Tag Archives: James Lincoln Collier

REMEMBERING JOHN L. FELL (1927-2008)

In elementary school, your best friend is probably someone you see all the time.  As you get older, proximity isn’t essential.  I never saw John L. Fell in person; I spoke to him only once on the phone and had one snapshot of him (holding his grandson on his shoulders).  But he was a true friend. 

I first saw John’s name on the back of an IAJRC record album devoted to Pee Wee Russell.  John had written the liner notes and assembled wonderful rarities.  The music held me, but I was delighted and a bit awed by John’s prose: he wrote the way I aspired to.  His language crackled; he was precise, evocative, witty, sharp-tongued. 

What also captured my attention was that he had included a few selections from a fabled 1960 television broadcast featuring Russell and Bobby Hackett.  I found John’s address and wrote to him, asking if he would trade a cassette copy of that music, offering him whatever I had recorded on trips into New York City.  

Thus began an intense and rewarding friendship with a hot jazz soundtrack.  It had its own pattern, its own rhythm.  About once a month we would exchange cassettes — four of them in a mailer with a letter enclosed.  The letter was purportedly to list the personnel, but we both quickly delighted in conversing — what I had particularly liked in John’s last batch; what I was enclosing; the jazz he had recently seen; a gossipy story about some musician, living or dead, that we had seen.  John had been part of a group of college students who, in 1947, brought a jazz band to Hamilton College: the band included Hodes, Miff Mole, Tony Parenti, Kaminsky, Danny Alvin, and had — playing intermission piano — James P. Johnson.  John was an amateur clarinetist who had led his own band; I shared stories of seeing Braff and Hackett in the flesh.  We shared common loves: the Condon crowd, obscure 78s, Lester Young, Billy Butterfield, Ed Hall, alternate takes, rarities. 

As my collection of cassettes grew, I created a picture of John in my mind — just like his prose: perceptive, no-nonsense, enthusiastic.  I found out (not from him) that he was a distinguished film scholar and bought several of his books: FILM AND THE NARRATIVE TRADITION is one I particularly admire, showing the connection between early silent film storytelling and comic strips. 

John was generous, and even though I must have seemed voracious, he never complained.  Many collectors hug their treasures to their figurative bosoms, as if to say, “This is mine and you can’t have it!”  There was none of that in John’s largesse.  He added to my library of jazz films and concerts on videotape.  Through him, I saw Sidney Catlett on film (which I’d never imagined) as well as rare concert footage.  I came to value his letters — which, sadly, I no longer have — as much as the music that accompanied them.  Early on, John was still using a manual typewriter whose capital letter jumped at the beginning of the sentence; at some point, we both switched to rudimentary word-processing.

John also gave me a fine compliment.  He took over the incomplete manuscript that his friend Terkild Vinding had written on stride piano, and fleshed it out into a book, STRIDE!, published by Scarecrow Press.  I had volunteered to read the manuscript, and had offered comments and suggestions.  In retrospect, probably most of them were superfluous, but John thanked me in the preface for my “sternly affectionate guidance,” which pleased me no end: the middle word, to be exact.   

We traded music and conversation for perhaps five years — John went through several illnesses — until he wrote a brief, sad note that he was too ill continue.  He thanked me for the music and the pleasure of our conversation, but I never heard from him again. 

Whenever I met his friend James Lincoln Collier in New York, I asked for news of John, bot no one seemed to know.  I don’t know when the obituary below appeared in the Hamilton College alumni bulletin, but I present it here as a measure of a generous, multi-talented, irreplaceable man. 

I have only to move from my desk to pick up one of the cassettes John sent me to feel his presence.   

I miss him. 

John Louis Fell ’50, emeritus professor of film at San Francisco State University and a noted authority on early cinema history as well as a jazz aficionado, was born on September 19, 1927, in Westfield, NJ. The son of Shelby G., a business executive, and Frances Hildebrand Fell, he grew up in Westfield and was graduated in 1945 from Westfield High School. He entered Hamilton that fall but left the Hill after a semester in response to an irresistible call from Selective Service.

In 1947, following a year in the U.S. Army Air Force, John Fell returned to College Hill and resumed his studies with such success that he gained election to Phi Beta Kappa. He served on the staff of campus radio station WHC, played clarinet in the College Band, and also contributed his instrumental talent to the Fallacious Five jazz band. Called by The Hamiltonian the “perfect example of the rational mind in an irrational world,” he received his diploma with honors in anthropology in 1950.

After briefly taking courses in anthropology at Northwestern University, John Fell headed to New York City, where he pursued graduate studies in cinema and eked out a living as a magazine editor, free-lance writer, and jazz musician. Besides writing “pulp” for men’s magazines and numerous film scripts, he joined fellow jazz enthusiasts in Greenwich ­Village, including classmate and fellow Fallacious Five veteran James Lincoln Collier, in playing gigs with his clarinet. For a time he also taught in a private secondary school, where he “supervised a class of schizophrenic boys, which prepared me for academia.”

