Tag Archives: Hughes Panassie

FACTS ABOUT FACTS ABOUT THE MUSIC

Imagine an engrossing book “about” jazz that has very little to say about the music. None of the usual content or digressions: anecdotal stories of musicians; portraits of club owners, record producers, concert impresarios. No one’s mother plays the organ; no one has a loving mentor or a horrible first gig.

But the book, MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE MUSIC, by Bruce D. Epperson (University of Chicago Press, 2013) is an intriguing study of something most people involved in the music in more than a casual way find invaluable: discographies.

EPPERSON DISCOGRAPHY

A discography, for those new to this, is an essay — or book-length — or a dozen volumes — or an online source — that documents the recorded history of this music. As a bibliography (at the end of your fifth-grade report on The Eye) lists the works consulted, a discography seeks to present all the information known on these recordings.  It can be limited to one artist, a span of time, a style or genre, or it can attempt to be encyclopedic, comprehensive.  Before jazz existed, of course, there were catalogues of compositions — think of the BWV numbers or Kochel numbers for Bach or Mozart.  But it was only when listeners and collectors began seriously to both amass and study recorded evidence — artifacts of performance — that the idea and the actual realization of discography came into being.

Epperson comes to this book (the result of five years’ study — and it shows in the best way) from a singular perspective. He is neither a musician nor a collector; rather, he is a bibliophile fascinated by the books and the people who envisioned and created them. (For some “jazz readers,” this is a perspective that takes some getting used to. It is as if one was handed “a study of Shakeapeare” that was really a history of the most renowned and influential editors of the texts of the plays. If one feels at a distance reading about everyone from the first innovators up to Tom Lord, Epperson’s lively prose will stand up to the accompaniment of one’s favorite recordings — all the master and alternate takes in chronological order, of course.)

A good deal of the book is a serious but not dry historical survey of the form — discographical research and publication, as we know it, began in England in the late Twenties and continues as I write this. At first, it was an outgrowth of the urge common among collectors to know all so that all could be possessed. If one fell in love with the sound of Bix Beiderbecke or Eddie Lang, for instance, one wanted to know exactly what recordings they had appeared on (and which were tempting imitations) so that one could, in this world or an ideal one, possess all their music or at least know that it existed. I think of an orinthologist’s “life-list,” where birds spotted get checked off, and I have seen many discographies that are also tidy or untidy lists of what a particular collector has. (I’ve done it myself, and I recall reading my copies of Rust, Jepsen, Lord, and specialized discographies with a mixture of awe and yearning: “Another take of X MARKS MY SPOT exists?  And it was issued on Bolivian OKeh?  And I don’t have it?  How can I hear it?”)

Why were discographies desirable or necessary?  When jazz performances were issued on single discs, often without the individual players listed on the label, one couldn’t be sure who the Kentucky Grasshoppers or Lil’s Hot Shots were. One could trust one’s ears, but that method has often led to what I would call Collector’s Enthusiasm, where every muted trumpet solo had to be by King Oliver; a vague aural shadow of saxophone on a 1934 Clarence Williams record — could that be Lester Young?  So, at first, they were lists created by collectors, then made public as more widespread enthusiasm about famous and obscure recordings developed.  Then, discographies could serve an ideological purpose: all the recordings in these pages have notable “jazz interest” (translation: they reflect my aesthetic values); they could be divided along racial lines to reflect theorizing about the development of an art form.  From more balanced perspectives, they could reflect much about the ways in which art was made public, and tell a great deal about individual artists or groups.

Epperson’s book deals adeptly with the ideas behind the varieties of discographies, and he does so by specific reference — tracing the changes in the form through specific publications and the writers / researchers responsible for them. This might, to the uninitiated, seem like a scriptural list of begats beginning with R.D. Darrell, but the creators themselves seem to have been at best energetic, at worst acrimonious. There are many small contentions documented in this book: questions of accuracy, of plagiarism, of theory and practice. Epperson’s story begins in England, takes in France and New Orleans, digresses most pleasingly into the phenomenon of “field recordings” and the changes brought in discography and record collecting by the long-playing record, and comes up as close to the present as possible. I was amused and pleased to see jazz scholars I know and admire depicted in these pages: Jan Evensmo, Manfred Selchow, Robert Rusch.

