Tag Archives: Jazz Times

A NEW BIX PROJECT

Few jazz musicians stir up as much longing and yearning as Bix Beiderbecke. This isn’t an aesthetic judgment on his achievement as measured against anyone else’s, but I sense that he is so powerfully missed by so many people. Although his recorded legacy is not by any means the most brief, those who love his music both revel in its beauties and wish with all their hearts that there would be more. Nearly seventy-five years after his final appearance in a recording studio, it seems unlikely that more will surface — although more unusual events have happened.

So those who revere him and his music have turned to Alternate Universes — tributes that do more than offer beautifully recorded or more leisurely versions of Okeh, Victor, Gennett, Harmony, Columbia sessions — but attempts to recreate something unheard.  (The parallel experiment, and a beautiful one, has always been Bent Persson’s ongoing Studies in Louis, spread over many records and CDs, and always rewarding.)

Nearly fifteen years ago, the very imaginative trumpeter Randy Sandke and friends recorded a CD for the Nagel-Heyer label of music associated with Louis and Bix: here is Doug Ramsey’s 2000 review of that disc.  A few years later, Dick Hyman took a small group in to the studio for Arbors Records (with Tom Pletcher inventing new beauties) to consider what would have happened if Bix played Gershwin.  (A wonderful Stomp Off session paired Bent and Tom for, among other imaginative fancies, a Bix-meets-Louis romp on MAD.)

Now, a decade later, Julio Schwarz Andrade came up with this new imaginative venture and recruited the musicians, and Paul Adams of Lake Records is eager to record the results, so a CD will become reality with some support from you. It’s a continuation of Paul’s work over a number of years called Vintage Recording Projects — where he assembles wonderful idiomatic musicians, records them with a minimum of fuss (no baffles or headphones, just people playing in a suitable room) with delightful results. Here is what the most recent session looked and sounded like — heroically gratifying!

I’ll let Julio explain:

The premise is, of course, that there are many tunes that we know Bix played and was fond of, but never had the chance to record. So this is our humble attempt to right that historical / circumstantial wrong, and to recreate what could have been. The musicians are: Andy Schumm, cornet; Mauro Porro, reeds; Kristoffer Kompen, trombone; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone; David Boeddinghaus, piano; Josh Duffee, percussion.  The list of tunes hasn’t been finalized yet, but the following are being considered (in no particular order): STARDUST / SKYLARK / WOLVERINE BLUES / WASHBOARD BLUES / SWANEE / I’D CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN / LAZY RIVER / IT MUST BE TRUE / PANAMA / ANGRY / HIAWATHA’S LULLABY / NO-ONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT among others.

Now, projects like this don’t take shape without support, so we are asking people to help out. Here is the link to contribute some . . . money.  A £30 donation gets your name in the booklet. Anything more than that gets you a place in heaven and eternal salvation as well. And all contributions will win gratitude from the organizers, the band, and future listeners.

The session will take place right after this year’s Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party, and I look forward to the results.

May your happiness increase!

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MICK CARLON RECALLS RUBY BRAFF, BEAUTIFULLY

Reprinted from JAZZ TIMES, May 2011:

05/04/11 • By Mick Carlon

Ruby Braff: The Beauty in Music

It’s 1999 and I’m watching a PBS special on Mark Twain. The phone rings. It’s Ruby Braff. “Are you watching the show about Twain?” he asks. “It’s superb. The man was one of our nation’s greatest geniuses.”

I agree. “Too bad Twain didn’t live to be one hundred,” I say.

“Why?” asks Ruby.

“Because then he could’ve heard Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings and we’d have Twain’s reaction to them.”

I hear an intake of breath. “Why the (bleep) would you care about that? Why would anyone want to know how Mark Twain felt about Pops? What a (bleeping) stupid thing to say.”

Not taking Ruby’s insults personally (for some reason, I never did), I reply, “Well, I think it would have been interesting.”

“That’s because you’re a (bleep),” and, once again, Ruby Braff hangs up on me.

For the past quarter century, I’ve lived on Cape Cod. Believe it or not, this sandy peninsula, about an hour south of Boston, was once a garden of jazz delights. Although his fans in Japan and Denmark stood in line to buy tickets to his gigs, Dave McKenna’s local gigs were ridiculously easy to attend. My wife and I would simply stroll into Hyannis’ Road House Café to delight in the world-class sounds of Dave on his “saloon piano”—for free.

And we could hear Ruby Braff, playing the most gorgeous cornet in the world–with a sound redolent of summer dusks and autumn wood-smoke—often with McKenna and bassist Marshall Wood.

