Tag Archives: Hotel Sherman

WHO REMEMBERS ROD CLESS?

Many of the greatest artists make their creations sound simple.  Think of Bing Crosby, Joe Thomas, Benny Morton, Count Basie.

Clarinetist Rod Cless belongs to their ranks, but seems a forgotten man.

And he deserves better.

In the ensembles, he has some of the daredevil quality one associates with Pee Wee Russell and Frank Teschmacher, diving-off-the-high-board descents from a quavering note.  But the rough edges are smoothed down, the vibrato more songful, less fierce.

In his solos, Cless sounds like someone who knows the beauty of the clarinet’s low register, the virtues of thoughtful space.  He takes his time.  He has something to convey, and it can’t be hurried; it needs a kind of plaintive candor.

And although his harmony is not abstruse, his phrases more regular than abrupt, what he has to tell us sounds familiar only because so many players coming after him have absorbed his message without even being entirely aware of it.

I hear the influence of Jimmie Noone in the full, round lower register, as well as touches of deep New Orleans blues.  But also — even though there are no phrases copied from the master, it is not hard to hear the ghostly influence of Bix in Cless’s soulful restraint.

Here are three more sides with Hodes from a 1942 Decca date with an illustrious personnel that didn’t otherwise gather in the studios: Sidney DeParis, trumpet; Brad Gowans, valve-trombone; Cless; Hodes; Condon; Earl Murphy, bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.

LIBERTY INN DRAG, another slow blues, where Cless gets only a chorus, but the rest of the band is so fine:

On a sprightly INDIANA, Cless sounds at his most Russelian.  Both he and Gowans play wonderful ensemble embroideries in the opening and closing choruses (the sound of Condon’s guitar thoughout is a special pleasure, as are Zutty’s drums behind Hodes):

GEORGIA CAKE WALK (also known as AT A GEORGIA CAMP MEETING) reminds of how well Sidney DeParis played in these settings.  A floating Hodes interlude leads into one of those Cless statements that seem perfectly simple until one listens closely:

Who was Cless?  Much of what I’ve learned comes from the biography by Bob Najouks to be found on http://www.kcck.org/iowa_jazz_connections.php.  I’ve added some details from other surveys written by Eugene Chadbourne (whose account is to be found on the fine ON THIS DAY IN JAZZ AGE MUSIC site):

Cless was born in 1907 in Lennox, Iowa.  He was a fine athlete and accomplished clarinetist who also doubled on saxophone.  The start of his enlightenment seems to have been a six-week engagement that Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverine Orchestra played in Riverview Park Ballroom in Des Moines in 1925: Cless came every night.

Frank Teschmacher, the brilliant young Chicagoan, befriended Cless, and Cless came to Chicago two years later as a professional musician — an intimate of Eddie Condon and Bud Freeman (Cless married Freeman’s sister).  I’ve read that Cless played in the Varsity Five, a hot band much admired at Iowa State University, but do not know if he attended college there.

In Chicago, both Tesch and Cless worked with Charles Pierce, whose name is on a number of famous hot recordings of that period.  He toured with Frank Quartrell’s band and visited New Orleans for the first time.  (Did he hear Raymond Burke and Johnny Wiggs, and did they talk about Bix?  One wonders.)

Returning to Chicago, he worked with trumpeter Louis Panico at the Wig Wam Club and found employment in reed section of dance orchestras.  He also made extra money teaching clarinet.

He may have gained the most attention as a member of Muggsy Spanier’s Ragtime Band in 1939 — that band had an extended run at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago (where they played opposite Fats Waller and his Rhythm) and were enough of a sensation to make sixteen sides for the Bluebird label.  (A CD reissue of this material, with alternate takes, brings the total to 24.)

After Spanier disbanded the Ragtime Band, Cless worked with Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes, Ed Farley, Marty Marsala, George Brunis, and Bobby Hackett.

But Cless’s marriage failed, and his drinking grew heavier.  Walking home from the last night of a job at the Pied Piper (where he played alongside his friend Max Kaminsky) in December 1944, Cless fell over the balcony of his apartment building and died four days later at 37.  In his autobiography, Kaminsky blamed himself for not walking Cless home — even though Cless insisted that he could make it himself.

