The news is that I’ve fallen in love with a six-minute collection of vibrations, and my neighbors have not called in the authorities.
Yes, there’s surface noise. And two or three speed fluctuations at the start. Be calm. There’s also some of the finest swing imaginable. If you think, “But I don’t like jazz violin,” or “UMBRELLA MAN is such a dumb tune,” just listen.
In 1942 violin wizard Stuff Smith led a band of Fats Waller alumni — not after Waller’s death, as has been suggested. The band was Herman Autrey, trumpet; Ted McCord, tenor saxophone; Sammy Benskin, piano; Al Casey, guitar; Al Hall, string bass; Slick Jones, drums. This performance is part of a late-August broadcast from the Old Vienna Restaurant in Cincinnati, Ohio, taken off the air by William E. Loeffler. The source of all this joy is an available CD — fancy that! — on violin scholar Anthony Barnett’s AB FABLE label (ABCD 015).
Barnett has released incredibly rare recordings: Ella Fitzgerald in 1937 with a Smith-led big band combining players from his own band, from Chick Webb’s band and Cab Calloway’s.
AND a private jam session with Ray Nance, Ben Webster, Jimmie Blanton, Fred Guy, and Sonny Greer, on which Ben plays clarinet (!).
AND wonderful recordings by Eddie South, Ray Perry, Ginger Smock, and more.
Visit http://abar.net/index.htm to see the CD releases and books. Barnett’s research is deep and impeccable, and the recordings he unearths are incredibly rewarding: this is just an uplifting sample.
I can hear some of you grumbling, “I listen on _______ for free. CDs are for dinosaurs.” In the forests, T-Rex is swinging like mad, and those berries are like vintage wine.
This public service announcement is brought to you by an enthralled purchaser. Now I’m going to play UMBRELLA MAN for perhaps the thirtieth time. It scrapes the clouds.
Hearing Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs, I recall the folktale where the wind and the sun (having nothing better to do) wager about which one can get a man to remove his coat. The wind blows, but the man merely wraps his coat tightly around him. The sun gently beams down on the man, and sweat starts to pour off his forehead, so he is glad to take off that coat. Persuasion, not force.
That tale stands for so much jazz that I admire. Sometimes it’s ferocious, even bombastic — ensemble choruses at the end of a performance, and we cheer. Perhaps I am thinking of the Great Dane puppy who just wants to greet you, and then you’re both on the floor. Surprise!
But I secretly revere the sweet stealth of music that says, “Come a little closer. Of course, nothing is happening. Just set a spell and enjoy,” and, seductively, osmotically, we become spellbound. The finest example is the Basie rhythm section; then, Duke and Blanton; Fats Waller on PRETTY DOLL; Sir Charles Thompson on Vanguard; and Ray Skjelbred and his Cubs.
Thirteen months ago, give or take a day, what I call the Pacific Northwest edition of Ray and his Cubs appeared as a guest band at America’s Classic Jazz Festival, in Lacey, Washington. I wasn’t there to record it, but Ray’s faithful videographer RaeAnn Berry was, and so I can share a few videos with you: dancing or skating without ever doing something so mundane as touching the ground.
They are Ray, piano; Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Matt Weiner, string bass; Josh Roberts, acoustic guitar.
OUT OF NOWHERE, June 30:
IDA (for Auntie Ida Melrose Shoufler, of course), June 28:
and with a nod to Joe and Bing, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, again from June 30:
I could have called this post ADVENTURES IN MEDIUM-TEMPO, and you would have gotten the point as well. Or, this photograph of two Deities who took human form for some decades to show us how it should be done:
JOSEPH “TRICKY SAM” NANTON, 1904-46, thanks to Tohru Seya.
One of the great pleasures of having a blog Few jazz listeners would recognize is the ability to share music — often, new performances just created. But I go back to the days of my adolescence where I had a small circle of like-minded friends who loved the music, and one of us could say, “Have you heard Ben Webster leaping in on Willie Bryant’s RIGMAROLE?” “Hackett plays a wonderful solo on IT LOOKS LIKE RAIN (IN CHERRY BLOSSOM LANE).” Allow me to share some joy with you, even if we are far away from each other.
Some of the great pleasures of my life have been those players with sharply individualistic sounds. Think of trombonists: Vic Dickenson, Dicky Wells, Bennie Morton, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Harrison, Bill Harris, Trummy Young, J.C. Higginbotham, Miff Mole, Sandy Williams, and more. And the much-missed fellow in the photograph above. This high priest of sounds is a hero of mine. He left us too young and he loyally refused to record with anyone except Ellington. I don’t ordinarily celebrate the birthdays of musicians, here or in other neighborhoods, but February 1 was Mister Nanton’s 115th, and he deserves more attention than he gets. He was influenced by the plunger work of Johnny Dunn, a trumpeter who is far more obscure because he chose a route that wasn’t Louis’, but Tricky Sam was obviously his own man, joyous, sly, and memorable.