John Fell, who had acquired an M.A. in communications from New York University in 1954, stayed on at N.Y.U. to earn his Ph.D in that field in 1958. Upon obtaining his doctorate, he left the East Coast for Montana State College (now University) to take over its film and television department. He remained there in Bozeman for two years as an assistant professor, primarily supervising educational television. On December 5, 1958, while at Montana State, he was married to Suzanne Shillington in Idaho Falls, ID.

In 1960, John and Sue Fell moved to California when John was appointed to the faculty of San Francisco State College (also now University). As an assistant professor, he taught courses in motion picture history, theory, and esthetics in the department of radio-TV-film. His intellectual curiosity and wry sense of humor permeated his classroom presentations, which were drawn from his impressively wide reading in film. Appointed in 1964 to develop and administer a new film program, he supported student demands for a full-fledged cinema department, which was established under his chairmanship in 1967. He chaired the department until 1970 and again in 1975-76. A reluctant administrator who was happiest sharing his passion for cinema and jazz culture, and being a mentor and guide to his students, he led the department only long enough to get and keep it on its feet. He was promoted to full professor in 1970 and continued to teach at San Francisco State until his retirement in 1984.

In addition to contributing articles and reviews on film, music, books, theater, and photography to publications ranging from arts journals to Esquire and the Saturday Review, John Fell wrote album notes for jazz recordings. He also served on the editorial board of Film Quarterly, the advisory board of Film History, and as guest editor for Cinema Journal. A member of numerous professional organizations, including the Writers’ Guild of America and the American Federation of Musicians, he was a former president of the national academic film organization, the Society for ­Cinema Studies (1981-83).

However, John Fell’s enduring influence and lasting impact was through his shaping of the film department at San Francisco State and his scholarship as reflected in five books, most notably Film and the Narrative Tradition, published in 1974. He went on to write Film: An Introduction (1975), A History of Films (1979), and Film Before Griffith (1983). His last book, Stride! (1999), was an important contribution to jazz piano history.

In retirement, John Fell, residing in Larkspur in Marin County, north of San Francisco, continued to teach film and jazz courses at the College of Marin. He also continued to write and to “play very dated jazz with a group of old gentlemen on Friday afternoons.”

John L. Fell died on October 8, 2008, following a massive stroke. He is survived by his wife of almost 50 years. Also surviving are two daughters, Justine R. Fell and Eliza M. Durkin, and three grandchildren and a sister. His son, John S. Fell, the victim of a diving accident, died in 1989.

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A MEMORIAL FOR SAM PARKINS

An update from James Lincoln Collier:  
The memorial for Sam this week is meant for musicians only, especially those who played with Sam.  The venue is far too small to accomodate a lot of people. There will be a large memorial for Sam in February to which others will be invited.

A jazz memorial to honor and remember the reedman and raconteur Leroy “Sam” Parkins will be held on Tuesday, January 5, 2010 — starting 5:00 PM at the Greenwich Village Bistro (13 Carmine Street in Lower Manhattan) where he and singer Ronnie Washam had a regular gig.  Among the musicians who will be there to play the jazz Sam loved will be trumpeter Peter Ecklund, trombonist James Lincoln Collier, painist / singer Peter Sokolow, and bassist David Winograd.  The Bistro is a small place, so you might want to be there early to get a seat.  Sam, unabashedly pleased when he was the center of a whirl, would be delighted to see the place full of people listening, talking, and enjoying themselves.

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
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WAY DOWN YONDER ON CARMINE STREET

This morning the wind chill was minus-four.  I don’t dare think about the economy.  So news of a new jazz gig is very exciting.  This scoop comes to us from Marianne Mangan, one of this blog’s two roving correspondents:

gvbistro“Next week the Greenwich Village Bistro (212.206.9777) will host clarinetist Sam Parkins and pianist Pete Sokolow twice in two days.  In addition to their Wednesday 12:30 – 2:00 lunch gig with Jim Collier’s Gotham Jazzmen (also featuring Peter Ecklund), Sam and Pete will be appearing on Tuesday night, December 30th, with Ronnie Washam and Friends — the other friend being bassist Dave Winograd.  Fans of the Cajun will remember Ronnie as a first-rate vocalist, lovely of tone with an unfailing connection to both the music and the meaning of a song.  This foursome has appeared at the GVB already and it’s said that even the young waitstaff knew enough to pay attention to their music.

This may be the start of an every-other-week engagement, but Tuesday, December 30th at 9:00 is a good time to start making it a habit.  The Greenwich Village Bistro is at 13 Carmine Street, between Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street.”

Readers who remember the fabled Cajun (between 16th and 17th Streets on Eighth Avenue) before it was eaten by “progress” in 2006 will remember Pete Sokolow, enthusiastically swinging with a thunderous left hand, Leroy “Sam” Parkins, a wonderfully hedonistic clarinetist, and Ronnie Washam, “The Chelsea Nightingale,” who sang with drummer Bob Thompson’s Red Onion Jazz Band.  Pete can do a hilarious version of Fats’s “Your Feets Too Big” in Yiddish and drive a band with authentic stride piano; Sam is a deep musician, whose blues come from inside.  And Ronnie.  Her favorite singers are Lee Wiley and Ella Logan, and she honors them.  Not, mind you, by imitating them, but by getting inside a song as they did.