I met Ruby through Jack Bradley, his old friend who had once actually saved Ruby’s life. In the depths of a three day coma, Ruby was responding to nothing and nobody. Deciding to visit Ruby at Cape Cod Hospital, Jack brought along a cassette player and a Louis Armstrong tape. He pressed play and the sound of Pops playing “I’m In the Mood For Love” filled the hospital room. Amazingly, Ruby’s eyelids began to flutter. The color returned to his cheeks. A few moments later, his eyes opened. “Hey,” he said in his Beantown Dead End Kid voice, “that’s not the 1935 version.”

“Nope,” replied Jack. “It’s from ’38—Pops with the Dorsey band.”

A few minutes later, now fully awake, Ruby said, “You know, that’s the second time Pops saved my life.”

“When was the first?” asked Jack.

“The first time I heard him.”

Ruby, of course, was a graduate of the Louis Armstrong School of Music. “It doesn’t matter what instrument you play—you’re supposed to be listening to Louis Armstrong. It doesn’t matter whether you write, sing, dance, or anything. If you haven’t listened to Louis Armstrong, there’s nothing, nothing going to come out of your playing that will ever please me. I can tell you that.”

And Ruby would tell you. When I once mentioned a young hot-shot trumpeter, Ruby scoffed, “He can’t play (beep). And you know why? He’s never listened to Louis. I can tell.”

However, one time the young hot-shot trumpeter I admired was Ruby himself. “I love those albums you made with Dave McKenna in 1956,” I said.

“What? Are you nuts?” Ruby thundered. “Do you have ears? I couldn’t play worth crap back then. Only an ignorant fool would like that playing. Dave’s the only reason to listen to those pieces of (beep). I thought you had more sense than that!”

I guess I didn’t. I stand by my high opinion of Ruby’s 1950s music. But his later work, recorded when he was often breathless with emphysema, is among the greatest jazz of the past thirty years: On the Arbors label: Variety is the Spice of Braff; Being With You (Ruby’s lovely Pops tribute); Live at the Regattabar; Music for the Still of the Night; Controlled Nonchalance at the Regattabar I and II (with Dave McKenna and Scott Hamilton). On the Concord label: Ruby Braff and His New England Song Hounds I and II (once again with McKenna and Hamilton, along with Howard Alden; Frank Tate; and the immortal Alan Dawson). I also have big eyes for The Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet Live at the New School album (Chiaroscuro) and (sorry, Ruby!) his 1956 duets with Ellis Larkins (Vanguard).

My friend rarely had a good word to say about anyone—myself included—but I never heard him say anything negative about a fellow he had known since boyhood in Roxbury: Nat Hentoff. “That man,” said Ruby one evening, “has never written one phony word in his life. God knows how many bum notes I’ve hit over the years—but as a writer, Nat has never hit a bum note.”

When illness struck again, in the autumn of 2002, I visited Ruby often at Cape Cod Hospital. Strangely, amazingly, he was now always kind, with never a negative word for anyone. It worried me. “I don’t think I’ll ever play my horn again,” he said one rainy November afternoon. I kept quiet. With Ruby, phony optimism would’ve rung false—a bum note.

He died on February 9, 2003, a month short of his 76th birthday. Cape Cod has been one quiet place since.

I’ll let Ruby himself take one last word-solo. In 1979 he told Wayne Enstice: “I believe in beauty, and there’s got to be nothing but beauty in music. And if you’re not playing beautiful music that takes people to another plane, to a delicious place that they can’t ordinarily get to in their own lives, then you’re producing nothing. I want delicious sounds…that’ll take me away on a dream.”

Thanks, Ruby. You gave the world countless such delicious sounds.

P.S.  I hope that neither JAZZ TIMES nor Mick Carlon mind my reprinting this delicious piece that catches Ruby whole.  I, too, loved his music and followed him around with a camera (once) and a cassette recorder (many times) to be closer to the source of that wonderful sound.  And who’s Mick Carlon, aside from being a good friend and a fine writer?

Mick Carlon is a 27- year veteran public school teacher.  His young adult novel, Riding on Duke’s Train, starring Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, will be published in December by Leapfrog Press.  Says Nat Hentoff: “I knew Duke Ellington for over 25 years.  He was my mentor.  The Ellington in Carlon’s book is the man I knew.”  In 2014, Leapfrog will publish Carlon’s young adult novel on Louis Armstrong, Little Fred and Louis.  Carlon lives on Cape Cod with his wife Lisa and his daughters, Hannah and Sarah.

“PORTRAIT OF A SONG OBSESSIVE”: REBECCA KILGORE by CHRISTOPHER LOUDON

Published in JAZZ TIMES, May 2011:

Rebecca Kilgore: Portrait of a Song Obsessive

Christopher Loudon gives an Overdue Ovation for Portland-based singer

By Christopher Loudon

Portland is renowned for a lot of things: curbside gourmet delicacies, concerted environmental concern, spectacular roses, great microbreweries. But it is only recently, since the advent of the superbly programmed Portland Jazz Festival in 2004, that the hipster mecca north of San Francisco has earned a wider reputation as a jazz hub. Actually, Portland’s jazz roots are quite deep, and among the strongest of those roots is vocalist and (occasional) guitarist Rebecca Kilgore.