Here he is with Ellington’s “Famous Orchestra” band on perhaps the most famous location recording ever: the November 7, 1940 dance date in Fargo, North Dakota, recorded by Jack Towers and Dick Burris on a portable disc cutter. ST. LOUIS BLUES, unbuttoned and raucous, closed the evening, with solos by Ray Nance, cornet; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Ivie Anderson, vocal; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; and Tricky Sam — before the band combines BLACK AND TAN FANTASY and RHAPSODY IN BLUE to end. (The complete band was Duke, Rex Stewart, Ray Nance, Wallace Jones, Tricky Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, Otto Hardwick, Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Fred Guy, Jimmie Blanton, Sonny Greer, Ivie Anderson, Herb Jeffries. And the whole date has been issued on a 2-CD set.)
It says a good deal that Duke saved Tricky Sam for the last solo, the most dramatic. Who, even Ben, could follow him?
You will notice — and it made me laugh aloud when I first heard it, perhaps fifty years ago, and it still does — that Tricky Sam leaps into his solo by playing the opening phrase of the 1937 WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK (Larry Morey and Frank Churchill) from the Disney SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. How it pleases me to imagine Ellington’s men taking in an afternoon showing of that Disney classic!
Let no one say that Sonny Greer couldn’t swing, and swing the band. To paraphrase Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULEVARD, “They had sounds then.”
And just on the Lesley Gore principle (“It’s my blog and I’ll post if I want to”) here’s a full-blown 2013 version of WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK by John Reynolds, guitar and whistling; Ralf Reynolds, washboard; Katie Cavera, string bass; Marc Caparone, cornet; Clint Baker, clarinet — recorded at the 2013 Jazz Bash by the Bay in Monterey, California . . . another stop on the 2019 JAZZ LIVES hot music among friends quest. No trombone, but Joseph Nanton would have enjoyed it for its headlong verve:
Some music you have to work hard to embrace, and many listeners relish the labor. But other music, no less subtle or rewarding, opens its arms to you in the first four bars. A new CD by Michael Kanan, piano; Dee Jay Foster, string bass; Guillem Arnedo, drums, is a wonderful example of love made audible.
If these names are new to you, please put down whatever you’re attempting to multi-task (on or with) and listen to this leisurely reading of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE from a live performance in 2017:
This trio also knows how to relax, thus, that rarity, a picture of jazz musicians taking their ease outdoors:
You might know that Michael Kanan is one of JAZZ LIVES’ heroes, not only in this country, but internationally. And the lineage is very pleasing: the saxophone master Joel Press introduced me to Michael, and (aurally) Michael introduced me to Guillem and Dee Jay. For the past decade, Michael spends part of each summer as artist-in-residence at the Begues Jazz Camp, where he’s forged deep musical relationships with these two musical intuitives. The CD came out of a series of concerts the trio did. As Michael says, “There is space, swing, surprises and lots of love. We have tried to capture the spontaneity of the moment in time – a good conversation between the three of us.”
Instead of the usual liner notes, the CD offers splendid artwork by Maria Pichel, who combines bright colors and delicacy to mirror the music within. So here are a few (unsolicited) lines from me.
The late Roswell Rudd told me in 2012, “Playing your personality is what this music is all about. . . . You know, this is a music where you are playing off other people, and you really have to be listening and responding and respecting and complementing what’s going on around you.”
The personalities that come through so clearly here are gentle and intense at once: musicians inspired by the originals but aware that reverent innovation is the only tribute. The magnificent Ellington and Strayhorn compositions are an indelible offering. They aren’t obscure or at least they shouldn’t be, and that asks contemporary artists the question, “All right — what are you going to say about these pieces?”
One approach is reverence taken all the way: a 2018 piano trio could do its best to replicate Ellington, Blanton, Greer, or Strayhorn, Wendell Marshall, Woodyard. Conversely, the improvisers could take the originals and, after one reasonably polite chorus, jump into outer space, perhaps never to return. The Kanan, Foster, Arnedo trio modifies these extremes by creating statements showing their affection for the strong melodies, harmonies, rhythms — but they know that “playing their personalities” is what Ellington and Strayhorn did, and would approve of. So the CD is a series of sweet variations on themes, where (to borrow from Teddy Wilson), “it’s the little things that mean so much.”
In the quiet world of this CD, even a slight tempo change means that listeners have found themselves in a new space, as if you’d come home to find that your partner had repainted the light-gray living room walls a gray with a blue undertone.
What I hear on this disc is the confident playful assurance of musicians who know each other well, are respectful but also relaxed and brave. Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem are melodists who work together in kind fraternal fashion, so the lead gets passed around, one player moves into the spotlight and the others are happy for him to shine. No cliches; no showboating; no tedious quoting; no formulaic playing or threadbare trademarks; the total absence of post-modern irony; no sense that swing is out of date.
