Tag Archives: Jackie Robinson

A GREAT HUMAN STORY: “THE SAVOY KING: CHICK WEBB and the MUSIC THAT CHANGED AMERICA”

We have all seen our share of documentaries, perhaps beginning in elementary school.  The least successful are tedious although well-meaning, taking us year-by-year, serving up moral lessons.  Although they strive to inform and move us, often they are unsatisfying and undramatic in their desire to present us with facts.

Jeff Kaufman’s brilliant feature-length portrait is a soaring antidote to every earnest, plodding, didactic documentary.  It is full of feeling, insightful without being over-emphatic.  It tells several stories in affecting, subtle ways.

Chick Webb was a great musician — a drummer other drummers still talk about with awe and love.  He guided and lovingly protected the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald, helping her grow into a mature artist.  Crippled from childhood — he would never grow much taller than 4′; he was in constant pain; he died shortly after turning thirty — he was fiercely ambitious and ultimately triumphant in ways he did not live to see.

But this is far more than the story of one small yet great-hearted man.  It is much larger than the chronicle of one jazz musician.  It is the story of how Webb’s love, tenacity, and courage changed the world.  That sounds hyperbolic, and I do not think that any American history textbook has yet made space for the little king from Baltimore, who deserves his place alongside Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.  This film will go a long way towards correcting that omission.  For Chick, tiny yet regal behind his drum set, helped create an environment where Black and White could forget those superficial differences and become equal in the blare of the music, the thrill of the dance.

Without Webb, would there have been a Savoy Ballroom where American men and women could have forgotten the bigotry so prevalent, lost in the joy of swing?  I like to imagine someone, trained into attitudes of racism from birth, hearing HARLEM CONGO on the radio and feeling transformed as if by a bolt of lightning, not caring that the players were not Caucasian, making the shift in his / her thinking from cruel derision to admiration and love.  How may people moved to an acceptance of racial equality because they were humming Ella’s recording of A TISKET, A TASKET?  We will never know . . . but just as the sun (in the fable) encouraged the stubborn man to shed his heavy coat where the cold wind failed, I believe that jazz and swing did more than has ever been acknowledged to make White and Black see themselves as one.

And the film documents just how aware Webb was of the reforming power of his music.  The idea of him as a subtle crusader for love, acceptance, and fairness is not something imposed on him by an ideologically-minded filmmaker: it is all there in the newspaper clippings and the words he spoke.

Here is Candace Brown’s superb essay on the film — with video clips from the film.

I must move from the larger story to a few smaller ones.  Put bluntly, I think filmmaker Kaufman is a wonder-worker, his talents quiet but compelling — rather like the person in the tale who makes a delicious soup starting with only a stone.  It took six years and a great deal of effort to make this film, and the result is gratifying throughout.

Making a documentary in this century about someone who died in 1939 has its own built-in difficulties.  For one thing, the subject is no longer around to narrate, to sit still for hours of questions.  And many of the subjects friends and family are also gone.  Chick Webb was a public figure, to be sure, but he wasn’t someone well-documented by sound film.  Although his 1929 band can be heard in the rather lopsided film short AFTER SEBEN, the director of that film cut Chick out of the final product because he thought the little man looked too odd.

I don’t think so.  Here is a still from that film (with Chick’s dear friend John Trueheart on banjo and my hero Bennie Morton on trombone):

But back to Kaufman’s problem.  Although there are many recordings of Chick’s band in the studios and even a radio broadcast or two, other figures of that period left behind more visual evidence: think of the photogenic /  charismatic Ellington, Goodman, Louis.  Of Webb and his band in their prime, the film footage extant lasts four seconds.

So Kaufman had to be ingenious.  And he has been, far beyond even my hopes.

The film is a beautifully-crafted tapestry of sight and sound, avoiding the usual overexposed bits of stock film and (dare I say it) the expected talking heads, droning into the camera.  The living people Kaufman has found to speak with love of Chick Webb are all singular: jazz musicians Roy Haynes (swaggering in his cowboy hat), Joe Wilder (a courtly knight without armor), Dr. Richard Gale (son of Moe, who ran the Savoy), dancers Frankie Manning and Norma Miller . . . their affection and enthusiasm lifts up every scene.

