play and I was rooted to the floor in front of the stage, which was high, at shoulder level (a good idea if there’s a riot – and I’ve been in one, at a wedding where the bride was Irish and the groom Polish.  High stage saved the band).  Never saw the girl again. (But I did see one of the dancers.  Barefoot guy, nearly seven feet tall, very long – past shoulder length – hair, in an era where that simply wasn’t done.  Guy stood out.  Jitterbugging like hell.  Must have still been with girl; asked her “Whoozat?”  “Oh – that’s a hillbilly. They come down from Harlan County.”    Ferociousest lookin’ guy I ever saw).

Rooted to the floor with tears streaming down my cheeks.  Louis could play one note and destroy me.  Never ever let up.  This was his traveling big band, one nighters all over the country, and this was the South, where by all accounts the going was rough for a black band.  He could – and I think this was true all his life – only play and sing wide open. And that doesn’t mean loud.  “Commitment and Abandon”?  This is it.

I look over my long life in music and can think of only one comparable experience.  Bob Palmer, our composition teacher at Cornell, took us – his class of four would-bes – up to Eastman to hear Frederick Fennell conduct the student orchestra in Bartok’s “Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste”.  Bartok had just died, and his music immediately spread like a tidal wave everywhere.  Erased everyone else for a few years.  At the end of the performance Fennell asked the audience, “Would you like to hear it again?”  Of course we would.  At the end of the second go-’round I nearly fainted – had to be partly carried to the door.  Too much emotion.

(And folks – tell me: can any of the other arts do that to you?).

Stoned: Like most bands in the ballroom era, Louis only took one break – no more that a half-hour.  His arranger had his office across the hall from Big Nick’s studio over the Savoy in Boston; when I was about to leave for the army he said, “If you run into Louis on the road, say ‘Hi’ for me”.  So at intermission I went back stage, found Louis’ road manager, flashed the arranger’s name (which I’ve forgotten) and asked for an autograph (on my gold-rimmed union card – issued when drafted, dues suspended).  He disappears, comes back with Louis and introduces me.  Louis reaches out his hand to shake, and I really shouldn’t try to transcribe this one.  Guttural utterances, no recognizable words at all.  I thing he was working on “pleasedtameetcha”.  So wrecked he couldn’t talk.  (Now you know why he needed Joe Glaser).  But he could play and sing like an angel.  (All sources including All-Star players I know agree that it was mostly pot.  He did drink a little Slivovitz, but only at parties).

I asked my father (doctor) about this phenomenon and he told me about a colleague, brain surgeon, deep in the toils of senile dementia – and still able to do the most delicate surgery.  Dad said that what ever you’ve spent your life doing day in and day out is so embedded in the brain (sounds like a back-up circuit) that it’s often available when everything else has packed it in.  Regarding music against speech – nowdays we would say that speech is left lobe and music right, and right is apparently more durable.

So what do I close the 20th century with?  Only Louis and his idol Caruso (played on a wind-up Victrola on the original discs please.  Anything more modern destroys his soul; digital buries him) have the ability to by-pass hearing.

They go straight to the gizzard and shake it up mercilessly.

A note from a grateful reader: now you see why I praise Sam as a writer — intent, exuberant, apparently heedless but knowing what he’s up to all the time.