The result is a series of sustained explorations that are full of sweet surprises: the wonderful swinging assertiveness with which C JAM BLUES starts; the touching coda to ISFAHAN; the slightly faster tempo for I LET A SONG that neatly contradicts the self-pitying lyrics; the exposition of LOTUS BLOSSOM would make anyone want to listen with bowed head, and the slightly altered rhythmic pulse that follows made me hear it as if for the first time; JOHNNY COME LATELY is perfect dance music — I defy anyone to stay motionless, even if the dance is happy nodding one’s head in time; Michael’s solo ALL TOO SOON is half-lullaby, half question yearning to be answered; the faster-than-expected I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT reminds me happily of Fifties Jo Jones with Ray and Tommy Bryant, for the trio’s swing is light yet insistent, and the rocking mood continues on through LOVE YOU MADLY; DAY DREAM, the concluding track, also seems a series of questions, some of them with answers.
I would tell any listener, “Play the disc over again, after you’ve let it settle in your mind, take up a comfortable space in your heart. Play it for people who have ears. Let them share the pleasure, the loving inquisitiveness.”
Because I have admired Michael’s playing for some time, I might have over-emphasized his contribution, but Dee Jay and Guillem are the equal of anyone with a more famous name, whether Elder or Youngblood: they play their instruments with honor and grace, avoiding the excesses that lesser players fall into. Forget the snide jokes about bass solos; Dee Jay’s phrases are deft and logical, his time and intonation superb; Guillem, for his part, has such a swinging variety of sounds throughout his kit that he is marvelously orchestral without ever being overwhelming. The beautiful recorded sound, thanks to David Cassamitjana, is reassuringly warm and clear, putting us there, which is where we want to be.
You can hear the music here, on Spotify or iTunes, or purchase that endearing archaic object, an actual physical disc by clicking on “TIENDA” at the same site.
Even if you have as complete an Ellington-Strayhorn collection as possible, this is an essential disc: warm, candid, and gratifying.
And if you’d like to hear more from Michael, Dee Jay, and Guillem in a different but quite uplifting context, visit here also.
I think what follows is just amazing, and it’s not inflated pride at having been the one who brought the camera and clipped the microphone to Dan’s shirt. The first-hand sources in any field are few and precious. Of course, there are many borrowers and interpreters, capable people who weren’t on the scene but are ready to theorize. “Nay nay,” to quote Louis.
Jazz, so long viewed as “entertainment,” did not get the serious coverage it deserved for its first decades. Thus we could search in vain for an interview with Bubber Miley or A.G. Godley. And few people wrote their memoirs of involvement with Jimmie Blanton or Don Murray or Larry Binyon . . . but we have Dan, who was there and has a good memory. And he has a novelist’s gift for arranging those memories in pleasing and revealing shapes.
When the subject is Charlie Parker, so many recollections of Bird veer between adulation for the musician and a superior attitude towards a man often portrayed as suffering from borderline personality disorder. Thus Dan’s gentle affectionate inquiring attitude is honest and delightful. His memories of Bird go back to the Three Deuces, the Royal Roost, Cafe Society, Bob Reisner’s Open Door, with strings at Birdland with Dizzy’s unsolicited clowning, his “last stand” at Birdland where Bud Powell could not accomplish what was needed, and a “miraculous” one on one encounter late in Bird’s life, balanced by a kind of exploitative incident in which Dan’s friend Nat Lorber was the victim, as well as a sad story of Bird’s late attitude towards life, and a portrait of the Baroness Nica.
Since Dan’s first-hand involvement with Bird was in the latter’s last years, I offer a very early Bird as a counterbalance — the recordings Parker made in Kansas City c. 1943 with the legendary guitarist Efferge Ware and drummer “Little Phil” Phillips, the latter celebrated by Bob Brookmeyer in his memories of K.C. Thanks to Nick Rossi for reminding me of this.
Thank you, Dan. And thank you. Once is insufficient.
That’s Stuff Smith, one of the supreme beings of jazz violin, who deserves more attention than he received in life and does now. An audio sample from 1936 with Stuff playing and singing (with Jonah Jones, Jimmy Sherman, Mack Walker, Bobby Bennett, Cozy Cole):
This little remembrance of Stuff is because I found two rare paper items on eBay — which you shall see. But before I completed this post, I checked everything with Anthony Barnett, the reigning scholar of jazz violin, who’s issued wonderful CDs, books, and more about Stuff, Eddie South, Ginger Smock, and many other stars and hidden talents. More about Anthony’s ABFable projects below.
Here is a 1947 Associated Booking Corporation (that’s Joe Glaser’s firm) magazine advertisement for both Stuff and Eddie South — Eddie has Leonard Gaskin, string bass; Allen Tinney, piano:
Music instruction books linked to famous artists proliferated from the Twenties onwards, and here is one I had never seen before. I don’t know how deeply Stuff was involved with the compositions and arrangements, but this 1944 folio is a fascinating curio:
Characteristically and thriftily, a mix of public domain songs and a few originals:
The composition looks unadventurous, but this is only the first page. “Who is Lee Armentrout?” is the big question on JEOPARDY, and the answer is here:
How about some more music? “Can do,” we say — a lovely rendition of DEEP PURPLE, a duet between Stuff and Sun Ra, recorded on July 29, 1948 by drummer Tommy Hunter. Ra is playing a solovox which was a piano attachment.