And Kaufman has made a virtue of necessity with an even more brilliant leap.  Webb wasn’t quoted often, but his utterances were memorable — rather like rimshots.  Ella, Gene Krupa, Ellington, Basie, Helen and Stanley Dance, Artie Shaw, Mezz Mezzrow, and twenty others have their words come to life — not because a serious dull voiceover reads them to us, but because Kaufman has arranged for some of the most famous people in the world to read a few passages.  Do the names Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson suggest how seriously other people took this project?

THE SAVOY KING is a work of art and an act of love, and it desrves to be seen — not just by “jazz lovers” or “people who remember the Big Band Era.”

It has been selected to be shown at the 50th annual New York Film Festival, tentatively on September 29, which in itself is a great honor.

That’s the beautiful part.  Now here comes four bars of gritty reality.  In the ideal world, no one would ever have to ask for money, and a major studio would already have done a beautiful job of exploring Chick Webb’s heroism, generosity, and music by now.  But it hasn’t happened, and we know what results when the stories we love go Hollywood.

Filmmaker Kaufman is looking for funding through INDIEGOGO to arrange a “proper launch” for this film — the goal being $5000 to cover the extra work of our PR team (media, publicity, sales, etc), and other key expenses that will help lead to a commercial release.  All levels of support (ideally $75 and up) will make a real difference.  Here is the link.

Think of a world made better by swing.

See and support this film.

May your happiness increase.

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EDDIE CONDON: CHANGING THE WORLD ONE HOT CHORUS AT A TIME

Having taken the opportunity to celebrate the 105th birthday of one Eddie Condon, I remain convinced that he did much more than play rhythm guitar and talk to the customers at a variety of saloons in New York City. 

Although some I’ve spoken to seem to find the topic of racial integration no longer interesting, Condon has never gotten the credit he deserves as a pioneer. 

His achievement was more than shepherding Fats Waller to the Victor studios so that he could make two sides with a mixed band in 1929.  It was larger than quietly playing his banjo alongside Louis Armstrong and the Luis Russell band in that same year. 

It can’t be overemphasized that Eddie was one of the earliest figures to make sure that black and white musicians could stand on an equal footing, playing their music for posterity. 

It was one thing to have a mixed jam session at 4 AM in Harlem; it was quite another thing for records featuring mixed-race bands to be made, to be known as such, to be recognized as classics.  Much attention has been paid (rightly so) to the roles of Benny Goodman and John Hammond in encouraging mixed ensembles in public. 

But that was 1936: Condon’s efforts had been going on for seven or more years.  If you could get listeners accustomed to hearing mixed bands on record, then they would be more eager to see their favorite artists perform in public.  Condon had the first mixed band on Fifty-Second Street; his mixed troupe of jazz artists was closed out of a Washington, D.C., concert hall because of protests from the DAR.

He was genuinely color-blind when it came to music, and that equality of thought and feeling had an impact.  When white and black troops were serving in the legally sagregated armed forces, both sets of soldiers could hear color-blind music coming from V-Discs and AFRS transcriptions. 

I think of Charles L. Black, a young Southern lawyer who found himself shaken out of his racist assumptions by hearing Louis Armstrong in 1931: Black went on to write the legal brief for Linda Brown in Brown vs. the Board of Education, the decision that made such segregation illegal in the United States.  

I believe that soldiers who thought that “Negroes” were inferior had their beliefs changed, however subtly, by hearing Hot Lips Page and Pee Wee Russell play thousands of miles away at a Condon concert.  Consider someone with similar inbred views, ten years later, seeing Ralph Sutton, Walter Page, Edmond Hall, and George Wettling play at Eddie’s club, noting that these four men got along especially well, no one was superior or inferior to anyone else on the stand.

Eddie Condon made such things possible.  It’s a cliche of the theatre that you can make people think about larger issues if you make them laugh in the process or if you set the ideas to music: Eddie did both, in person and as part of many ensembles.   

He also improved every band he was a part of: Joe Bushkin insisted on acknowledging Condon’s phenomenal harmonic sense and knowledge of songs (and, in fact, Eddie helped Bushkin through his early shaky beginnings on Fifty-Second Street by calling out the chords to songs Bushkin only half-knew).  

