Tag Archives: Jack Lemmon

“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!

JULY 6, 2013. LOUIS LIVES. AND WE FEEL IT DEEPLY.

This story begins in a sweetly undramatic way.

The Beloved and I had spent the afternoon of July 6 doing a variety of errands in the car.  We had some time before we had to return home, so she suggested that we do a short bout of “thrifting” (visiting our favorite thrift stores) in the nearby town of San Rafael, California.  She favors a hospice thrift place called HODGE PODGE; I opt for GOODWILL, which is half a block away.

Once in Goodwill, I looked quickly at men’s clothing and took two items off the rack for more consideration.  I saw there were many records in the usual corner, perhaps three hundred LPs and a half-dozen 78 albums.

Just as I write the novella of the life of the person ahead of me on line in the grocery store by the items (s)he is buying, I create the brief biography of a record collector by what patterns there are.  Admittedly, the collection I perused was not solely the expression of one person’s taste, but it seemed a particularly deep 1959 collection: original cast, Sinatra, Dino, Hank Williams, comedy, unusual albums I had not seen before.

In about ten minutes, I found a Jack Lemmon record on Epic, where he sings and plays songs from SOME LIKE IT HOT (he was quite a good pianist), the orchestra directed by Marion Evans.  (Particularly relevant because I am also finishing the 1999 book, CONVERSATIONS WITH WILDER — that’s Billy — and enjoying it greatly).  A Murray McEachern mood-music session for Capitol, CARESS, with Jimmy Rowles; the somewhat dubious JAZZ: SOUTH PACIFIC, with Pettiford, McGhee, J.J. Johnson, Rudy Williams; Ethel Waters doing spirituals and hymns on Word; Clancy Hayes with the Salty Dogs — Jim Dapogny on second cornet / valve-trombone, Kim Cusack on clarinet — OH BY JINGO on Delmark.

Then I moved to the 78s.  I thought about but did not take a Black and White album of six songs by Lena Horne with Phil Moore, but took without hesitation a Capitol collection of Nellie Lutcher, because Sidney Catlett was on a few sides, I think.

More than a few minutes had passed.  My knees were beginning to hurt and other people, one with a well-behaved dog, had been drawn to the trove.

The last album I looked at was an unmarked four-record 78 album.  The first sleeve was empty.  The second one held a Fifties TOPS record “Four Hits On One Record,” which I disdained.  The third was a prize — a late-Thirties Bluebird of Fats Waller and his Rhythm doing AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (“Recorded in Europe”) and GEORGIA ROCKIN’ CHAIR, which pleased me a great deal.  It would have been the great treasure of my quest.

I turned to the last record and caught my breath.  I know this feeling well — surprise, astonishment, intense emotion — the equivalent of a painless punch in the solar plexus.  I’ve felt it other times before — once a year ago in California with a Bluebird 78 in a Goodwill (take that confluence as you will) which I have chronicled here.

This record was another late-Thirties Bluebird, this one by Louis.  One side was Hoagy Carmichael’s SNOWBALL (which made me smile — it’s a great sweet song).

Then this:

SUPERMOON and SWING YOU CATS 011

For nearly a decade my email address has been swingyoucats@gmail.com.

Initially, I took it as a self-definition and an online “alias” because those three words are to me a collective exaltation — “Hallelujah, Brothers and Sisters!” in a swinging four – four.

But “Swing you cats!” is not only exhortation — “Let’s unite for our common joyous purpose!” but celebration that we are communally on the same delighted path.

As I did in the previous Goodwill experience, I took the record over to the Beloved, who was seated peaceably, reading a local free paper.  “What did you find?” she said cheerfully.  I went through the records I’ve described, and then reached for the unmarked album and said, “Look at this.”

She admires Fats as I do, so GEORGIA ROCKIN’ CHAIR was properly celebrated.  Then I silently showed her the final record, and we both drew in our breaths.  When she could speak, she said, “Is today a special day?  Some anniversary of your blog?”

And then it dawned on me.  Choked up, I eventually said, “This is the anniversary of Louis’ death.  July 6, 1971.”  After a long, tear-stifled interval during which we simply looked at each other and the record, I took my treasures to the cashier, paid, and we went home.

To describe my feelings about this incident, I run the risk of characterizing myself as one of the Anointed and elaborating on this fantasy vision, where Louis, in the ethereal sphere, sees what I do in his name and approves — sending a little token of his approval my way.

I know that some readers might scoff, “Please!  That record was a manufactured object.  Thousands of copies were made.  It was simple luck that you got it.  Do you think Louis — dead for forty-plus years — would know or care what your email address is?”  I can certainly understand their realistic scorn.

But since I am sure that the Dead Know — that they aren’t Dead in any way except the abandoning of their bodies, who is to say that my taking this as an affirmation from Somewhere is so odd?  How many of us, for whatever reason, have felt the presence of someone we love / who loved us, even though that person is now “dead”?

So I felt, in a more intense way, connected to Louis Armstrong.  That is not a bad thing.  And I could hilariously imagine the way I might have popped up on one of his letters or home tapes.

I hope all my JAZZ LIVES readers, cats indeed, will happily swing on now and eternally.

I send them all my love.

And I celebrate SWING YOU CATS by making it the first whirl of the JAZZ LIVES homemade video jukebox*:

For those who want to know more about this record, read and hear my man Ricky Riccardi’s essay on SWING YOU CATS, here.

*I have witnessed much high-intensity irritation on Facebook directed at people like myself who make YouTube videos of a spinning vintage record without using the finest equipment.  I apologize in advance to anyone who might be offended by my efforts.  SWING YOU CATS sounds “pretty good” to me.  And my intermittent YouTube videos — the “JAZZ LIVES” DANCE PARTY — will offer 78 sides that aren’t on YouTube.  Just for a thrill.

May your happiness increase!