Anthony tells me, “There is a lost recording by Ra and Coleman Hawkins from around the same period (but not the same session). Stuff and Hawk led a band for a couple of weeks around that time with Ra on piano.”
I’ve been writing ecstatically about Anthony’s ABFable discs for more than a decade now: they are absolute models of loving presentation of rare music. How about this: a CD of 1937 broadcasts of a big band, led by Stuff, its members drawn from the Chick Webb band plus other stars — with a young singer named Ella Fitzgerald? Stuff leading a septet drawn from the 1942 Fats Waller band while Fats was touring; a Ray Nance compilation that features acetate recordings of Nance, Ben Webster, Jimmie Blanton, Fred Guy, Sonny Greer — oh, and Ben plays clarinet as well as tenor; more from Ray Perry, Eddie South, and glorious violinists you’ve never heard of. Helen Ward, Rex Stewart, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Joe Bushkin, Jo Jones . . .
It’s self-indulgent to quote oneself, but perhaps this is forgivable: I don’t ordinarily endorse the productions of an entire CD label, but Anthony Barnett’s AB Fable series of reissues is something special: rare music, beautifully annotated and transferred, delightfully presented. Barnett’s notes are erudite but never dull. Each CD I’ve heard has been a joyous experience in preconception-shattering. I used to think of jazz violin improvisation beyond Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli as a mildly inconvenient experience. Grudgingly, I acknowledged that it was possible to play compelling jazz on the instrument, but I was politely waiting for Ray Nance to pick up his cornet. Barnett’s CDs have effected a small conversion experience for me—and even if you don’t have the same transformation take place, they are fun to listen to over and over again.
And — as a musing four-bar break: we are, in 2017, caught between the Montagues and the Capulets, the people who say, “Oh, CDs are dead!” and those who say, “I’ll never download a note.” These CDs are rare creations, and those ignorant of them might be unintentionally denying themselves joy. For more of the right stuff and Stuff — books, CDs, accurate information galore — visit here.
I was at The Ear Inn last Sunday night, delighting in the sounds so generously offered by The EarRegulars. So it seems the most natural thing to share with you the second half of my post on the beauty laid before us on May 15, 2016, and its implications for people devoted to that beautiful phenomenon, jazz as created by living musicians in front of an appreciative audience.
In that post, you’ll hear two glorious performances by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone, octavin, bass taragoto; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Greg Cohen, string bass.
Here are two more extended musical journeys — with a small travelogue by Scott Robinson about his unusual instruments in the middle.
Mister Morton’s WOLVERINE BLUES, beautifully presented. Pay close attention to the closing minutes, where the gentlemen of the ensemble add some wonderfully surrealistic ornamentation to the familiar themes. At the close, you’ll hear an excited voice adding an unexpurgated affirmation: that’s the young reed wizard Evan Arntzen, seated to my right at the bar:
That deserves more than one viewing / hearing. And I agree with Evan.
Scott Robinson is always asked about his magical musical implements, and this time I captured his words and gestures on video:
And, finally, the wistful question, DO YOU EVER THINK OF ME? — served hot:
I think that what the EarRegulars (and many other noble strivers) create is life-enhancing. But without getting too didactic, such beauty deserves and needs our tender care, which takes the shape of active participation and personal support. You know how to do that.
Many people devoted to certain art forms are afflicted with incurable nostalgia. “What wouldn’t I give to hear Henrietta McGillicuddy play the blues on her Eb alto horn? They say she could play a whole year without repeating herself!” And it doesn’t limit itself to jazz. “Oh, yeah? Pergolesi could kick your guy’s ass! And on a bad day Stuart Davis was better than anything now hanging in MOMA.”
I could go on, and possibly I already have.
But I remember a refrigerator magnet I saw in the very early Eighties, that had these words on it:
Sage advice. I understand the deep longing to hear one more note of Bix, of Bird, of Billie — to time-travel back to hear Louis in 1929 or Blanton with Jeter-Pillars. But while some are busily dreaming of such things (I think of Miniver Cheevy with his collection of Black Swan acetates), the present is both glowing and going. As in going away.
So I am always urging the people who love this art form to enjoy what is happening in the present moment rather than licking the dust off the statues. A hundred years from today, should we survive as a species, I suspect that cultural historians will be writing about the Golden Age of the early twenty-first century. And if they aren’t, they will be ignoring some irreplaceably precious evidence.
Here are two glorious examples (with two more to come) of the superb art that is happening now. The artists are Matt Munisteri, guitar; Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone and unusual reeds; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Greg Cohen, string bass — recorded just this month at the Soho Savoy, The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, New York City) at one of the regular Sunday-night epiphanies from about eight to about eleven PM.
WHEN I GROW TOO OLD TO DREAM:
A “peppy” LOUISIANA:
Yes, we could all sit at home and play our records. But beauty, completely satisfying, is happening all around us.
There’s a particularly hurried or perhaps impatient species of video-critic who comments on many of my YouTube productions when the musicians have the temerity to speak before playing, “Music starts at 2:30.” That particular kind of data-notation is true enough, but I like to keep my video camera running, because many musicians are fascinating raconteurs and verbal improvisers. And I think of future generations : what wouldn’t we give to hear Alex Hill say, “Wow, it’s cold in here,” or Jimmie Blanton say, “Excuse me, what did you say?” So the passages of musician-monologue or -dialogue are always interesting to me.