Eddie also had a fine dramatic or structural sense — listen closely to any recorded performance, in the studio or in concert.  Riffs, backgrounds, knowing when to encourage one player to go on or to subtly say to another, “You’ve had your say,” all of this was second nature to Eddie — a great orchestrator who didn’t work from a printed score. 

How anyone ends up to be what they are as an adult may be mysterious, but Condon’s growth and development seem particularly remarkable.  His birthplace, Goodland, Indiana, was not exactly the cradle of jazz.  He came from a large family; his father was somewhere between a saloon-keeper and the man who greeted people in the saloon, sat down and chatted with them.  It would have been very easy for Eddie to become nothing more serious than a young man who played the banjo now and again while someone else sang pop hits of the day, or while someone else played the C-melody saxophone. 

But something hit the young man from Goodland with the force of religious revelation.  I don’t know quite how it appeared to him: was it a record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, or one by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings?  Was it the proximity to Chicago?  Jazz music — and playing that music — must have seemed the most thrilling things possible.  However it grew, the transformation from Indiana boy to Chicago jazzman was quick, and it gave shape to Eddie’s life, and thus gave pleasure to so many. 

Eddie Condon’s club on West Third Street no longer exists: it is now part of the New York University conglomeration of buildings.  Nick’s on West Tenth Street is now a gourmet supermarket.  So the Condon landscape has shifted and been obliterated. 

But one shrine remains:  the New York apartment still inhabited by his daughter Maggie, her husband Peter, their son Michael.  I paid them a return visit (with my camera) and have some new delights to share — holy artifacts, as far as I’m concerned.

Although many of Eddie’s effects “went away” after hie death (Maggie thought that Phyllis Condon had simply given away many things to Eddie’s relatives), she still has “Slicker” Condon’s first banjo, circa 1924.  It no longer has its neck or strings, but what remains is delicate and precious (even if a few of these photographs unintentionally intensify its resemblance to a nicely browned souffle).  The stenciled lettering on the front reads _ _ _ _ _ JAZZ BAND, but the top line is somewhat difficult to decipher.

From the top!

An alternate take . . .

“Slicker” Condon!  I don’t know if that is Eddie’s Twenties handwriting or not . . .

Another view . . .

And one more.  That looks like May 1, 1924, but rry Kaylor is elusive, although I don’t have my copy of WE CALLED IT MUSIC nearby.

And one more series of photographic studies.  Consider this:Collage, anyone?

Not an exhibit at MOMA (not yet).

One of Eddie’s trademarks was his hand-tied bowties, and here’s a whole stash of them (with a birthday drawing done by brother-in-law Paul Smith as ornament).

More to come!  But for the moment, listen closely to one Eddie Condon recording and celebrate the man who made it possible.  And, in doing so, slowly changed the world.

MAGGIE CONDON HAS A PLAN

Last week, I met Maggie Condon.  If you don’t recognize her immediately, let me give you a hint:

Yes, that family.  Maggie is the elder daughter of Eddie and Phyllis Condon; she and her husband Peter (a most amiable filmmaker) live in the family’s Washington Square apartment, where I visited Maggie recently. 

I should say here that Eddie Condon — bandleader, man with an idea, guitarist, promoter — is one of my most beloved heroes.  When I started listening to other jazzmen beyond Louis, I naturally gravitated to any and all records that had any connection with Eddie — from the early Twenties to the middle Seventies.  And I was lucky enough to see the great man himself: once at close range, three times in concert. 

I knew I was in the presence of something remarkable when Maggie offered me the tour of the Condon apartment — which began by her walking to the window that overlooked Washington Square Park and pointing out the diagonal path she remembered seeing her father take across the park to the club named for him (47 West Third Street).  Then she opened a box and unwrapped what was and is a sacred object — Eddie’s first banjo, labeled on the back of the head “Slick Condon,” with a date of 1921.  Eddie had his own bedroom in the apartment because he and Phyllis — although truly devoted to each other — kept different hours.  Phyllis, an ambitious woman, was up early, someone with things to do.  Eddie came home late from the club and wanted darkness and silence for his daylight-hours sleeping pleasure: thus his room was painted a dark green, almost black. 

