Tag Archives: Jim Leigh

“WE WERE HAVING TOO MUCH FUN”: JIM LEIGH’S EL DORADO JAZZ BAND, 1955

Often highly publicized “rare” and “previously unheard” jazz reissues do not live up to their potential.  I can’t be the only listener who thinks, “Did they have to play every tune at the speed of light?”  “Someone should have shoved that piano off a cliff.”  “I know Kid Flublip is dead and legendary both, but he sure sounds lousy here.”  And so on.

But a recent CD by Jim Leigh’s El Dorado Jazz Band is a triumph.  Although the material comes from private tapes made onsite in 1955, the sound is clear and sarisfying; the repertoire is varied (as are the tempos and dynamics), and the twenty-one tracks were a delight rather than an test of my endurance.  I new Jim in the last months of his life as a fine writer and a player who understood how to balance technique, knowledge, feeling, and experimentation within an apparently “limited” idiom.  When I read his memoir, where he mourned the early death of clarinetist Rowland Working, I wondered if the evidence would live up to the legend.  It certainly does.

On this CD, Leigh is surrounded by lyrical players who could weave lines like rapidly-growing ivy.  Their inventions delight, but they sing on their instruments, which is the ideal (not always realized) of players trying to make brass and wood as personal as their speaking voices.  The players are Jim Borkenhagen, trumpet; Roland Working, clarinet — and he’s joined by Bob Helm on several tracks! — Pete Fay, piano; Danny Ruediger, banjo and vocals.  The repertoire offers classic Morton, Twenties jazz classics and pop tunes, Louis, and  ancient but still lively blues: JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE / ST. JAMES INFIRMARY / CAKE WALKING BABIES FROM HOME / GOOD TIME FLAT BLUES / SOME OF THESE DAYS / STRATFORD HUNCH / ACE IN THE HOLE / MILENBERG JOYS / TROUBLE IN MIND / BID BEAR STOMP / SIDEWALK BLUES / BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME / AFTER YOU’VE GONE / RIVERSIDE BLUES / CHATTANOOGA STOMP / DROP THAT SACK / FRANKIE AND JOHNNY / ALABAMA JUBILEE / SEE SEE RIDER / HOW LONG BLUES / WEARY BLUES.

And as a bittersweet bonus, Jim wrote a brief essay for this material in June 2011.  I so admire his writing — terse, affectionate, witty — that I reprint it here.

The members of the original five-piece El Dorado Jazz Band were all twenty somethings when the music on this CD was recorded.  If somebody had told us that summer of 1955 that 56 years later one of us (and I’m the lone survivor) would be writing liner notes for a kind of record that didn’t even exist then we probably wouldn’t have paid much attention.  We were having too much fun.  By 1958 Danny Ruediger had taken over the band, and I had moved to San Francisco.  Rowland and I were playing Watters charts in the Bay City Jazz Band on weekends.  On a Sunday boating and swimming outing with his wife Jane, BCJB pianist Art Nortier and his wife, Rowland drowned.  He was 28 years old.  So I’m extra glad that Dick Karner is putting out this music on Tradjazz; it will allow fans of this music to hear what a brilliant plater he was already in his own right.  He admired Bechet and Dodds — but his real exemplar was Helm himself.  So it was great good luck that brought them together for those few nights with a tape recorder running.  I can’t think of any other clarinet duets in traditional jazz which have the sympathetic brilliance of those two.  Indeed, there are a few places where you need a very good ear to tell them apart.  Helm’s wife Kay would tell me later that Bob was “overwhelmed” at hearing Rowland and thereafter never missed a chance to play with himm — or to fill in for him when the occasion arose.  Like any informal recordings of live performances, these come with a few warts.  We could not have played Morton’s “Stratford Hunch” more than half a dozen times in all and I was delighted it was a clean take.  Listen to the clarinets behind and next to the vocals on “After You’ve Gone” and “Trouble in Mind.”  There are a few tunes here you won’t hear too often lately: “Drop That Sack,” “Good Time Flat Blues,” and others.  Not many people besides Turk sang such complete versions of “St. James Infirmary” and “Frankie and Johnny” as Danny does here.  After so many years I’ll admit I get a lift, hearing how we tore into such indestructible warhorses as “Some Of These Days” and “Milenberg Joys” and, with the clarinets tearing it up, “Big Bear Stomp,” “Naughty Sweetie,” or “Weary Blues.”  If I have one regret it was that I didn’t have the wits to lay hands on an extra vocal mix for Danny, but you can hear that he never let that stop him.  I’m grateful to have been there with him, and Rowland, Bork, Pete, and Brother Red, when he strapped on his leather aviator’s helmet and drove his open-air MG down the peninsula to visit us.  I’m grateful, too, to Dick Karner at Tradjazz for digging up this evidence and making it available here.  It reminds me that I didn’t waste my youth.