Ray Skjelbred is a thrillingly individualistic pianist — he loves the tradition and it courses through him, but he knows that all journeys are wildly irregular. So his little band, his Cubs, is always surprising. They rock, also, at any tempo. Here’s their performance of SUGAR from the 2015 San Diego Jazz Fest: that’s Ray, Kim Cusack, clarinet; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Katie Cavera, guitar; Clint Baker, string bass — from November 28, 2015. (Jeff’s face is hidden by the music stand but you certainly hear and feel him — all to the good.)
Public service announcement for the unusually restless. The music in the video below begins at 1:40. But if you skip it, you will have missed an opportunity to learn a great deal about an arcane but relevant subject:
Wherever Ray and his Cubs are, there’s lovely music and wondrous surprises. And I hope to see you at theSan Diego Jazz Fest this Thanksgiving.
Imagine a sound that conveys love to the listener without a single syllable. Then, look at this man, who — by his physical aspect — might seem an unlikely prophet of such deep feeling.
He is Ben Webster, Ellingtonian, swing star, ballad player supreme. You can find out about him in many ways, and I don’t intend to write his biography here, or even an appreciation. But I will share a small story.
Last night I was on a plane from New Orleans to New York, where I had enjoyed a glorious weekend of friends, music, and food, because of Duke Heitger’s STEAMBOAT STOMP. (Long may it stomp.) Seated next to me was a cheerful woman perhaps in her forties, travelling with her husband and son in the row behind us; I asked if she wanted one of them to switch with me, but she didn’t.)
Planes are claustrophic and air travel is tedious, so in the past decade when I’ve been flying more often than ever before, I’ve drifted into conversations with the stranger sitting next to me. I usually don’t start the conversation, but once it begins it is often surprisingly deep and open. My theory about this is that in the dark confines of the plane, somehow untethered to the earth and all that’s familiar, we feel safe to tell others our secrets. The plane becomes a flying confessional, with no penance and no expectation that the conversation will continue once we land. The woman and I spoke of colleges, of education, of jobs, of modern life — all familiar territory — and then she said her son played the saxophone, currently the alto, but might be switching to tenor.
“OK,” I said, “I have a name for you. [She took out her iPhone and went to the page for notes.] BEN WEBSTER. Ben Webster With Strings. Imagine a huge warm sound. In fact, imagine being in the warm embrace of a huge stuffed bear. That’s what those records sound like.”
[For the jazz-fetishists out there, I do know that Ben’s nickname was FROG and that BEAR was the satiric monicker for Jimmie Blanton, who might have weighed a hundred pounds, but somehow I thought explaining Ben’s sound as the loving embrace of an amphibian might not be so effective.]
This morning, as I awoke from a dream of dear friends and a bowl of shrimp with grits — the food the down-home angels eat — I thought, “I would bet that some people who read JAZZ LIVES have never heard Ben Webster with strings. Inconceivable! Impossible!” So this post is to send Websterian love all around. The original recording (as you will see) was called MUSIC FOR LOVING, and never was a title more apt:
I know that even the most devoted jazz fans get complacent. “Oh, we have to go to my sister-in-law’s that night. We can always see that band.” Or “She’ll be coming back to [insert your city or favorite jazz club] in a few months. I’m tired. I have a headache. It’s raining.” I’ve done it myself. But I think — in what I admit is a rather gloomy way — what if someone had said, “Oh, we can always hear Bix / Charlie Christian / Jimmie Blanton / Sidney Catlett / Clifford Brown,” and then woke up to the newspapers a few days later.
Now, here is a band portrait. Each of these gentlemen has many decades to go, to spread joy, to fill the air with beautiful sounds. So I am not writing a morbid post.
If you don’t recognize them, they are known as THE HOT JAZZ ALLIANCE, which is an accurate name.
BUT. This band — an Australian-US conglomeration of the highest order — is not a group that you can see every Monday and Thursday, wherever you live. Two of its members, Andy Schumm, cornet and miscellaneous instruments; Josh Duffee, drums, come from the United States. Yes, I’ve seen them in the UK, but not as part of this group. The other four luminaries hail from Australia, and although I’ve met Michael McQuaid, reeds; Jason Downes, reeds, and John Scurry, banjo / guitar, also in the UK (I apologize to Leigh Barker, string and brass bass, for not having bowed low before him. Yet.) this group took a good amount of will-power and diligence to assemble.
So they are playing three shows in the United States, unless my information is faulty. One is Josh’s July 22 tribute to Chauncey Morehouse in PoPa’s home town of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania — detailshere — I wonder how many Hot devotees in the tri-state New York area have plans to attend the HJA’s delicious two-show offering at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola? One night, July 20. Two shows, at 7:30 and 9:30. You can read about the event hereand you can purchase tickets (which I suggest you do while they are still available) here.