The holy relics continued to surface: one of Eddie’s custom-made Gibson tenor guitars:

From another angle, with reverence:

One more:

And here’s the label on the outside of the guitar case — written by Phyllis:

Eddie called the jazz magazine BROW BEAT — and here’s the only award he ever got from them:

But back to the title.  “Maggie Condon has a plan?”

Yes, Maggie Condon is making a video documentary about her father — possibly a feature-length film.  She’s been planning it for more than twenty years, and is well-qualified, having been a film and television director for a number of years.  As I write this, she is doing a series of video interviews — of jazz scholars who knew and loved Eddie, jazz musicians who played alongside him, people who saw him at close range. 

The film, let me assure you, is a daughter’s tribute to her father — as a man, as a musician — no filmed pathobiography here.

Why Eddie Condon? 

If you were to search blindly through the morass of semi-factoidal information that makes up the web, you might find that Eddie was (some say) more well-known for talking than playing, a not-very-adept rhythm guitarist (according to others) who didn’t take solos; a proponent of a now-dead style.  Even though Eddie loathed the word “Dixieland,” and said that it was “music for the farmers who wanted to hear THE SAINTS,” he is identified with the form.

All wrong. 

Three minutes of any Condon record would sweep some of this fallacy away, but there’s more that needs to be said.  That Bx Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong called him their friend should say something as well. 

First, Eddie was a rebel against the Midwestern world in which he was born.  Who would have expected a young man from Indiana to find his calling in that noisy music called jazz?  And, odder still, who would have expected that Condon boy to be so thoroughly color-blind that he would organize integrated record sessions before 1930, picking musicians by their talent rather than their compliexion at a time when this wasn’t done?  Even as late as the mid-Forties, an integrated Condon band was shut out of a Washington, D.C. concert hall because the DAR wouldn’t countenance race-mixing onstage.  So he was a pioneer.

Critics and social historians get justifiably excited about John Hammond bringing Teddy Wilson into the Benny Goodman band; they extol the heroism of Branch Rickey, getting Jackie Robinson onto the field in the white major leagues. 

But who celebrates Eddie Condon for getting Fats Waller and Hot Lips Page into Carnegie Hall?  And when the Condon groups broadcast from the Ritz Theatre and Town Hall over the Blue Network in 1944-45, how many people (here and overseas) thrilled to the music and then realized that the people whose art they were charmed by were the same people who had to sit in the back of the bus?  (Exhibit A above: “Eddie’s Hot Shots” was what they used to call “a mixed band,” and the record is still a Hot landmark.)

Ken Burns didn’t pay much attention to Eddie; I have yet to see a Jazz at Lincoln Center tribute to the man and his music.  Eddie was Caucasian (unfashionable), he made a living from his music (unthinkable), and he didn’t die young (unbelievable).  Even in the face of all these ideological burdens, he surely deserves to be celebrated.  Was it his fault that he had a good time, and that jazz wasn’t his martyrdom?   

He was the first jazz musician to have his name on a club, and it’s not incidental that the music that came out of that club was free-wheeling and passionately expert.  And he brought jazz to television long before it became the soundtrack for many shows — as early as 1942, and his EDDIE CONDON’S FLOOR SHOW remains a model of what could be done with the form — informal, funny, and Hot. 

With Milt Gabler, another down-home urban saint, Eddie and his gang made extraordinary records for the Commodore label in the late Thrities and early Forties, moving over to Decca and later (under George Avakian’s benign, wise guidance) to Columbia for classic sessions in the Fifties.    

So I’m thrilled that Maggie is interviewing the elders of the tribe as well as getting acquainted with the younger musicians who know and love the jazz that Eddie nurtured and sustained. 

If you’ve got memories of being in Eddie’s club, let’s hear them!  If you remember the first time you heard a Condon record, tell us!  (And — I’m probably not supposed to say this, but consider it whispered: if you’re a wealthy jazz-lover who would like to make sure more people know who Eddie Condon is — is, not was — it would be nice to hear from you, too.) 

Not someday, but now.  More to come!

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.

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