Here’s an extended solo by Cless on the Hodes-led FAREWELL BLUES, for Art’s short-lived Jazz Record label.  The casual listener may hear in it only variations on familiar arpeggiated patterns, with suggestions of Johnny Dodds, but there’s more:

And to conclude (for this post), here’s something quite atypical — JAZZ ME BLUES by Frank Teschmacher’s Chicagoans, recorded in April 1928.  Tesch plays clarinet and alto; Cless plays alto; Mezz Mezzrow is on tenor saxophone; the rhythm section is Joe Sullivan, Jim Lanigan, Eddie Condon, and Gene Krupa.  This track comes from www.redhotjazz.com: http://www.redhotjazz.com/ftc.html.

Those fascinated by the sound of Rod Cless can find several more examples on YouTube — where a number of the Bluebird sides from 1939 by Muggsy Spanier and his Ragtime Band — are available.

Cless also turns up on a singularly relaxed session for Commodore which features Kaminsky, valve trombonist Frank Orchard, and James P. Johnson.  Nearly the same band — with Willie “the Lion” Smith on piano recorded for Decca and for Black and White.

And in Cless’s last year, ironically, he had his only opportunity to lead a record session — for the Black and White label, featuring James P., Stirling Bose, and Pops Foster.  Those four sides were once available on a Pickwick anthology CD.

Eight others (plus a few alternate takes) by a 1940 Hodes group called the CHICAGO RHYTHM KINGS (pictured at top) — one session featuring Marty Marsala, Cless, Hodes, Earl Murphy, and Jack Goss on guitar; four trio sides with Cless, Hodes, and Murphy (originally recorded by Bob Thiele and several of the trio sides reissued on Doctor Jazz) are difficult to find (the last complete issue of the issued takes was a 10″ Riverside lp, which is now fifty-five years ago).

More accessible are the recordings Hodes made for his own short-lived Jazz Record label, which have been reissued on a Jazzology CD.  (One of the ironies is that Hodes admired Cless greatly and used him on record dates whenever possible, which is a great blessing — although many Hodes recordings have extended outings from their leader, sometimes restricting the other members of the band in their solos on a 78 issue.)

I plan to return to Cless as a subject in a future post, although from a different angle.  I hope to interview one of the elder members of the jazz tribe, someone who actually took lessons from Cless in the early Forties.  Until then, I suggest that Cless is worth close and repeated listenings.

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CHARLES PETERSON’S VISION

This is the second part of what I hope will be a long series on the jazz photography of Charles Peterson, who mystically saw the essence of jazz.  00000005

Here’s Peterson the documentary photographer — his casual, offhanded shot of a quartet led by Sidney Bechet, who is characteristically both in command and absolutely at the service of the music he is creating, the experience ecstatic and powerful.  What I find fascinating are the expressions on the faces of his sidemen: Cliff Jackson (whom I remember seeing in later photographs as white-haired) looks up at the Master to see where the currents of music are going; Eddie Dougherty, a wonderful and little-known Brooklyn-born drummer, seems anxious, although he may have only been caught in mid-comment, and Wellman Braud is quietly gleeful, rocking in rhythm.  They seem small objects drawn into Bechet’s vortex.  The photo suggests that any cohesive jazz group forms itself into a unit, but each musician retains his or her essential personality, and in this picture we see the quiet tension between the Selves and the Community.  And this photo brings up another of Peterson’s unintended gifts to us: how many people ever were fortunate enough to be at the Mimo Club in Harlem to hear this quartet, much less at this moment on February 16, 1942?  But — with a substantial record collection, some memory and imagination — we can invent the music that this band is creating. 

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This is a new split-second capture from a famous jazz session and photo shoot: the Commodore Records session of April 20, 1939, where Billie Holiday recorded STRANGE FRUIT, YESTERDAYS, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, and FINE AND MELLOW.  The musicians are bassist Johnny Williams, trumpeter Frank Newton, altoist Stanley Payne, and tenorist Kenneth Hollon.  Billie is holding a long-noted syllable; is it the “Yes” in YESTERDAYS?  And she is very young, very beautiful, also giving herself up to the music, her hands folded, her eyes almost-shut, Peterson’s lighting capturing her mouth, chin, and throat.  What distinguishes this portrait from others at this session is Billie’s lovely and obviously-treasured fur coat.  I find it ironic, seventy years after the session, that there is such a gap between Billie in her fur — which she deserved more than anyone — and the material she sings with such deep emotion.  One song, most famous, describes lynchings in the South; another describes a “fine and mellow” lover who doesn’t treat his woman well; a third and fourth describe bygone happinesses, all gone now, and the blues one sings when one’s lover has left.  And Billie sang these four songs as if her heart would break . . . wearing that fur coat.  Later in the session, of course, she got warm and took it off.  And no doubt the irony didn’t occur to her and she would have laughed it off if someone pointed it out, “Lady, you look too good to be singing those blues!”00000010