Now, it is possible that someone reading this post is already impatient. “What? Does Michael think I am made of money? The kids need braces; Mama needs to finish her post-doc in Spenser, and our ancient Toyota is falling apart as I sit here.” I apologize. I have a mortgage and an ancient car, and the orthodonture my parents paid for in my childhood has not stayed where it was put. I understand other people’s bills. But this is a once-in-a-who-knows-how-long event.
I’ll be at Dizzy’s . . . but without video camera. Draw whatever conclusions you like, but if you are depending on me to be the Frank Buck of Hot (you could look it up) it won’t happen. My apologies.
On another note. “Michael, why should I go to hear a band I don’t know, when I can hear the Elastic Snappers any time I want?” Good question. Valid objection. But take an aural sniff of this:
Frank Melrose’s FORTY AND TIGHT:
TEXAS MOANER BLUES:
What I hear here is intense, passionate, “clean” and dirty all at once, expert and casual. The HJA harks back to the beloved Ancestors but they aren’t in the business of reproducing old discs right in front of us. They enliven and cheer.
And — just for a thrill — here is the cover photo, the gents all spiffy! — of their debut CD. I’ve heard it and the glasses in the kitchen cabinet are still rocking. The CD will be on sale at Dizzy’s too, so you can take home a souvenir.
Enough loving bullying for one post, one month, perhaps for ever.
But I think of a line from a late-Forties Mildred Bailey blues: “If you miss me / you’ll be missing that Acme Fast Freight.” I am not a connoisseur of Forties freight shipping . . . but obviously the AFF was something special, perhaps the FedEx of 1947:
I quietly suggest that the HJA is even more special, its New York appearance even more a rarity . . . who cares if there is not yet a special Hot Jazz Alliance matchbook?
I prize books that offer new information, solidly documented, instead of conjecture and syntheses of well-known data. Books about departed jazz musicians often have trouble presenting new information or new interpretations of already-established information, because many musicians received little press coverage in their lifetime, did not leave behind correspondence. So the subjects take their mysteries with them, leaving us to speculate.
After much investigation, we can be reasonably certain why Lester Young quit the Count Basie band in 1940. We know much more about the last days of Bix Beiderbecke, Billie Holiday, Jimmie Blanton; we’ve learned much about the private life of Louis and Lucille Armstrong.
The Sisters when young.
But one mystery has only been nibbled at — why the glorious Boswell Sisters separated after national and international success. A new, invaluable book, THE BOSWELL LEGACY, written by Kyla Titus, granddaughter of Helvetia “Vet” Boswell, from research and information gathered by Chica Boswell Minnerly (mother of Kyla, daughter of Vet) is a prize.
The mysteries that surround the Boswells is not what we expect of other revered artistic figures. During their very short heyday, they were more in the public eye than, let us say, almost any brilliant African-American musician. (Who interviewed Herschel Evans, for example?)
But for all the newspaper coverage and media attention, the Sisters had been raised early to follow “the Foore Code,” “Foore” being a family name. The Code had many positive aspects: self-reliance; kindness; decorum . . . but it also emphasized privacy and strongly-stated boundaries. “Never expose private family business to anyone outside the family.”
Even though Connie lived until 1976 and Vet to 1988, they kept the Code in place, gently turning aside the question, “Why did the Sisters break up?” as if indiscreet. So Boswell admirers like myself could chart the trio’s ascent from 1925 to 1936 through their recordings, radio broadcasts, film appearances, and paper ephemera, but we had no insight into the transformation. Some may have surmised that Connie’s career was so successful that she and her manager / husband intended that she be a solo attraction. In addition, the Sisters married in the last years of their stardom. But the separation continued to puzzle and irk us, especially because we want to know more about the lives of the people we admire.
THE BOSWELL LEGACY does the best job possible of making the mysterious accessible. And it does so from the inside, rather than assembling rumors and constructing hypotheses. It has the depth and intelligence of a scholarly biography with no academic dryness. Rather than start as so many biographies do, with the birth of the subjects’ ancestors, this book starts at a place few will be familiar with — Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 29, 1955 — with the Sisters assembling on stage for an impromptu reunion during Connie’s engagement (singing HEEBIE JEEBIES as if they had never stopped performing).
(I thought at this point — and I cannot have been alone — of all the stars of the Twenties and Thirties who continued to appear on television in the Sixties and Seventies, and wished for an alternate universe where we could have seen the Sisters on THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE or THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW.)
The book then shifts back to the past, exploring the family as far back as the start of the nineteenth century . . . then to their eventual move to New Orleans and their involvement in music there. The book takes on its true strength as the pages turn, and that strength is in well-utilized first-hand evidence, particularly correspondence. We do not get long letters, which might stall the narrative, but we get dated excerpts in proper contexts. Thus we hear, as well as we can, the vivid voices of the participants.
I commend Kyla Titus’ honesty throughout. One of the inescapable facts of Connie Boswell’s life was that, although able, she could not walk. No single clear explanation of this exists, and Titus handles the two hypotheses — a childhood accident or polio — gracefully and candidly. When we finish reading her presentation of the evidence, we may feel that the answer remains elusive, but we never feel that the author is ill-informed or keeping anything from us.
