Tag Archives: jazz clubs

THEY WERE BOILING WITH MUSIC: “AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960,” by DAVE GELLY

I enjoyed reading writer / musician Dave Gelly’s AN UNHOLY ROW: JAZZ IN BRITAIN AND ITS AUDIENCE 1945-1960 (published by Equinox) all the way through. I am a difficult audience for most books of jazz history that propose to cover a period of the music in a larger context (as opposed to a biography or autobiography).  Most times I find such books engaging chronological collages at best that never capture a larger world. Gelly’s quick-moving book has many good stories in it, covering those intense years in 167 pages, but his tales are all wisely connected.

His writing is also a pleasure: the book is not a series of quotations knitted together. One hears his voice: witty but not cruel, stylish but not self-absorbed. Here is part of the book’s opening chapter, an autobiographical fragment from which the book’s title comes:

I think there were five of us, all aged about fourteen, gathered in the ‘games room’ of a substantial family villa on the leafy southern fringes of London. We were equipped with musical instruments — battered cornet, decrepit clarinet, miscellaneous bits of a drum kit — and were doing out best to emulate our heroes, Humphrey Lyttelton and his Band. We had been at it for some time when the door burst open to reveal our unwitting host, the cornetist’s father. ‘Will you kindly stop making that unholy row?’ he demanded, in a voice more weary than irate, and withdrew.

The 1950s, as we are often reminded, was an age of deference. Accordingly, we shut up at once, abashed but not entirely surprised. By any standards, ‘an unholy row’ was a pretty fair description of our efforts, but even if we had been competent musicians, even if we had been Humph and his Band themselves, I wouldn’t mind betting that, as far as the cornetist’s father was concerned, it would still have been an unholy row. The whole thing was offensive to ears attuned to the BBC Midland Light Orchestra or the swing-and-water piano of Charlie Kunz. 

I could have gone on reproducing Gelly’s prose happily, but this brief bit (and he is rarely so autobiographical as the book proceeds) will do to convey his accuracy, charm, and subtlety.

I began taking notes on my reading early on, and find that I have too many of them to even hint at here. Gelly is understandably fascinated by the great individualists in British jazz of the period — famous (Humphrey Lyttelton, Sandy Brown, John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott) and less so (my new hero Spike Mackintosh, George Siprac) but the book is not simply a series of portraits.

Gelly, a fine cultural historian, is curious about artistic movements, not necessarily those as defined by the journalists of the time, but as manifested in groups, recordings, and seismic shifts of taste and commerce. Sometimes these movements are given names: “trad,” “skiffle,” “blues,” “rock,” other times they are only apparent in hindsight.  Much of this might be familiar, even subliminally, to listeners and collectors who know the period, but where Gelly is invaluable is in his awareness of redefinitions within audiences.

What happens to an art form that is — of necessity — enacted in public in front of audiences — when those audiences change, develop, grow older? That, I think, is Gelly’s larger question, one which transcends the names of the music, the players, the clubs, the measures of popularity.  Even if you weren’t deeply involved in British jazz of the period, the question not easily answered.  His thoughtful inquiry makes this book well worth reading, with no hint of the classroom, no pages of statistics, no Authorities beyond the musicians and listeners who were there on the scene.

But I must backtrack and write that when I was only a few pages in, I suddenly had a small stammer of anxiety: “What if the only reason I am enjoying this book so is because of my essential US ignorance of the UK scene? What would an UK reader who knew this as native culture and experience think?” And a few days later (as I was happily reading) the answer appeared in the shape of Peter Vacher’s enthusiastic review for thejazzbreakfast. Here is an excerpt:

gelly cover[Gelly] is, and has been for many years, the jazz correspondent of the Observer newspaper, has written perceptive biographies of his heroes, Stan Getz and Lester Young (the latter also published by Equinox) and of even greater moment plays jazz tenor saxophone professionally and well. Born in 1938, Gelly embraced jazz and began to play during the very period which the book covers. So his is a commentary informed as much by first-hand knowledge as it is by his extensive research.

The subtitle suggests something more than a strictly chronological account of jazz in Britain during the cited decade and a half and that is what Gelly delivers here. He’s good at capturing the mores of the times, as Britain moved from a war-time economy to the first awakening of the ‘never-had-it-so-good 1960s’.

This was when jazz found an audience among the young, newly-liberated from the stifling conventions that had marked their parents’ lives, sometimes to their seniors’ despair, hence the title of the book. He’s even-handed about styles, understanding the sincerity of the early revivalists and tracing the rise and rise of traditional jazz and skiffle before moving over to consider the passionate espousal of the modern style promoted by the collective known as Club Eleven and the more aware dance band players of the day.

