Tag Archives: Hot Seven

“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!

“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.

SOULFUL ELEGANCE: JOE THOMAS, TRUMPET

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.)

May your happiness increase.

“POTATO HEAD BLUES”: BENT PERSSON’S HOT SEVEN at the 2011 WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (thanks to Elin Smith and Flemming Thorbye)

That’s Bent on trumpet and Hot Choruses; Kristoffer Kompen, trombone; Matthias Seuffert, clarinet; Keith Nichols, piano; Phil Rutherford, sousaphone; Keith Stephen,banjo; Nick Ward, drums.  All of this music was originally created and recorded in 1927 Chicago — as Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven.

“Hot Choruses” might require a few lines of explanation. In that year, with Louis’s fame growing, he was asked to record a series of “hot choruses” and “breaks” that other trumpeters might — with practice — incorporate into their performances.  The recordings have never been found, but the books still exist, and Bent made a deep and lengthy study of them . . . the results exist on four records or three CDs on the Kenneth label — rewarding and inventive music.  On the last two songs here, Bent incorporates a Hot Chorus — especially revealing in BLACK BOTTOM STOMP, a Morton composition Louis never recorded on his own.

ALLIGATOR CRAWL (Thorbye):

POTATO HEAD BLUES (Elin):

WEARY BLUES (Thorbye): with a Hot Chorus

BLACK BOTTOM STOMP (Thorbye): with a Hot Chorus

Once again, thanks to the generous Flemming Thorbye and Elin Smith for these videos: see more at “elinshouse” and “thorbye” on YouTube!

‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN WILLIAMSBURG: GORDON AU’S GRAND STREET STOMPERS (May 12, 2011)

I made my monthly pilgrimage to the Radegast Bierhall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn last Thursday (May 12, 2011) and had a delightful evening with trumpeter / composer Gordon Au’s Grand Street Stompers. 

The May edition of the GSS had Gordon, Matt Musselman on trombone, Matt Koza on clarinet, Davy Mooney on guitar, Rob Adkins on bass, and Giampaolo Biagi on drums.

The GSS did what they do so well: they swung, they had a wonderful ensemble sound and rocking motion; they created beautiful solos.  And in the manner of the late Ruby Braff, Gordon showed himself once again to be not only a soaring trumpeter but a peerless on-the-spot arranger, setting up little duets and exchanges on the bandstand.  Here are ten examples of this band’s easy grace.

The first tune comes with its own story.  I had fallen in love with the 1922 or 3 bit of manufactured sentimentality for the Old South and Mammy’s nest, TUCK ME TO SLEEP IN MY OLD ‘TUCKY HOME, ever since I heard John Reynolds sing it at this year’s Monterey Jazz Bash by the Bay.  (Pianist Chuck Folds had once written that Vic Dickenson loved to play it, so I hear Vic in my mind’s ear as I write this.)

When the GSS began their first song, I knew I had heard it but didn’t recognize it.  It sounded good — and then, as they say in the UK, the penny dropped: it was ‘TUCKY HOME.  What a treat!  Dig it for yourselves:

Then, a famous “Dixieland” standard — bringing Eddie Condon’s club to Brooklyn, FIDGETY FEET:

Gordon’s musical imagination is anything but narrow (as previous posts have shown): here’s an “Afro-Cuban” composition by Arturo O’Farrill, CAMPINA:

I associate SOUTH with the Bennie Moten band, with California revivalist groups, and a wonderful session pairing Louis and the Dukes of Dixieland:

I don’t know why my mind retains such things, but after the band launched into ABA DABA HONEYMOON with a fine lope, I recalled that Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter had performed it in some MGM musical — and that its cheerfully silly lyrics delineate (politely) the romance of the chimpanzee and the monk.  You figure it out while I listen to the GSS:

Cross-species love having its happy ending, the GSS could move to less biologically-fraught terrain wittheir tribute to the 1927 Hot Seven masterpiece, POTATO HEAD BLUES (whose title caused such scholarly commotion on this blog some months back).  Not only is it an engaging composition on its own, but the ensemble version of Louis’s solo is a real delight:

Here’s one of Gordon’s characteristically winding originals — it doesn’t always land where you think it might, which is a lovely thing.  The title is SO MUCH FOR LOVE, and I hope Gordon will set lyrics to this melody (he’s a fine lyricist, too):

A night with the Grand Street Stompers wouldn’t be complete without one of their excursions into Disney territory — here, ZIP-A-DEE-DOO-DAH, which swings from the start.  Catch the impromptu brass riff behind Matt Koza’s second chorus:

For Louis or Fats Domino?  I couldn’t tell, but BLUEBERRY HILL still works, more than sixty years later, especially with plunger mute:

And an old-time jam session favorite to end this posting, I NEVER KNEW:

Its title is slightly off, because the Grand Street Stompers surely know . . . .