To say that Jim and his colleagues — now all of them gone — didn’t waste their youth — would be a substantial understatement.  All I can say from this angle is that I haven’t wasted my time listening to this music, and I think you will agree.  Here are brief samples from tradjazz and cdbaby.  Listen for yourself.  And — just in the name of amused candor — if you had told me five years ago that I would be writing enthusiastically about Fifties “West Coast” “trad,” I would have looked horrified.  But the music is stronger than the boxes we try to force it into.

May your happiness increase.

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EV FAREY’S BAY CITY JAZZ BAND (1958)

Sometimes the fabled past, unearthed, falls short of our expectations.  The rare recordings of the memorable band occasionally seem small: “Is that what we were waiting for all these years?” we ask.

But one disc by Ev Farey’s Bay City Jazz Band (TradJazz Productions CD 2123) has been a delight rather than a disappointment.

I first became interested in this music as after reading Jim Leigh’s insightful and witty memoir, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE — where he writes about this gig at the Sail ‘N.  And in the wake of Jim’s recent death, I have been listening even more to this disc — with great pleasure.

The band is led by cornetist Ev Farey (someone still playing beautifully — I can testify to this from seeing him in person just a few weeks ago); Jim on trombone; Tito Patri, banjo; Art Nortier, piano; Walt Yost, string bass . . . . and the remarkable Bob Helm on clarinet.

Some bands conspicuously exert themselves, as if they had to get our attention — but the 1958 Bay City Jazz Band knew how to take its time, to be intense without strain.  An easy-rocking momentum dominates the disc, whether the band is emulating Oliver on SNAKE RAG or building slow fires under RICHARD M. JONES BLUES and RIVERSIDE BLUES.  No one gets much out of the middle register; there are no long solos.  The emphasis is on a communal ensemble and each selection moves along on its own swinging path.  But the music is bright, imaginative, with no one tied to the original recordings.

The mood overall is lyrical — I found myself admiring Farey’s gentle, down-the-middle melodic embellishments, his singing tone, his amiable gliding motion.  Helm has long been celebrated as a nimble soloist but his ensemble playing doesn’t sound like anyone else’s (except perhaps his own version of Dodds and Simeon.)  Leigh’s  concise, homegrown ardor fits in neatly.  On recordings of this sort, often the front line and the rhythm section seem to be running on approximately parallel tracks — the two trios meet at the start and end of selections.  Not so here.

The repertoire comes from an imagined 1926 Chicago, with an emphasis on early Louis with a sideways glance at Morton and contemporaries: STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE; JAZZIN’ BABIES BLUES; HOUSE OF DAVID BLUES; GEORGIA BO BO; NEW ORLEANS STOMP; SMOKEY MOKES; GUT BUCKET BLUES; SAN; MECCA FLAT BLUES; COME BACK SWEET PAPA; SAN; SKID-DAT-DE-DAT; WILLIE THE WEEPER; MILENBERG JOYS.  Turk’s tribute to Helm, BROTHER LOWDOWN, is here, as is another Murphy discovery, GOT DEM BLUES, an 1897 composition believed to be the earliest published blues.

And in case you were wondering about the sonic quality of 1958 tapes, they were recorded close to the band and have been well-treated, so the music comes through nicely.

One of the particular bittersweet pleasures about this issue is that Jim Leigh wrote the notes.  Here’s an excerpt:

The music here can speak for itself.  There is quite a lot of tape wound on the band during my time on board, and this is some of the very best.  Helm would not have been comfortable to hear it said, but he is the star as he had been three years earlier with our ElDorado JB, as he was so often, with no matter whom.  As always, it is impossible to say whether he was more brilliant as a soloist or an ensemble player; it is all one pure stream of music and there was no virtue he valued more highly than what he called continuity.  From having been lucky enough to play with the man many times in different groups, my impression is still deep that Helm’s presence on the stand invariably brought out the best in his band mates.  Not through competitiveness, but rather the joy he communicated and the sheer pleasure of listening to/playing with such a musician.