Hard at work is all I can say.  The caption states that this is the Summa Cum Laude band — led in part by Bud Freeman, arrangements by valve-trombonist Brad Gowans — performing at Nick’s in December 1938.  The band must be negotiating some serious ensemble passage, for they all look so intent.  Bassist Clyde Newcome stares out into space, as does Pee Wee Russell; Gowans and Freeman, especially Brad, are watching the band warily, or perhaps Brad is reading the music off the stand in the center.  I would guess that the drummer is Al Sidell, but I would hope that it is Stan King* — drummers shuttled in and out of this band.  The rather somber effect of this picture suggests to me that the band is playing one of its medleys of current hits (you can hear them on the airshots in 1939-40 from Chicago’s Panther Room at the Hotel Sherman . . . grown men of this artistic stature playing SIERRA SUE, but what can I say?)  Serious business indeed.  (In his later comment, Mike Burgevin points out that I left out Max Kaminsky.  How did I do this?)  *Don Peterson confirmed that the drummer is indeed Stan King — one of jazz’s entirely forgotten men. 

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This photo lets me imagine a time before I was born when James P. Johnson could wear his pin-stripe suit and play the piano, which is what he was meant to do.  It was taken in 1946, on a “Jazz on the River” cruise organized by Rudi Blesh and Art Hodes to go up and down the Hudson River.  From left, there’s the hand of an unidentified bassist, James P., Baby Dodds, Marty Marsala on trumpet (with the appropriate handkerchief) and guitarist Danny Barker — some of the same crew who turned up on the THIS IS JAZZ radio broadcasts.   But my secret pleasure in this photograph comes from the pretty woman whose head seems (although much smaller) in the same plane as James P.’s.  She is tidily dressed; her cardigan, pulled together at the collar, reveals a neat floral blouse beneath; we sense that she wears a neat wool skirt.  Her eyeglasses gleam in Peterson’s flashbulb; her hair is demure; her modest lipstick is in place.  Her hands are decorously in her lap.  Yet it’s clear — although she is prim, restrained, the last person to whoop and knock over her highball — that she is deeply pleased by what she hears.  As much as Bechet or James P., she is in the grip of the music, wanting it to go on forever. 

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Berenice Abbott told Hank O’Neal that most of photography was having the patience to wait for the right moment.  I’ll end this series with a superbly right moment — with only two musicians, Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett, playing at the “Friday Club” jam sessions held at the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan — this one on February 17, 1939.  Hackett here is much as I remember him, up close, in 1972: a small, slender man, neatly dressed, dark eyebrows, thin wrists with black hair on them.  Here he is all of 24, and so small that while standing he is only inches taller than Condon, sitting.  The expression on his face might be a smile or it might be that he is working hard to bring off a particular nuanced phrase.  But our attention is drawn to Condon, also young and healthy.  Condon called Hackett “The Impostor,” because — with his peculiarly ornate wit, he said “Nobody can be that good.”  The teasing compliment almost slips away, but you get the point.  What is more important in this picture — more than Condon’s neat attire — is his grin, his head turned in delight and pleasure and admiration towards Hackett, who is clearly playing something marvelous, inimitable, lovely.  Condon is astonished by what he’s hearing, but he’s expected no less from Bobby.  This photograph captures the joy (and the labor) of this music better than any prose. 

Thank you, Charles Peterson!

P.S.  It didn’t surprise me that Peterson’s offspring were particularly talented in music, film, and writing.  His daughter, Karen Yochim, a successful country-and-western songwriter, lives in Louisiana, has written extensively about Cajun culture for newspapers and magazines — and is branching out as a crime novelist.  Peterson’s granddaughter Schascle “Twinkle” Yochim (her name is Cajun, pronounced “Suh-Shell”) is a professional singer with several CDs, concentrating on soul, rock, and to a limited extent, country-and-western. She’s also a songwriter, with songs accepted in feature films currently in production.  

After a career in the Navy, Peterson’s son, Don, worked for the Navy Department in Washington, DC, doing motion picture & television scriptwriting.  Don also wrote scripts for many film and television productions.  He retired in 1986 and now concentrates on marketing his father’s photographic legacy, most lavishly accessible in the book SWING ERA NEW YORK.