I believe that they will be at Radegast on June 15, for a CD release party — not to be missed!

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?

THE “POTATO HEAD” MYSTERY SOLVED AT LAST!

The genial man to the left doesn’t exactly resemble Sherlock Holmes or even Dr. Watson, but he’s helped me solve a nagging mystery.  He’s Dr. Julius “Boo” Hornstein, longtime resident of Savannah, Georgia, and chronicler of its varied jazz scenes.  His research, memories, and appropriate photographs have been published in his book, SITES AND SOUNDS OF SAVANNAH JAZZ (Gaston Street Press).  In it, I found more than I’d expected about King Oliver’s last days and his benefactor Frank Dilworth — and anecdotes about Jabbo Smith, Johnny Mercer, Ben Tucker, and other improvising natives.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing this post.  Exhibit A:

Recorded by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven in 1927, POTATO HEAD BLUES has been a mystery to many for nearly eighty years.  The music itself isn’t mysterious — exultant, rather — but the title has puzzled jazz enthusiasts forever.  Some plausibly have thought it came from the teasing way New Orleans musicians made up names for each other based on essential physiognomy — and one of my readers, Frank Selman, wisely suggested that the title was a sly dig at Clarence Williams, whose cranial structure resembled an Idaho Russet.

Eighty pages into Dr. Hornstein’s book, we meet Sam Gill — not the Brooklyn-born bassist who recorded and played with Randy Weston, Monk, and Blakey, but a Savannah-born trumpet player who (as a young man) had met the down-on-his-luck Joe Oliver. 

But I’ll let Dr. Hornstein lead us back to POTATO HEAD BLUES:

Sam Gill is the kind of guy who likes to tell a story.  Consider this.  We’re sitting around City Market Cafe one early summer afternoon, and Sam is holding forth.  “You ever heard the expression ‘potato head’?  You know, ‘So-and-so is nothing but a potato head?’  No one in our group can rightly say that we have, so Sam proceeds to set us straight.  ‘Well, the expression goes way back in time and has to do with the parades which frequently took place on West Broad Street.  If you were an important figure in the black community, say, a businessman, it was expected of you to have your own band to march in the parades.  The bigger the band, the better in terms of your the image.  So, every now and then you would beef up your band with one or two good-looking men.  The problem was, a lot of the time these fellows looked good, but they couldn’t play.  So, you’d put a potato in the bell of their horns and let them march.  Of course, no sound came out, but that was okay ’cause you only wanted the guys to look good.  That’s how they got to be known as potato heads.” 

You have no idea how relieved I am by this riddle, now unraveled for all time.  And how prescient of Louis not to have turned to his band and said, “Boys, I have a new song for us: it’s about those street parades in New Orleans.  You’ll never forget it: BLUES FOR THE CATS WHO COULDN’T PLAY SO WE HAD TO MAKE SURE WE COULDN’T HEAR THEM PLAY A NOTE EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE SHARP-LOOKING CATS.  One, two!”

Thank you, Sam Gill; thank you, Dr. Hornstein — we’ll all sleep better tonight!

THE VOICE OF MUSIC

I began my jazz life rather innocently as a Listener: a child sitting close to a V-M (The Voice of Music, it said on the inside lid) three-speed phonograph.  I can summon up the worn brown felt of the turntable, the pattern of the speaker grille.  And as I listened to the record of the moment I watched the label revolve, transfixed both by the music and by the whirling shapes the writing on the label made.  When the record ended, I picked up the tone arm and placed it in the outer groove to hear and watch it, dreamily, again. 

I progressed through different phonographs, tape recorders, portable cassette recorders, and learned (as life became busier) to start the music playing and do other things at the same time: type an undergraduate Milton essay while Louis and his Hot Seven played in the background, make breakfast while listening to Lee Wiley.  But the musicians had no more tangible presence than what I might see on television or in the pictures adorning a record’s liner notes.  I did see Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars in the spring of 1967, but that is another essay. 

Aside from Louis, I didn’t truly see live jazz until 1969 or 1970.  I think it was at Town Hall in New York City, produced by the late Dick Gibson, featuring not only the World’s Greatest Jazz Band but also Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Joe Newman, and perhaps Garnett Brown.  Heady stuff!  Now, from my seat (clutching my forbidden cassette recorder) I could watch Al and Zoot speak to one another; I could see my hero Vic Dickenson, tall, thin, leaning slightly to one side.   