To hear samples from a wide range of the TradJazz Productions CDs — featuring Bob Helm, Ev Farey, Hal Smith, Claire Austin, Darnell Howard, Leon Oakley, Jim Leigh, Frank Chace, Bud Freeman, Clint Baker, Earl Scheelar, Russ Gilman, Floyd O’Brien, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Baby Dodds, Natty Dominique, and others, click here.

To purchase LIVE! AT THE SAIL’N and learn about the Trad Jazz Production label’s other issues, click here.  (I understand that there’s a new Leigh CD, just released . . . . more about that soon.)

May your happiness increase.

ANOTHER JAZZ FATHER GONE: JIM LEIGH (June 18, 2012)

One of the rewards of being human is being able to form deep attachments with people we know for only a short time, or people we don’t get to know as well as we would like.  The trombonist and writer Jim Leigh died this afternoon (June 18, 2012) after a brief illness, and although my contact with him was scant and tardy — others knew him better and longer — I know we have lost someone remarkable.

I “met” Jim first in the pages of The Mississippi Rag, where he displayed an amused, observant intelligence — quick to praise but politely acerbic about those things that deserved a quick four-bar break.  I admired his candor and his affection for the music.  Much later, my dear friend Marc Caparone gave me a copy of Jim’s book and I was delighted, page after page.  When Jim read what I had written, he sent me a nearly astonished email and we corresponded intermittently, Jim showing his generosity by completing my Gremoli collection and also sending his copy of Herb Flemming’s memoir, wanting nothing in return.

Dick Karner had kindly sent me a copy of a TradJazz Productions CD, taken from tapes made at the Sail’N in 1958 — with a front line of Jim, Bob Helm, and Ev Farey.  I brought it with me this summer, intending to write about it — not only the joyous rough-hewn music but also Jim’s funny, sharp notes.  I will still do this, but it saddens me that Jim will not be reading it.

The only tribute I can pay Jim is to reprint what I wrote about his book, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, and to say that I will keep him alive in the only way I can, by missing him and feeling that another one of the Wise Elders — modest, incisive, swinging — has gone.

Knowing Jim Leigh, even as briefly as I did, was a privilege.

May your happiness increase.

———————————————————————————–

I knew Jim Leigh as a writer covering the West Coast scene for THE MISSISSIPPI RAG — someone observant, witty, occasionally satiric. Later, I knew him as a solidly rough-hewn trombonist, with plenty of pep and lowdown spice, what Dicky Wells called “fuzz.”

But it’s only recently that I have had the opportunity to savor his prose at length, and his memoir, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is a splendidly moving book. I apologize to Jim for coming to it so late — it was published in 2000 — but I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for it. When a friend gave me a copy in September, I found myself reading it while standing up in my hotel room, and I quickly was so entranced that I rationed myself to only a few pages at a time because I didn’t want it to end too quickly.

Readers familiar with the literature of jazz know that many jazz memoirs follow predictable patterns. Some musicians offer us the familiar path: early discovery of the music, early study, scuffling, the first breakthrough, then a listing of gigs and encounters. Other books are a series of vignettes — associations with famous people . . . “and then I told Louis,” and so on. Other chronicles depict battles with addiction and other unhappinesses — ideally they end in triumph and freedom. All of these books can be irresistible on their own terms, but they often become cheerfully formulaic once the subject has succeeded.

Jim’s book is not only a history of his own musical development (how he learned to play “Whispering” in its key, not Bb), or his brushes with the great and near-great . . . but, like A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, it is a record, seen retrospectively, of the growth of a consciosness, the creation of a discerning self. The combination of his prose (modest, expert, not calling attention to itself) and the insights he has come to — makes for a book that’s not only readable but memorable.

I won’t summarize the insights — that would do Jim an injustice — but they have to do with his development not only as a trombonist and a listener, but as a full-fledged adult with a deep understanding of himself, of his relations with others, and of the music. In these pages, we observe someone grow, which restores us as we participate in it.