He rightly emphasises the role played by the open-minded Humphrey Lyttelton and John Dankworth, two men who largely shook off their early American influences as they sought to produce distinctive music of their own. There’s social history here but it’s British jazz history too, neatly caught and clearly expressed. No fuss, no over-elaboration, all appropriate quotations included . . . . 

Peter is typically correct; it was a relief to know that I book I was so enjoying had much to offer readers who knew the terrain by heart.

Early on in the book, Gelly chronicles a number of what he calls “the Armstrong moment” — that instantaneous conversion to jazz experienced by listeners and players.  (The late US pianist Larry Eanet wrote of the moment when some records by Louis and Earl Hines “hit” him “like Cupid’s arrow.”)

AN UNHOLY ROW gave me a literary version of “the Armstrong moment.”  I am now a Gelly convert, and want to read his other books.  I predict you will, too.

May your happiness increase!

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JOEL PRESS CONSIDERS: PLAYERS, LISTENERS, PLACES

From Joel Press, the Swing Explorer, a deeply informed meditation on the possibilities and the depths of the real, as well as the attainable ideal:

Your essay, (A LITTLE SOFTER, PLEASE?) which I read late at night, made a great impression on me and brought forth the reminiscences below.  They who eat, drink, and indulge their senses whilst we play, know not what they are missing . . . . 

Art Farmer played at Lulu White’s in Boston in the early 80s with a band that included Akira Tana and Fred Hersch.  When I met Fred at Smalls last month, I recalled Art’s going to the microphone and telling the audience that this quartet had been on the road for several months developing the sound and repertoire they were offering that set.  He said that it was difficult to concentrate given the volume of conversation and laughter from the large group of people sitting near the bandstand.  Art, ever the gentleman, asked them to allow the musicians to concentrate on the music they ostensibly had come to hear.  Sadly, Art was reprimanded by the management and was never engaged again.

When I lived in New York in the 1960s, there was a little club in the Fifties off 8th Avenue.  Barbara Carroll and Billy Taylor’s trios often played there.  One night, an inebriated middle aged couple came in, probably thinking this was another 8th Avenue bar.  They ordered drinks and became loud and unpleasant.  When they were asked to be quiet, the woman in a booming voice said, “What the hell?  You think this is a Goddamn church!”

I had an LP bootleg of Lester Young live at The Savoy Ballroom. While Prez was spinning out a soulful improvisation on a medium tempo standard, he was inadvertently accompanied by a foul mouthed argumentative couple, who were seemingly oblivious to the wondrous melodic invention emanating from Lester’s tenor.

The Sahara Restaurant in the town of Methuen, Mass.,  north of Boston, is the scene of a weekly Tuesday night concert, curated for many years by Jocko Arcidanoco, a dedicated lover of our music.  The room has a stage, lighting, and a sound system.  The audience is attentive, responsive and respectful.  Eating and drinking is done quietly if at all.  Musicians love to work here, given the fact that there are few venues left in which music is not a a background to general conviviality.  When my quartet was invited to play there last month, the musicians treated the engagement as something special and made an effort to rehearse our program despite the demands of teaching and other commitments. Playing in a concert situation has became a rarity.

The private jam session in a musician’s studio has become more prevalent as opportunities for serious playing have diminished.  Without monetary compensation, players travel to join in the pursuit of musical excellence.  Their reward lies in the interaction with and inspiration from their cohorts.  The only sounds in the studio come from the instruments and an occasional brief appreciative comment after a solo.  As has always been the case the chief supporters of jazz music are the players.

ENTERING BILLIE’S WORLD

This morning I gave a talk to a group sponsored by the Molloy (College) Institute for Lifelong Learning  at a church in Rockville Centre.

My subject? “Miss Billie Holiday,” as John Crosby respectfully calls her.

billie-1These talks let me stand up in front of a group of attentive, aware people and discuss something and someone I love.  (I came late to Billie — buying my first Holiday records in 1967 — but I fell hard.)

To be able to share Billie’s records of BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD or MISS BROWN TO YOU and see someone twenty feet away from me gently rocking with the beat is a pleasure.  And because the people who come to these talks aren’t taking required courses for a grade, the atmosphere is free from the emotions so often associated with academia — on either side of the desk.