Epperson concludes with some deep philosophical questions (with commentary by Michael Fitzgerald, who knows the field deeply): in this new world, where it appears that everything one wants to hear can be heard in digital format, stripped of its evidence, what effect on discography as a scholarly endeavor or a music-lover’s act of reverence? And for the twenty-first century listener who can have all the issued and some unissued recordings of The Bohemian Stompers in one neat multi-disc set, are comprehensive discographies necessary or are they an antique manifestation of the urge to have all the rarities in one place?

Incidentally, the title isn’t Epperson’s point of view — it comes from a 1947 article by Ernest Borneman, “The Jazz Cult.”  The book has useful illustrations of pages taken from the respective discographies, generous footnotes and bibliography.

I think this book will have a lasting place in the libraries of many jazz enthusiasts and collectors, and I can see it treated with equal pleasure and respect in graduate programs in library science. But that makes it sound too serious. Epperson is a lively, witty writer, and although he tends to fairness to all sides so thoroughly as to occasionally seem diffident, his sharp observations are a real pleasure.

I said at the start that the book was different from most jazz tomes in that it wasn’t deeply based on anecdotage, but one story has stuck in my mind.  The renowned British discographer Brian Rust, Epperson tells us, was already collecting jazz records by the time he was 13 — in 1935 — “it was cheap, and it was approved by the family nurse, who assured them that ‘it’s not possible for germs to survive on smooth surfaces.'”

If anyone comes to you and asks what you are doing, for the love of goodness, with those records or compact discs, feel free to offer that answer.  Jazz records are, if nothing else, sanitary, and thus laudably safer than other objects by which we might amuse ourselves.

May your happiness increase!

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THE NEWTON-LEACOCK PAPERS

Having good friends is a delight in themselves.  When the friends are generous, that’s more than one can hope for. Here’s evidence: Jeanie Gorman Wilson, who took very good care of the singer Barbara Lea in Barbara’s last years, shared these pieces of paper with me . . . and with the readers of JAZZ LIVES.

What you’ll see below is admittedly a small collection but absolutely irreplaceable: two 1951 missives from trumpeter / composer Frank Newton to the youthful but impressive Miss Barbara Leacock.  These aren’t simply rare pieces of paper, but artifacts from a gifted man, his life too short — but testimony to his humanity, his affectionate wisdom.

The envelope, please:

NEWTON letter 1 envelope

And the contents:

NEWTON letter 2 first

Dear Barbara:

     Here’s thanking you for whatever contribution you made toward the wonderful birthday party.

     Let me wish you lots of success with your singing. Don’t be discouraged by a lot of your friends’ opinions, neither feel too exalted by their compliments, but try to work as hard as time will allow, out of which will come something of which you are deserving and will be proud of.

     Give Larry [Eanet] my regards.

     As ever, your well-wishing friend.

                                          Frankie Newton

Eight months later, when Newton was working as a counselor at KIDDIE KAMP in Sharon, Massachusetts (the postcard’s motto is “Thanks feller, for the swell vacation!”):

NEWTON letter 3 front of Kiddie Kamp

And his note, which ends “hurry and write”:

NEWTON letter 4 Kiddie Kamp

Hello Barbara: — Just to let you know where I am, and what I am doing. I am counsler at this camp for kids and I am having a ball.  I shure wish you could drive over here and see the camp it is only 20 some miles from Boston George Wein and the band were up here last week. If you can write me and tell me what’s what is happening to you

hurry and write

love

Frankie Newton

Yes, Newton’s handwriting, spelling, and punctuation are much more informal, but I imagine him dashing off this note, leaning against a tree, while children around him demanded his attention.