The temptation for me, as someone fascinated by HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is to retype great chunks of it. I will let readers take their pleasures and surprises on their own — and offer only one excerpt from the book, Jim’s encounter with the great and somewhat inscrutable Herb Flemming (world-traveler and Ellington alumnus) in Fuengirola, Spain, circa 1965:

. . . a man considerably older than I lived with a small white mixed-breed dog. I kept imagining that I heard the sound of a trombone from his second-floor apartment, often playing a part of “Sophisticated Lady” or “In My Solitude,” typically the bridge, repeating it, perfectly, perhaps a dozen times. Discreet inquiry in the large and heterogeneous foreign community provided only a rumor that the man, “some kind of an Arab,” had “played with Duke Ellington, a long time ago.” Whether because he was too self-sufficient to require conversation or too anti-social to permit it, he was said to be taciturn to the point of utter silence. Or, as Wacker, the retired Australian soap opera writer down the street, put it, “Bloke seems to be missing the old vocal chords.”

One day when I was walking along the Paseo Maritimo, next to the beach, I saw him coming, as always with his dog on a leash.  Thinking that it was perhaps now or never, I spoke to him.  He stopped and listened, impassive, his eyes focused on a patch of Mediterranean somewhere beyond my shoulder, but did not answer.  “I’ve  heard that you used to play with Duke,” I said. 

He echoed me tonelessly.  “Duke,” as if the word meant nothing to him.

“Ellington.”

 He let me wait a bit. “Yes, I did.”

 I told him my name, and that I lived across the street from him. “Next to the Casa Blanca,” I said. “You know, the Danish bar?”

“I don’t pass my time in bars,” he said. He let his eyes rest steadily on my face then. I saw his calm gaze, but decided not to mention that I, too, had played the trombone, and waited. He must have reached some sort of decision, because, without looking away, he stuck his free hand inside his jacket and brought forth a calling card, which he handed me. I thanked him.

“Mm,” he said, and resumed his stroll. The card read Nicolaiih El-Michelle (Formerly Herb Flemming),” and below that “Trombonist”. It bore a Paris address, pencilled out but not amended. He and his doggy were already on their way. We never spoke again.

There are writers who would make an exquisitely sad little vignette out of the former Herb Flemming. I might have been one of them 30 or 40 years ago, but no longer. If our brief experience taught me anything at that time it was that the former Herb Flemming did not require pity any more than he required conversation. He had his dog, he had his trombone: what more, his manner said, did a man need? Someone might call him for a gig, I thought. As Sister Rosetta Tharpe so memorably sang, strange things happen every day. If someone did call, I was sure the Former Herb Flemming would have his chops together.

The book is full of these brief moments of revelation, quietly persuasive but never self-congratulatory. Any of us might have encountered Herb Flemming, and perhaps with similar results, but only Jim Leigh would have come to understand that moment as he has . . . and only Leigh would have written of it in such a sweetly understated way. HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE is full of personalities and stories, from Turk Murphy to Louis to Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and Django Reinhardt, to Dan Barrett and Clint Baker . . . but what compels me is the steady, often amused, man and writer, experiencing his life and learning from it, every chorus, every day.

It’s an invaluable book. Visit http://www.xibris.com/sales to obtain a copy. An actual bookstore (they still exist!) could order it under its ISBN number, which is 0-7388-5602-9.

———————————————————————————-

PAGES WORTH READING: “HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE” by JAMES LEIGH

I knew Jim Leigh as a writer covering the West Coast scene for THE MISSISSIPPI RAG — someone observant, witty, occasionally satiric.  Later, I knew him as a solidly rough-hewn trombonist, with plenty of pep and lowdown spice, what Dicky Wells called “fuzz.” 

But it’s only recently that I have had the opportunity to savor his prose at length, and his memoir, HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is a splendidly moving book.  I apologize to Jim for coming to it so late — it was published in 2000 — but I bow to no one in my enthusiasm for it.  When a friend gave me a copy in September, I found myself reading it while standing up in my hotel room, and I quickly was so entranced that I rationed myself to only a few pages at a time because I didn’t want it to end too quickly.

Readers familiar with the literature of jazz know that many jazz memoirs follow predictable patterns.  Some musicians offer us the familiar path: early discovery of the music, early study, scuffling, the first breakthrough, then a listing of gigs and encounters.  Other books are a series of vignettes — associations with famous people . . . “and then I told Louis,” and so on.  Other chronicles depict battles with addiction and other unhappinesses — ideally they end in triumph and freedom.  All of these books can be irresistible on their own terms, but they often become cheerfully formulaic once the subject has succeeded.   