 Confer with her collaborators and the compliments quickly begin flowing. “Becky is my favorite singer to play for,” says pianist Dave Frishberg, who first partnered with Kilgore on 1994’s Looking at You and has since become her most frequent musical confidant. “She is technically a marvelous singer,” he continues, “[and] always in shape. Her voice sounds great, and her delivery is flawless.” John Pizzarelli, a longtime fan and recent recording mate on several albums, including the new Lovefest at the PIZZArelli Party (Arbors), adds, “She just sings perfectly. She’s a dream of a studio singer. You just feel great when you’re in the room with her. You’re happy to be there, and you know it’s going to work.”

High praise, particularly for a performer so inherently shy she waited until age 30 before making her professional debut. Raised in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Kilgore’s first love was folk music. “When I was in high school,” she says, “I was into Joan Baez and Judy Collins and people like that. I got a guitar and strummed along. Then I discovered a disc jockey in the area who played classic jazz. I got acquainted with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day and just flipped. Those singers took me on a complete musical detour. They were my teachers, because I never had any formal training. I consider myself so fortunate to be a torchbearer for that style of singing.”

Toward the end of the 1970s, Kilgore relocated to Portland. Alone in a new town and eager to make friends, she regularly attended local music gigs. One night she caught a jazz act called Wholly Cats. “There was a gal in the group playing rhythm guitar and singing,” she recalls, “and that’s what I did in the privacy of my own home. We became fast friends, and when she decided to quit the group, she suggested I try out. I was aghast. I didn’t think I could sing professionally, but the idea got stuck in my head, and I got the job. It was a major turning point in my life. I loved being with musicians, loved learning new music all the time, and it was like a whole new family for me. There was no turning back after that.”

In 1982, Kilgore made her recording debut with Wholly Cats, then rapidly widened her horizons, working with drummer Hal Smith’s Rhythmakers and his Roadrunners, joining the Bob Wills-style Western swing outfit Ranch Dressing, performing with fiddle player Hollis Taylor and joining pianist John Sheridan’s Dream Band.

Another major turning point came in 1991, when Frishberg, having settled in Portland, began a two-night-per-week gig at the Heathman Hotel. He performed with the late cornet player Jim Goodwin for the first couple of months, and after Goodwin departed, the hotel said they’d prefer a singer in the band. Frishberg reached out to Kilgore, who at the time was holding down a secretarial day job at Reed College. When she got the call from Frishberg, she decided it was finally time to devote her full attention to music. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” she laughs, “but it worked out. I think of my life as ‘before Dave’ and ‘after Dave.’ I am so grateful for everything I have learned from him. He is such a high quality musician and is very inspiring.”

During their five-year run at the Heathman, Kilgore got the chance to dig deep into the Great American Songbook. “Her repertoire is enormous,” says Frishberg. “The entire time we played the Heathman, she kept a log of all the songs we performed. After our final show, she handed me a printout of the entire log. We’d performed over 500 songs, and many of them we only did once. Every time I’d come to the gig, I knew she’d have something new. It was very stimulating.”

“I never like to do the tried and true,” says Kilgore. “My passion is discovering songs. When I uncover a song it is like falling in love, and I want to impart to the audience the fun and the beauty of finding it.” Nearly as ardent a musical archivist as Michael Feinstein, a professed Kilgore fan, she comes across vintage tunes in a variety of ways. “Some people send me CDs and say, ‘Here are some songs you might like.’ There was a gentleman from Savannah who was a Johnny Mercer expert, and he sent me an entire disc of Mercer obscurities. I’d never heard of any of them, and I know a lot of Mercer songs! And sometimes when I’m in a shopping mall, I’ll be listening to the Muzak and a song will pop up that I’d forgotten all about. The music just comes into my life. I seem to be a magnet for good songs.”

Nor is Kilgore opposed to newer material. “I don’t go out of my way to avoid contemporary songs,” she says. “I believe we’re in the middle of a resurgence of good songwriting, so I’m always on the lookout. My fishing lines aren’t always in the contemporary world, but I’m trying!”

As for her guitar work, though both Frishberg and Pizzarelli praise her playing, Kilgore considers herself “a pretty basic guitarist. I look at my guitar as a tool. That’s how I study music and learn songs. In my Western swing days, I used to play rhythm guitar, but these days I sing with such wonderful pianists that my guitar playing would be pretty gratuitous.”