The book begins to move rapidly through the Sisters’ musical education, Martha’s deep love for the short-lived cornetist Emmett Hardy (dead at 22), and the gestation of the Sisters as a trio. Success mounts steadily — at their first New York City record date, the musicians stand up and applaud when their first successful take is concluded. They appear on radio, in film, and on a 1931 experimental broadcast of that new invention, television. But even at that point, a reader can see tension as the Sisters’ manager, Harry Leedy, is also Connie’s manager, with conflicting allegiances. The Sisters cross paths (and sometimes work with) luminaries Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Russ Columbo, the then-unknown comedian Bob Hope, Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong; they tour England and Holland, triumphantly.
But by 1936, the Sisters — as if by erosion rather than by a definite blow — have become three separate married women. And although they speak happily of this in public, it appears that Martha and Vet wait for a reunion, which becomes less likely . . . returning the book to the one song in Milwaukee in 1955.
At the end of the saga, it is not entirely clear what happened. Was it Connie’s steely ambition, her desire to be a star on her own, that cracked close harmony into three pieces? Was it the divided loyalty of Harry Leedy? Once again, I admire Titus’ refusal to force the conflicting evidence into one answer, and I think her fairness admirable, her unwillingness to assign the actors in this play roles as Victims and Villains.
Although the breakup of the group is perhaps the single greatest mystery for us, the book is not obsessed throughout with the collapse of Sisters as a trio; that occupies us for the last segment. It is ultimately a loving look at three innovative, independent women who made their own way, both as individuals and as musicians, at a time when women were not thought to influence the men in their field to any great extent.
The book is wisely titled THE BOSWELL LEGACY, and Titus balances her and our sadness at the end of the Sisters’ career with our awareness that the “three little girls from New Orleans” left us so much — not only in recordings, airshots, and film appearances, but a living tradition for swinging, inventive close harmony groups. To some, they live on in the energetic, witty, sweet voices of new generations. I found the book’s ending melancholy, but I am looking forward to the film documentary about the Sisters, CLOSE HARMONY (here you can view the trailer) as an emotional corrective.
THE BOSWELL LEGACY is a large-format paperback, nearly two hundred pages, clearly written, generously illustrated with rare photographs and documents. Anyone who has gotten a thrill from “Shout, Sister, Shout” will find this book essential. I don’t think a better or more informative book on the Boswells can be written.
Here you can read the introduction to the book by Boswell scholar David McCain, and the preface by Kyla Titus, and here you can buy a copy of the book ($21.95 USD including shipping.)
Enough words. Here are the Sisters in their first film appearance, CLOSE FARMONY:
More on eBay from the seller “anystuffyouwant” — some remarkable photographs, all new to me.
The first — not an Ellingtonian — is the short-lived tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson, who died in late 1941, less than two weeks after his thirtieth birthday. He played and recorded with Andy Kirk, a Mary Lou Williams small group, and he can also be heard on one of Jerry Newman’s uptown recordings with Harry Edison and Count Basie. I’ve never seen a portrait of him in action, and I recall that Billie Holiday thought he was one of the most appealing men she’d ever known.
The next group of photographs shows the Ellington band — broadcasting over KLZ and in a ballroom. (I presume that they were on their way to California, but do not know if this tour pre-or-post dates JUMP FOR JOY. However, the string bassist is Junior Raglin, not Jimmie Blanton.)
“Everybody look handsome!”
and an autographed portrait of the Rabbit, Mister Johnny Hodges:
Anyone for trombones? From left, Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown, and in front, Mister Ben Webster:
What would the Ellington band have been without stylish Sonny Greer?Finally, two people who didn’t get photographed as often as I would like. One, the utterly irreplaceable Ivie Anderson:
The other, a master of sounds — Tricky Sam Nanton:
I’ve heard the Ellington band of that period on recordings and live airshots for many decades now, but these photographs bring the sound even closer to me. The other photographs I’ve posted from the same seller were all autographed to “Rollie”: did (s)he take these? All mysterious, but the evidence that remains — even when slightly damaged by dampness — is wonderfully evocative. (My post on Rollie’s photographs can be seen here.)
The seller also has been displaying pictures of the Lunceford and Hampton bands . . . wonderful finds!
Courtesy of eBay, of course, and courtesy of the seller “anystuffyouwant,” who says these items are from his personal collection of fifty years.
Rollie was a photographer presumably based in Colorado (where KLZ was a famous radio station) in the early Forties. His photographs are impressive and he also made friends with his subjects. Here are a few of his photographs that turned up for sale. (Incidentally, I am assuming that Rollie was male — but impulsive online research turned up no leads to his / her identity except much on the younger woman photographer Rollie McKenna, who captured Dylan Thomas, so . . . )
Duke and bassist Junior Raglin (thanks to Jimmie Blanton scholar Matthias Heyman for confirming this) :
A close-up of George Wettling:
George as part of a larger band:
Mel Torme with three singing colleagues who presumably pre-date the Mel-Tones:
Mel at his own drum set:
A few small mysteries. Some readers may be able to identify the singers with Mel. Drum fanciers will have something to say about Geo W’s set and Mel’s. I can’t identify anyone in the band that Wettling is playing in, and find it odd that he should have a bass drum with a radio station logo and his own Geo W. If someone could decipher the KLZ logo (is that a mountain peak?) and explain why there’s a clipper ship on the back wall, I wouldn’t mind, either.