More information on KIDDIE KAMP can be found here — thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Thanks to Jeanie for allowing us to read some of Newton’s words.  He has been gone for nearly sixty years. If his sound isn’t distinctive in your ears, here is a deep, mournful sample: his 1939 THE BLUES MY BABY GAVE TO ME (with Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Brown, James P. Johnson, Al Casey, John Kirby, and Cozy Cole — the session supervised by Hughes Panassie):

Barbara Lea is nearer to us: December 26 was only the second anniversary of her death, but it’s always a privilege to hear her remarkable voice once again. Here she is, with Dick Sudhalter and James Chirillo, performing the uplifting IT’S ALL IN YOUR MIND:

And since we can all dream of hearing Mr. Newton and Miss Leacock together, I offer here (yet unheard) evidence of such a musical meeting. Newton’s actual birthday was January 4, so it is possible that this disc was cut at the birthday party he mentions in his first letter.  Someday . . .

May your happiness increase!

BLANK PAGES AND SILENCES

Serious jazz scholarship (as opposed to reviews) began more than seventy years ago: early books by Robert Goffin, Hughes Panassie, Charles Delanay, Wilder Hobson, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey come to mind, as well as essays by Ernst Ansermet, Otis Ferguson, and Roger Pryor Dodge. 

In 2010, there is no scarcity of books on jazz, from musicology to polemical ideology.  Biographies and autobiographies — from Armstrong to Zwerin with perhaps one hundred subjects between — the autobiographies of Buck Clayton, Sammy Price, Bob Wilber, biographies of Monk, Mingus, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Parker, Paul Desmond, Ellington.  Books have been published about musicians who are still relatively obscure: Mark Miller on Herbie Nichols, Anthony Barnett on Henry Crowder.  

John Chilton’s studies of Bechet, Hawkins, Eldridge, and Red Allen are models of the form.  Ed Berger and his father did right by Benny Carter; Ed devoted a book to George Duvivier and is working on one about Joe Wilder.  My shelves are full, and I’m not listing criticism and discography. 

Most of what I have noted above (with admiration) is jazz scholarship from the outside — by enthusiastic listeners who have immersed themselves in jazz.  I would be the last to disparage that as an art form, as writers who do it include Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern, Gene Lees, Chris Albertson, Frank Driggs, Nat Hentoff and two dozen others.  A few musicians — rare souls — who were also fine writers: Dick Wellstood, Richard M. Sudhalter, Rex Stewart, Dick Katz.    

But even given all of this, how often have jazz musicians been asked to tell their stories? 

I know that there is a history of popular journalism — early on in urban Black newspapers — of getting quotations from musicians, but I wonder how many utterances that were attributed were actually spoken by the musicians themselves.  Later on, one had DOWN BEAT and METRONOME, and smaller magazines — Art Hodes’ THE JAZZ RECORD, here and abroad.  Some of this “journalism” perpetuated the stereotype of the musician as an eccentric character who spoke an unintelligible hipster gibberish.     

There are, of course, the pioneering recorded interviews of Jelly Roll Morton done in 1938 — mythic in many ways — that might be the first oral history of a jazz musician.  Whether you take them as an extended piece of performance art or as first-hand narrative / reportage, they remain invaluable.

Others have attempted to let the players speak — the Oral History Project had musicians interviewing their peers and friends, Stanley Dance’s series of books, the Shapiro / Hentoff HEAR ME TALKIN’ TO YA, Gitler’s SWING TO BOP, the diligent work of Bill Spilka, Hank O’Neal’s book THE GHOSTS OF HARLEM, collections of interviews and profiles by Whitney Balliett, Peter Vacher, Max Jones.  Phil Schaap has done extensive, rewarding radio interviews for forty years now.  Lester Young spoke to Chris Albertson and Francois Postif.  And irreplaceable video-documentaries focus on Ben Webster, Lester, Goodman, Phil Woods.  Fifty years ago, Riverside Records recorded Coleman Hawkins and Lil Hardin Armstrong telling their stories.             

But all of this is outweighed by the invisibility, the unheard voices of musicians. 