I had moved away from the speaker, even though concerts in large halls kept the musicians as tiny, eloquent figures whom I could hear but not converse with.  It was only in the very early Seventies that I was able to see jazz performed in clubs — where I could timidly approach Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Bob Wilber, and others to ask for their autographs.  And the conversations that sprang out of these encounters were barely defined as “conversation.”  Nervous and admiring, a Fan, a record album clutched under my arm, I would timidly ask, “May I have your autograph?” or “Would you sign this for me, Mr. Sims?”  (I showed Zoot Sims an album he had appeared on for English RCA, and he said, “Gee, they must have made this when Bucky and I were appearing at Soerabaja.  I’ve never heard it.”  I said, “Would you like me to make you a copy of it?” He grimaced and said, “Oh, no, no thanks.”) 

While I was busy being a Fan (and occasionally an Amateur Photographer), I was also bringing various tape-recorders, which made me a Taper . . . evoking occasionally strong reactions.  Cyril Haynes refused to play until I put my cassette recorder away; Wild Bill Davison wanted to be paid off in Scotch; Dicky Wells pantomimed vigorous negation; Kenny Davern rather kindly told me that my microphone placement was all wrong (after Mike Burgevin had assured him I was on the right side of things); Ruby Braff lectured me by mail on the importance of having fresh batteries.  I saw Ray Nance several nights in a row in a Long Island club — he played and sang marvelously — and when I gave him a reel-to-reel copy of a concert he had performed in two years earlier, he looked at it as if he didn’t quite know what he was supposed to do with it, although collectors had been offering him such things for decades. 

Being a Taper was delicate business, but often rewarding, although musicians (with justification) tend to view me with skepticism: what is going to happen to those tapes that kid is making?  Does he have his own bootleg label; is he going to make money out of my work?

I became more than a Taper in 2000, when I began to write CD reviews . . . first for the IAJRC Journal, then the Mississippi Rag, for Cadence and All About Jazz (associations that happily have continued), for Coda and Jazz Improv . . . and liner notes.  These effusions brought me into a different relationship with the musicians. 

Simply put, I got closer to the players but often my distance increased.

A paradox, you say?  As a Listener, I was invisible and anonymous; as a Fan, I appeared and had substance for a minute or two.  As a Taper, I was mostly a nuisance, although some musicians actually wanted to hear what the tapes sounded like. 

But as a Reviewer, a Writer, a (whisper this), a Critic, I had a name and perhaps the power to exalt or to annoy.  Most often, I was the person who said to Bill Charlap, “You don’t know me, but I loved your _______ CD and wrote a very enthusiastic review of it for Cadence.”  And he politely, happily, said, “Yes, I remember that review.  It was very nice — thank you so much!” 

I haven’t had to deal with musicians who are irritated by what I’ve written, although I’ve received a few sharp-edged emails from a producer and another jazz critic, both of them who told me I was being deeply unfair when I thought I was telling the truth. 

But when I began to be someone ever so slightly known in local jazz circles as the fellow who could help you publicize your upcoming gig in the Mississippi Rag, or the person who might write a laudatory review of your self-produced CD, a slight edge crept into some interchanges.  Nothing dramatic happened, but I felt that relations between me (a non-Musician) and the Musicians were simpler when I was not in a position to say something in print about their latest efforts, to effect their livelihood.

 There were immense rewards, of course: I got to meet and talk to many more of my heroes on a different footing — a Friend of the Music as well as a Member of the Jazz Press, and I am always happy when people come over and say hello. 

All of this changed slightly more than two years ago when I created this blog, and acquired the first of a series of video cameras.  The experience of this blog has been more favorable than I can say, and I have used it to celebrate improvisations from the whole range of jazz’s history and to make it possible for people who live far away to see and hear their heroes. 

The video camera, however, is a different matter.  The cassette recorder, the reel-to-reel recorder, the digital recorder, all came with their own baggage or perhaps freight, all understandable.  The musician who has a cold, or would rather be elsewhere, looks down at the technology and might say, inwardly, “Oh, damnit — all my imperfections are going to be recorded for posterity; jazz collectors who are this guy’s friends are going to be getting free copies of my music; they won’t have to buy my CDs.  What will I get out of it?”  But when I discovered YouTube — probably years after many more technologically-sophisticated jazz fans — the world opened up for me.  Not only could I bring home an audio recording of what I’d just heard (to copy for the musicians and a few friends): I could record the event visually as well as audibly, and send it around the world. 

Most of the musicians have been exceptionally tolerant and gracious.  And there have been only a few times in two years of video recording where a musician has asked me to remove a performance from circulation, which I’ve done quickly in the spirit of fairness.  Were I the proverbial fly on the wall — certainly not a unique phenomenon at any jazz club — would I be happy with the way I was characterized?  “Does any musician see me at a club and think, “I surely will be happy when Michael goes away for a few months, then I can play in peace without looking up and seeing that little camera staring at me, capturing everything . . . “?