Jazz musicians, these days, have their own CDs that they bring to the gig.  But Ronnie has a new one — LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME — recorded with a wonderful little combo (Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Pete Martinez, clarinet; Hank Ross, piano; Conal Fowkes, bass; Bob Thompson; drums).  She comes through whole from the first note, and her colleagues are especially receptive.  You could call 212.243.7235 for ordering information — or, better yet, you could buy one at the gig.  Don your down coat, go downtown, and prepare to have your spirits lifted!

THREE CHEERS FOR PETER ECKLUND!

One of the pleasures of this blog is the attentive local correspondents who come bearing gifts of information and insight.  Marianne Mangan is the most recent addition to the unpaid Jazz Lives staff of roving reporters, and I hope she phones in her stories frequently!

Hi Michael,

What a night Monday is for the hot stuff! You’ve talked about Vince & the Nighthawks at Sofia’s, and we know about the Grove Street Stompers at Arthur’s (VERY good on Sunday, too, with the Creole Cooking Jazz Band), but here’s one more. On Monday night we (my “beloved” / husband is writer / one-time jazz critic Robert Levin) had occasion to hear the Stan Rubin Jazz All-Stars at Charley O’s Time Square Grill. The poster outside still shows Dan Levinson and Jon-Erik Kellso…not so and no matter. The multi-talented and always able Herb Gardner led on keyboard, with young Peter Reardon Anderson on clarinet and tenor sax, steady Steve Alcott on bass, Arnie Kinsella hammering those accents home on drums (and using brushes more than anyone around) and the remarkable Peter Ecklund on trumpet and four-valve flugelhorn. They swung and stomped their way through the likes of “Milenberg Joys,” “Who’s Sorry Now?,” “Big Butter & Egg Man” and “Oh, Baby,” pausing occasionally to temper  the heat with the out & out heart-melting: “One Hundred Years From Today” and “I Surrender, Dear.”

Ecklund played every song like he had a personal connection to it: so musical, so smart, sometimes sly, sometimes sweet, always accurate. He’s generous with the other players, leading them into phrasings that are unexpected and just right. They seemed happy for the inspiration and played like a tight unit, although he’s only with them once or twice a month.

Peter also plays with the Gotham Jazzmen on Wednesdays 12:30 to 2:00 at the Greenwich Village Bistro, 13 Carmine Street at Bleecker & 6th. With Jim Collier leading on trombone, Sam Parkins on clarinet, Dick Miller on piano and Peter on whatever he feels like (which was flugelhorn and ukelele last week), the old pros wove a spell around “Rosetta,” “Deed I Do,” “China Boy,” and more. Subtle, nuanced–lovely stuff.  Peter’s played like this every time I’ve seen him recently.  In person, he sounds like his CDs, made when he was the hot hand among cornet players.  I, for one, would like the opportunity to see him work a lot more.

Thanks for all the great information (and mood elevating, too!) you get out there, Michael!

Sincerely,

Marianne

A few more words about Peter Ecklund.  Perceptive, witty, and insightful, he’s been a jazz scholar of great renown — his work on Bix and Louis is hugely admired in the field and by his colleagues.  I first heard him on a Stomp Off vinyl issue, PETER ECKLUND AND THE MELODY MAKERS, which featured him in the congenial company of Dan Barrett, Ken Peplowski, Joe Muranyi, Barbara Dreiwitz, Marty Grosz, Eddy Davis — the finest players then in New York.  Happily, that CD has just been reissued as HORN OF PLENTY on the Classic Jazz label — eminently worthwhile listening, vigorous, lyrical, and hot.  Even when Peter puts down his horns on these sessions, his whistling on “Take Your Tomorrow” is reason enough to buy the CD.

I had the opportunity to hear him twice in 1990 in concerts held in Babylon, New York (no one’s idea of a jazz hotbed) with Muranyi, Grosz, and Barrett — wonderful stuff.  I remember with pleasure Muranyi’s singing of “Louisiana Fairy Tale,” which was still the theme song of THIS OLD HOUSE.  Days gone by!

I followed Peter’s playing through several Arbors CDs, and then caught up with him a few years ago — at the Cajun with the Gotham Jazzmen, with other pickup groups, and as a noble guest at the Ear Inn with Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri.  Peter has always had a variety of approaches — his early work had some of the tumbling bravado of Jabbo Smith balanced against the sweetness of Bix and Bobby Hackett.  When he used his mute, his personality as well as his sound changed, sometimes summoning up the growls and moans of the Thirties Ellington brass.  Peter always offered shining melodic improvisations that went in unexpected ways, and his recent playing, focused and fervent, is reminiscent of the delicate yet arching trajectories of Doc Cheatham.  I hope we hear Peter more and more . . . and that, like Doc, his playing career is long and delightful.  All hail a great talent!

As a postscript, at Marianne’s suggestion, I put on the Jazzology CD of 1994, ECKLUND AT ELKHART: Peter leading what might be The Perfect Band: Dan Barrett, Bobby Gordon, Mark Shane, Marty Grosz, Greg Cohen, and Hal Smith.  Music to rejoice by, and sorely needed, too.