Jim’s book is not only a history of his own musical development (how he learned to play “Whispering” in its key, not Bb), or his brushes with the great and near-great . . . but, like A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, it is a record, seen retrospectively, of the growth of a consciosness, the creation of a discerning self.  The combination of his prose (modest, expert, not calling attention to itself) and the insights he has come to — makes for a book that’s not only readable but memorable.

I won’t summarize the insights — that would do Jim an injustice — but they have to do with his development not only as a trombonist and a listener, but as a full-fledged adult with a deep understanding of himself, of his relations with others, and of the music.  In these pages, we observe someone grow, which restores us as we participate in it.

The temptation for me, as someone fascinated by HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE, is to retype great chunks of it.  I will let readers take their pleasures and surprises on their own — and offer only one excerpt from the book, Jim’s encounter with the great and somewhat inscrutable Herb Flemming (world-traveler and Ellington alumnus) in Fuengirola, Spain, circa 1965:

. . . a man considerably older than I lived with a small white mixed-breed dog.  I kept imagining that I heard the sound of a trombone from his second-floor apartment, often playing a part of “Sophisticated Lady” or “In My Solitude,” typically the bridge, repeating it, perfectly, perhaps a dozen times.  Discreet inquiry in the large and heterogeneous foreign community provided only a rumor that the man, “some kind of an Arab,” had “played with Duke Ellington, a long time ago.”  Whether because he was too self-sufficient to require conversation or too anti-social to permit it, he was said to be taciturn to the point of utter silence.  Or, as Wacker, the retired Australian soap opera writer down the street, put it, “Bloke seems to be missing the old vocal chords.”

One day when I was walking along the Paseo Maritimo, next to the beach, I saw him coming, as always with his dog on a leash.  Thinking that it was perhaps now or never, I spoke to him.  He stopped and listened, impassive, his eyes focused on a patch of Mediterranean somewhere beyond my shoulder, but did not answer.  “I’ve  heard that you used to play with Duke,” I said. 

He echoed me tonelessly.  “Duke,” as if the word meant nothing to him.

“Ellington.”

He let me wait a bit.  “Yes, I did.”

I told him my name, and that I lived across the street from him.  “Next to the Casa Blanca,” I said.  “You know, the Danish bar?”

“I don’t pass my time in bars,” he said.  He let his eyes rest steadily on my face then.  I saw his calm gaze, but decided not to mention that I, too, had played the trombone, and waited.  He must have reached some sort of decision, because, without looking away, he stuck his free hand inside his jacket and brought forth a calling card, which he handed me.  I thanked him.

“Mm,” he said, and resumed his stroll.  The card read Nicolaiih El-Michelle (Formerly Herb Flemming),” and below that “Trombonist”.  It bore a Paris address, pencilled out but not amended.  He and his doggy were already on their way.  We never spoke again.

There are writers who would make an equisitely sad little vignete out of the former Herb Flemming.  I might have been one of them 30 or 40 years ago, but no longer.  If our brief experience taught me anything at that time it was that the former Herb Flemming did not require pity any  more than he required conversation.  He had his dog,  he had his trombone: what more, his manner said, did a man need?  Someone might call him for a gig, I thought.  As Sister Rosetta Tharpe so memorably sang, strange things happen every day.  If someone did call, I was sure the Former Herb Flemming would have his chops together.

The book is full of these brief moments of revelation, quietly persuasive but never self-congratulatory.  Any of us might have encountered Herb Flemming, and perhaps with similar results, but only Jim Leigh would have come to understand that moment as he has . . . and only Leigh would have written of it in such a sweetly understated way.  HEAVEN ON THE SIDE: A JAZZ LIFE is full of personalities and stories, from Turk Murphy to Louis to Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and Django Reinhardt, to Dan Barrett and Clint Baker . . . but what compels me is the steady, often amused, man and writer, experiencing his life and learning from it, every chorus, every day. 

It’s an invaluable book.  Visit http://www.xibris.com/sales to obtain a copy.  An actual bookstore (they still exist!) could order it under its ISBN number, which is 0-7388-5602-9.