STRANGE FRUIT casts its own spell as a unique piece of music, of political oratory, of theatre.  As does the Commodore I’LL BE SEEING YOU and (of course) the film clip of FINE AND MELLOW from “The Sound of Jazz,” which I can no longer watch without a lump in my throat.

But the chat afterwards is often even more rewarding.  And surprising.  Today, for instance, we drifted into a discussion of trained and untrained singing voices, diction, Kate Smith, honoring the song GOD BLESS AMERICA, high drape pants, the Rosenberg children, and more.

Best of all, to me, are the bits of anecdote that surface.  If you looked at this crowd, you might sniff dismissively, “Oh, senior citizens from the suburbs.  What would they bring to such an experience?”  But that assumption would be both unfair and wrong, as today’s experience proved.

A man told me about going to jazz clubs in the Village circa 1948 and sitting there forever for very little money, perhaps a quarter.

A woman off to one side picked up on something I had said about Benny Goodman and told me that her husband’s childhood friend was Jay Finegold, who had been Benny’s manager for a long time in the Fifties and Sixties.  I had spoken about Goodman’s focus on his playing — to such an extent that he seemed eccentric, oblivious, or even cruel — and she pointed out that BG came to Jay’s funeral, contradicting much of what I had thought of the King of Swing as a boss or employer.

A woman in the back of the room raised her hand politely and said, “I saw Billie Holiday in a bar on Post Avenue in Westbury.”  (An aside: Post Avenue does have two-way car traffic, but it is distinguished by a CVS, a supermarket, various ethnic eateries, donut shops, delis.  52nd Street isn’t and never was.)

I stopped cold and begged her to elaborate.  She said that this sighting took place around 1954, that Billie sang beautifully but was so stoned (drunk or high, I didn’t know) that she almost knocked the narrator over on the way to the ladies’ room.

A rather shy woman came up at the end and told me that she and her husband had met at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1941 or 1942.  They were high school students who came to dance to the jazz.  She remembered sharing a Tom Collins (they were underage but no one cared).  And she brought up sacred names: bassist Al Morgan, who gave her a brooch in the shape of a bass, and Zutty Singleton.  I beamed at her, awestruck.

On the surface, such talks seem to be one-sided.  I am The Expert; I offer information; my hearers might ask a question or two.  And sometimes that is what the interchange feels like.  But I go away from these experiences thinking that I have been well-taught by the people sitting in front of me.  And they have made me feel more than I ever expect.

My hearers have lived the experiences I am explaining in ways that are no longer possible.  So to talk with someone who saw Billie or Zutty is something extraordinary, not to be repeated as the years go on.  And I am allowed into the most affectionately cherished memories of my audience.  In me, a stranger with esoteric enthusiasms, they find someone eager to hear, someone who cares about a small piece of their past.  Perhaps they tell me something they haven’t told their children, who know so little of the music of fifty or sixty years ago.

The casual generosity of these people, offering irreplaceable stories, is a rare gift.

[The photographs at top and bottom — showing Billie looking healthy and cheerful — come from a German website, and I believe they were taken during her 1954 European tour.  Is the clarinetist a young Tony Scott?  I am sure that it is Red Norvo at the vibraharp, as he would have called it.)

billie-2

AWFUL SAD . . .

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I didn’t have to go to graduate school to learn that things come to an end, including the summer, the bag of potato chips, and the cup of Earl Grey tea.  Of course we know that change may be the only constant.  But I was saddened to find that Jon-Erik Kellso’s Sunday gig at Sweet Rhythm is no more.

The reasons surely weren’t musical, and the audience had grown exponentially from the first Sunday to the fourth, which was November 16.  No, the gig ended for economic reasons, understandable but sorrowful nonetheless.  I envision this blog as a place to celebrate, so I will not embark on dark ruminations.

What I prefer to do here is thank the musicians who played so beautifully: Jon-Erik, Chuck Wilson, Will Anderson, Peter Reardon-Anderson, John Allred, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello, Kelly Friesen, Andrew Swann, and a host of gifted sitters-in including Lisa Hearns and Adrian Cunningham.  And the Friends of Jazz who filled the room: the Beloved, of course; Jackie, Lala, and Nina Favara; Bill and Sonya Dunham; Dick Dreiwitz; Jim and Grace Balantic; Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin.  And thanks to the people I didn’t get to meet who grinned and clapped and were moved along with us.

The music lives on in our memories and on YouTube.  You can visit my “swingyoucats” account and Jim’s “recquilt” for clips on this band in action.  But even the best live video isn’t the same thing.

AWFUL SAD, to quote Ellington.