Who thought to ask Kaiser Marshall or Walter Johnson anything after they had finished a set with the Fletcher Henderson band?  Who interviewed Ivie Anderson?  Allen Reuss?  Jimmy Rowles?  Dave McKenna?  Al Cohn?  Shad Collins?  Barry Galbraith?  Shorty Baker?  Did anyone ask Denzil Best or Nick Fenton about what it was like to play at Minton’s?  Who spoke with Joe Smith or Joe Nanton about their experiences?  George Stafford, Tiny Kahn, Nick Fatool, Dave Tough?  (I know some of these figures were interviewed or analyzed by my hero Whitney Balliett, but the burden of jazz history of this sort shouldn’t have to rest on one writer’s shoulders.)

Granted, many stellar musicians were once anonymous sidemen and women, and the leaders of bands got all the attention.  So there are more interviews of Ellington than of Johnny Hodges, more of Goodman than of Vido Musso, more of Basie than of Jack Washington.  But Swing Era fans knew every member of the reed section in their favorite orchestras.

Thus claims of “obscurity” have to be taken less seriously: there was a time when Cootie Williams was nearly as well known as Jackie Robinson would be — you may substitute names you prefer in this equation of “famous jazz musician” and “famous sports figure.” 

I can imagine a number of reasons for musicians being ignored.

Some musicians would rather play than talk about their playing; some are even taciturn, although articulate.  And sometimes even the most garrulous players are not the best interview subjects.  “What was it like to play with Big Boy Smith?” one asks.  “Oh, it was a ball!  We had a great time!” the musician answers.  The interviewer waits for more.  “Do you remember any specific incidents?”  “Oh, no.  It was a lot of fun.  We couldn’t wait to get on the bandstand.”  And so on.  I’ve had this happen to me with the most sophisticated players here and in Europe.  They wereen’t reluctant to talk, but they weren’t intuitive novelists themselves.

Although cordial to outsiders, many musicians also don’t see the point of discussing serious matters — like music — with them.  Too much explaining.  Life is short; the next set is coming soon.   This does say something about the unseen wall between themselves and fans — people who don’t know what it is to play, to improvise professionally, come from a different planet.  Nice folks, but aliens.  Even sweet-natured Bobby Hackett referred to the audience as “the enemy.”  “Fans” and “academics” are friendly, “critics” and “writers” might be useful, but none of them really know

And oftentimes, musicians are ambushed by people who want to talk wishing to talk at inopportune times.  A musician asked to comment on the music she’s just played after a forty-five minute set may well be drained by the effort.  When they’re not playing, musicians talk of other subjects, including the cost of things, their most recent car repair, health care proposals.  Anything is more interesting than responding to “What inspires you when you take a solo?”  Some may want to be left in peace, to eat their scrambled eggs while they’re somewhat hot.  And who could blame them?       

When some venerable musicains are finallyinterviewed when they have become venerable, they have forgotten the details.  What they did forty years ago wasn’t musical history, but a way of making a living.  And even those who have sharp memories may not want to tell all: candor might mean losing friends or gigs.  And some aren’t interested in reliving their pasts: autobiographies and interviews are career-ending landmarks: what musicians do when they can no longer play.  Doing beats talking and theorizing.      

Others are “saving it for their book” — books that might get poublished posthumously if ever.  And when musicians die, sometimes their spouse discards “all that old clutter,” including letters and memorabilia.  Sometimes a divorce means that possessions get thrown out, or a son or daughter believes that Papa’s papers are worth millions and refuses to let anyone make money from themsee them.    

Having said all that, I want to put it aside. 

There were all the reasons that musicians might not want to be asked. 

But so many, I have to believe, would have been delighted to tell their stories.  Why weren’t they?

Much comes from the earliest perception of jazz as entertainment, hardly serious.  It was played at night in places where people talked loudly, smoked, drank, and danced.  Real art could be found in museums and in concert halls.  Jazz players weren’t ordinary people; they existed outside polite society; some thought them licentious madmen working themselves into ecstasies on the bandstand.  Who would be so bold as to ask one of them a question?  And what savage reply would result? 