In addition to Frishberg, Kilgore has forged long-term relationships with several artists, including guitarist/banjoist/vocalist Eddie Erickson, pianist Keith Ingham, saxophonist Harry Allen and the man she calls her “musical soulmate,” trombonist Dan Barrett. “Lester Young to Billie Holiday, that’s how I consider Dan and me,” she says. “He and I think alike, we hear the same lines and we love the same recordings, though what I know about old jazz is the tip of the iceberg compared to what he knows. He is a walking encyclopedia.”

It was Barrett, via Frishberg, who first introduced Kilgore to Arbors Records co-founder Mat Domber. “Dave tells the story,” says Kilgore, “that he and Dan were on tour. While traveling in the car together, Dave said, ‘I have this cassette of this singer,’ and Dan rolled his eyes and said, ‘Oh, no, not another vocalist!’”

Kilgore’s association with Arbors has continued apace since 1994, when she recorded I Saw Stars with a band featuring Frishberg and Bucky Pizzarelli. (Barrett wrote most of the arrangements.) “Rebecca is an outstanding talent,” says Domber. “And she is a very easy person to work with. She always comes prepared and knows her business. She has almost perfect pitch and a great sense of a lyric. In my opinion, she’s the best jazz singer around today.”

Also the most prolific. Since 1982, Kilgore has appeared, as leader or featured vocalist, on no fewer than 49 albums spanning 16 labels. “Sometimes I worry,” she confesses, “that the world is going to say, ‘Oh, another Kilgore CD, who cares?’” Still, in addition to Lovefest, she planned two more releases for 2011, both for Arbors. Available now is Live at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, a document of a program she performed last summer with the Harry Allen Quartet, “Lady Day and Prez: A Musical Tribute to Billie Holiday and Lester Young.” The show allowed Kilgore to further explore the Holiday-Young symbiosis, but in the company of Allen rather than Barrett. As New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden raved, “The show’s avoidance of slavish imitation made for the best kind of tribute: one that captured the streamlined ease of performances in which Holiday and Young carried on a spontaneous, private conversation.” And come fall there will be The Sound of Music, a continuation of the Broadway series that she, Allen and Erickson launched a few years ago with South Pacific and Guys and Dolls.

At 61, she has no intention to slow down. “The problem,” she gleefully insists, “is that there are so many great songs. My desk is an absolute mess because of a huge stack of sheet music. I’ll take one off the top and incorporate it into my repertoire and then add five more to the pile. My tombstone is going to read, ‘I can’t go yet—I haven’t learned all the songs!’”

Recommended Listening:

I Saw Stars (Arbors, 1995)

The Music of Jimmy Van Heusen (Jump, 2005)

Why Fight the Feeling? Songs by Frank Loesser (Arbors, 2008)

Sure Thing: Rebecca Kilgore Sings the Music of Jerome Kern (Audiophile, 2010)

Lovefest at the PIZZArelli Party (Arbors, 2011)

STARS IN THE JAZZ SKY

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Nat Hentoff’s latest book — a collection of his Jazz Times columns, called AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL: SIXTY YEARS ON THE JAZZ SCENE (University of California Press), which will be published next month. 

In a chapter devoted to Thelonious Monk, Hentoff presents an interview done at Monk’s home in 1956 which contains this short passage: “Charlie Parker?  I met him in Vic Dickenson’s room where he was visiting one day.  Charlie wasn’t well known uptown around this time.”

It pleases me to imagine a jazz universe where Monk, Vic, and Bird hang out in each other’s rooms.  Some of the jazz ideologues, busily dividing the music into “schools” to be arranged in chronological order, have relegated players such as Vic to a kind of Dixieland-limbo.  You won’t find his name in Robin G. Kelley’s exhaustive biography of Monk, by the way. 

The musicians I know are remarkably open-minded about their associates and associations.  “Can (s)he play?” is the question, stated or implied.  Frank Chace told me that when he was a young man he listened to all the jazz records he could find — “modern” as well as “traditional,” thinking that it was his responsibility as a musician to hear and learn from as much as he could. 

Jazz didn’t necessarily have “a star system” until it began to be publicized.  Rankings and polls were a way to sell magazines.  And the “star” mentality has a particularly exclusionary turn — which jazz listeners and writers of all persuasions are prone to.  It’s delightful to celebrate Duke, Louis, Bird, Bix — but what about the worthy players who aren’t spoken of?  Some musicians are made much of for reasons that have little to do with their music — their obscurity or the tragedy of their short lives.  But many remain in the shadows as if the jazz pantheon was limited rather than spacious. 

Admiring Art Tatum shouldn’t mean that Nat Jaffe has to be pushed aside or ignored; where did Dicky Wells and Benny Morton get to? 

The night sky has millions of stars.  Discover or re-discover someone worthy who’s been ignored or passed by.