I originally felt that this posting was heading for gloom, a rumination on the equation between intimacy and distance, on the responsibilities that begin in dreams, even musical ones, but there were three cheering encounters last week at the Ear Inn, my Sunday night haunt.  One of the musicians came over (unsolicited) to say he thought what I was doing was worthwhile and that he thought the new camera was swell; later on in the evening, I was approached from left and right (Peter and Margarethe from Uppsala and Fumi from New York) by grateful people who said that they had found the club solely by watching these videos. 

I can imagine that in the future my age, health, and circumstances would make it difficult for me to get to jazz clubs as I am doing now.  And I can envision ending my career of jazz love and appreciation as I began, as a Listener, although the Voice of Music phonograph has been supplanted.  But maybe I will spend the last chapter of my jazz life delighting in the music’s sounds and shapes through YouTube and other versions not yet discovered, even if I’m not behind the camera.  

I hope that there will always be the kindness of strangers who know how to swing.  And know what it is to share their pleasures.

BUILDING CASTLES IN THE EAR (May 16, 2010)

Some people think that jazz performances are primarily strings of solos, and this is occasionally true.  But one of the deep pleasures of listening to this music is in the three-dimensional shapes that performances can take.  This kind of immediate, impromptu architectural construction can happen at a jam session, where the players don’t know each other well, or it can be the happy collective invention of a working band. 

In either case, while a listener is absorbing the movement from one chorus to the next, it’s easy to visualize a jazz cathedral being built.  Everything adds to the larger structure: notes and lines aren’t there solely for their own evanescent purposes, but they also function as parts of something far larger that is getting created before our ears and eyes.

This happened all through the night at last Sunday’s session at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street) by the Ear Regulars, who were (in the first set) Matt Munisteri (guitar) , Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Pete Martinez (clarinet), and Greg Cohen (bass).  For the second set, they were joined, off and on, by Dan Block (tenor), Alex Norris (trumpet), and Adrian Cunningham (clarinet).  To my ears, everyone played brilliantly — but a good deal of the credit for the lovely architectural shapes goes to Jon-Erik, who has quietly taken on the mantle of his and my hero, Ruby Braff — not only as a peerless player, but as a wondrous sensitive on-the-bandstand subtle orchestrator, making performances shapely and varied.  Pete Martinez was in burning form — his tone and attack on his Albert system clarinet is one of the marvels of the age.  Greg Cohen created one eloquent solo after another (no one has told him that the string bass is supposed to be less than orchestrally grand!) and providing fine support.  Matt Munisteri, once again, came through as one of the hardest-working men in music: never letting up, never coasting, either in rhythm or in fluid, tumbling lines.   

I’ve included a number of performances that particularly struck me as having an architectural glory.  See if you don’t agree!

Early on in the first set, they took on the pretty pop song (circa 1935) that everyone associates with Fats Waller, although he didn’t compose it.  (Later, Ruby Braff took it on, most deliciously.)  Its title is properly optimistic: I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES:

Then, a tongue-twisting novelty number identified firmly with Louis — who gave up on the lyrics early on in the performance.  I’M A DING DONG DADDY FROM DUMAS (“and you oughta see me do my stuff”):

And the concluding section:

Returning to Louis’s Hot Seven, here’s WILLIE THE WEEPER (whose lyrics describe the dream that Willie — he was a chimney sweeper — had.  I think Willie was under the influence of some illegal but highly uplifting substances, but since the Ear Regulars don’t favor us with a vocal chorus, you’ll have to investigate the text on your own).  Non-guitarists like myself might find Matt’s playing on this track unusual, but (as Jon-Erik pointed out) he’d broken a string and soldiered on heroically anyway.  Nothing stops our heroes!

In the second set, Dan Block brought his tenor sax, and they launched into a rollicking MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, complete with flourishes:

And (with trumpeter Alex Norris — he of the full, round tone — added) I’M CONFESSIN’, full of feeling:

If the Landmarks Commission only knew what beautiful structures were being erected on Sunday nights . . . !

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.

“POTATO HEAD BLUES” (March 2010)

Here’s the High Sierra Jazz Band — recorded by Tom Warner at the March 2010 Monterey Dixieland Festival — performing their dazzling version of Louis Armstrong’s POTATO HEAD BLUES.  The band is made up of Pieter Meijers, reeds, co-leader; Howard Miyata, trombone; Bryan Shaw, cornet; Bruce Huddleston, piano; Stan Huddleston, banjo, guitar; Charlie Castro, drums; Earl McKee, sousaphone.  On this dazzling homage to Louis, the front line turns into a trumpet / cornet section.  What I need to know (and will probably never find out at this late date) is which of Louis’s Chicago or New Orleans pals apparently had a head that resembled a potato and was thus immortalized?  Whose physiognomy inspired this hot tune?

I wish I could have this performance on my clock radio — music to wake anyone up in the best way!

P.S.  Tom Warner’s YouTube channel is “tdub1941,” a cornucopia of good things.

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.

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.