The subject of race can’t be pushed aside.  If both White and Black listeners thought that jazz was primarily dance music, why study it?  Why take its players seriously?  And the early preponderance of White jazz scholars and critics — some Europeans and White Americans — can be traced to the idea that jazz was no more than “good-time music,” denying Afro-Americans proper dignity.  Would you want your daughter to marry a jazz musician?  Would you want your African-American child to concentrate his or her academic efforts on Cab Calloway, on Louis Armstrong?  But the initial racial imbalance did shift, and I suspect that Joe Nanton would have been happy to speak with a White college student if the student was both sincere and aware.  As would Rod Cless have been.       

I think of Emerson in “The American Scholar,” delivered in 1846, urging his audience to study their own culture — only in this way could a nation exist.  Many years after Emerson’s death, an American college student couldn’t expect to do advanced study about the authors of his time and place: a college education required German, Chaucer, rather than James T. Farrell and Charlie Chaplin.  To say nothing of Sidney Catlett.  And so it was for jazz.  By the time that academia caught up with it, so many of the progenitors were dead, their stories untold. 

The losses are irreparable.  To urge readers to interview a jazz musician today won’t replace what has been lost. 

What might Frank Teschmacher or Freddie Webster have told us, have someone thought it sufficiently important to ask them?

Those pages remain irrevocably blank.

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2010
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TRAVELING BLUES: TOMMY LADNIER

Ladnier 5For the second time this season, a jazz book has so astonished me that I want to write about it before I take the time to read it at the leisurely pace it deserves.  This book is published in a limited edition of 500 copies, so I hope that someone might be moved sufficiently to order a copy before they are all gone.  TRAVELING BLUES: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF TOMMY LADNIER, byBo Lindstrom and Dan Vernhettes, is a lively yet scholarly study of the life and music of the short-lived trumpeter.  Many jazz books are enthusiastic but lopsided; books that collect beautiful photographs sometimes have minimal or unsatisfying text; scholarly books are often not appealing to the eye.  This book strikes sparks in every way: the diligent research that has gone into it, the expansive prose; the wonderful illustrations.  I have been reluctant to put it down.  Each page offers surprises.    Ladnier 1

Tommy Ladnier isn’t widely known: he has been dead seventy years.  The fame he deserved never came, even though he had enthusiastic champions in Mezz Mezzrow, Hughes Panassie, and Sidney Bechet.  But a brief list of the people Ladnier played alongside will testify to his talent: Bechet, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkins, Jelly Roll Morton, Jimmy Noone, Fletcher Henderson, Clarence Williams, Sam Wooding, Doc Cheatham, Noble Sissle, Chick Webb, James P. Johnson, Teddy Bunn, Walter Page, Jo Jones.  He was known as a “sensational” trumpeter in Chicago in 1921: he appeared in Carnegie Hall in 1938.   

The reasons he is so little known have nothing to do with the quality of his art.  Ladnier did not enjoy the high-pressure urban scene, and he occasionally retreated from it (in 1934-8, when he could have been playing more often in the city, he he lived upstate); he also spent a good deal of his playing career in Europe (including a sojourn in Russia) before it was fashionable.  And in a period when hot trumpet playing was fashioned in splendidly extravagant Louis-fashion, someone like Ladnier — quieter, even pensive, choosing to stay in the middle register — might have been overlooked.  (At times, he makes me think of a New Orleans version of Joe Thomas, Shorty Baker, or Tony Fruscella.) 

Ladnier 3

I first came to Ladnier’s music indirectly, by way of his most enthusiastic colleague, reedman, pot-supplier, and proseltyzer Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who saw Tommy as someone with pure jazz instincts.  Mezzrow idolized Tommy as a quiet prophet of soulful New Orleans jazz, music not corrupted by the evil influence of big-band swing.  My youthful purchase of the RCA Victor record THE PANASSIE SESSIONS (circa 1967) was motivated by my reading of Mezzrow’s autobiography, REALLY THE BLUES.  But Mezzrow played and improvised so poorly, never stopping for a moment, that I could hardly hear Ladnier properly.   

Ladnier 4

Eventually I heard the 1932 New Orleans Feetwarmers session, where Ladnier and Bechet were effectively the front line, and too-brief live performances from John Hammond’s 1938 FROM SPIRITUALS TO SWING concert where Ladnier, Bechet, Dan Minor, James P. Johnson, Walter Page, and Jo Jones roared through WEARY BLUES.  Finally, I understood what it was that others admired so in Ladnier’s work.  A terse, nearly laconic player, he placed his notes and phrases perfectly.  His solos never overwhelm; his forthright earnestness is convincing; he doesn’t care to shout and swagger, but he is intense.  

As is this book.  Other scholars might have rearranged the easily accessible evidence: the recollections of Mezzrow, Bechet, and Panassie, written admiringly of Ladnier’s recording career, and left it at that.  Some writers might have brought melodrama to the facts of Ladnier’s life — his ambitious wife jeopardized a number of opportunities for him (one possible drama).  Ladnier died of a heart attack at 39, and could perhaps have been saved (another drama).  One could cast him as a victim of a variety of forces and people including the recording supervisor Eli Oberstein.  But the authors avoid these inviting errors.

They succeed not only in examining every scrap of evidence they could find — their research has been cautious, comprehensive, and lengthy — about Ladnier as a musician, born in Louisiana, migrating to Chicago, taking on the life of a jazz player in the Twenties and Thirties, dying in Harlem. 

But there’s more.  These scholars are also thoughtful historians who delight in placing the subject of their loving scrutiny in a larger context.  “What did it mean?” I can hear them asking.  So that their inquiry broadens beyond the simple chronological tracing of Ladnier’s life.  When we learn (through a beautiful reproduction of Ladnier’s draft card) that he worked for the Armour meat-packing company — so justly excoriated in Upton Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE — we can read about Armour and what it meant to Chicago and Chicagoans.  What did it mean to be an African-American musician traveling overseas in the Twenties?  The appropriate footnotes are easily accessible on each page.  The book also concludes with a detailed discography — noting not only the labels and issues, but on which performances Ladnier has a solo, a break, accompaniment, and the like. 

And the book is also visually quite beautiful.  A large-format book (the size of a 12″ record, appropriately) it is generously illustrated in color, with fine reproductions, nicely varied.  I was happily reminded of a beautifully-designed history or biology textbook, where the book designers had sought to set up harmonious vibrations between print and illustrations.  Indeed, one could spend an afternoon immersed in the illustrations: maps, a handwritten letter from Ladnier, record labels, photographs of individual players and of bands.  One illustration I particularly prize is an advertising handbill for a dinner-dance, “A Night At Sea,” to be held at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn Heights, New York, on January 22, 1939.  In part, the music was provided by “Milton ‘Mez’ Mezzrow and his Bluebird Recording Orchestra featuring Tommy Ladnier.”  Even better: heading the bill were Henny Youngman and Molly Picon.  Without this book, I would never have known.

The music?  Well, the authors have taken care of that, too.  As part of the complete Ladnier experience, they have created a CD containing all 189 of Tommy’s recordings in mp3 format.  I don’t entirely understand the technology, but the CD is certainly the ideal companion to the book — containing the equivalent of eight CDs of music. 

I urge you to visit http://www.jazzedit.org/Traveling-blues.html and see for yourself.  In this era of deeply discounted books, the initial price of this one might seem serious, but its beauty, thoroughness, and devotion make it a masterpiece.

As a coda: the noted jazz scholar and collector of rare photographs Frank Driggs wrote an introduction to the book.  Here’s its closing paragraph: “This remarkable book is loaded with details on the lives of Tommy Ladnier and most of the people he played with.  There are hundreds of illustrations, photos of people I’ve never even seen before and I’ve seen most of the photos of jazz musicians over the last fifty years.  The depth of research is I believe unparalleled.  God bless these two fanatics who have devoted so much of their time and energy to bring this work of love to fruition.”

My sentiments exactly!