Even if those mysteries remain unsolved, it is cheering to know such artifacts of a vanished time exist so that we can see them.
This afternoon, I went on another thrift-shop quest: I search for several rewards, but predictably one is jazz records. I am most keenly interested in 78s, although vinyl, CDs, home recordings, and cassettes have all surfaced recently.
In Petaluma, California, I drove to one of my favorite places, Alphabet Soup Thrift Store on Western Avenue. Once I had assumed the proper posture (hands and knees, for the 78s were in a box on the floor) I saw this:
Just finding ten-inch 78 albums is a treat. As an omen, it was hopeful in itself, although Bing albums are common: he sold millions of discs — this collection is copyright 1946.
I love Mr. Crosby, although I gravitate towards his earlier work, when his gaze was more romantic, less severe. For a moment I mused upon the photograph of the man on the cover, clearly warning me not to trespass on his lands. At best, serious; at worst, unfriendly.
With what I can only describe as guarded optimism, I opened the album, knowing from experience that I might not find the records advertised on the cover within. (In my thrift-shop experience, the records and the album only match when the music is classical, Viennese waltzes, or the songs of Dorothy Shay, the Park Avenue Hillbilly — for reasons I have never understood.)
This is what greeted me, a holy relic:
Thanks to John Hammond and Milt Gabler, that’s a serious thing!
I can’t prove it, but I would bet a good deal that Jimmie Blanton heard and admired that side: where Walter Page comes through beautifully. The other side is the celestial ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS. (Yes, a later pressing, but why fuss?)
I would have been happy if the remaining records had been Allan Jones or perhaps Helen Traubel. This disc was a treasure. But I proceeded deeper into the album, to find this disc, especially cosmic (for me) because I had revisited the recordings of this band, including Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Taft Jordan, Edgar Battle, on a recent extended car trip:
I wasn’t moaning in the thrift store, because I knew the other patrons might find it odd, and I would have to stand up to properly explain that these discs were the jazz equivalent of first editions by prized writers. But JAZZ LIVES readers will understand my state of bliss.
Two other Commodores (!) appeared — the whole of the 1944 Kansas City Six date with Bill Coleman, Lester Young, Dicky Wells, Joe Bushkin, John Simmons, Jo Jones: JO-JO, THREE LITTLE WORDS, FOUR O’CLOCK DRAG, I GOT RHYTHM.
The final record in the album was cracked — but surely playable:
The other side is BLUE ‘N’ BOOGIE, Dexter Gordon credited.
My discoveries weren’t at an end. On the inside cover of this 1946 Crosby album, the owner of the discs had kept a tally. It is hard to read but you’ll note that (s)he loved Lester Young:
I don’t know the facts, and I shy away from melodrama: jazz-mad Patty or Bill secretly demolishing Mom and Dad’s square Crosby platters to have an album for Pres, Bird, Diz, and Babs. But this list is written with pride of ownership and pride of having a burgeoning Lester Young collection. I don’t think that with an album of only six pockets that one would have to write such a list to recall the contents: this tally says LOOK WHAT BEAUTY I HAVE HERE.
That four of the discs on the list survived speaks to the owner’s care, and to the care of the person who delivered this package to Alphabet Soup. I always feel sad when I uncover such a beloved collection, because I worry that the owner has made the transition, but perhaps Grandma or Grandpa simply has the complete Lester on an iPhone?
Did Bing and the Andrews Sisters give way to Pres, Bird, and Dizzy? I can’t say in this case. If you wish to write the narrative of seismic artistic shifts, I can’t prevent you from issuing essays on Modernism. Or academic exegeses of High and Low Art.
But this assemblage — take it as if it were one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes — suggests to me that there was a moment in the bumpy history of “popular music” where Eddie Durham, the Andrews Sisters, “cowboy music,” Three Bips and a Bop, Cole Porter, Bird, Diz, Clyde Hart, all coexisted in relative serenity.
Will those days when music roamed wide-open spaces return? Can we dream of creativity without fences established by the artists, their publicists, the critics, and business people?
I don’t know, and the arguments this might provoke have a limited charm. So if you pardon me, I’m off (across the room) to play my New Old 78s, much loved then and much treasured now. And those seventy-year old relics sound very good now, I assure you. Walter Page and Willie Bryant come through superbly, as do Lester, Jo, and Dexter. And listening to 78s is very good aerobic exercise for me: I have to get out of my chair every three minutes. Lester is watching over my health, or perhaps it is Bill Coleman or Milt Gabler?
Blessings on you, oh Unnamed Lover of Jazz!
This post is for three young tenor players — in alphabetical order — Jon Doyle, Ben Flood, and Stan Zenkov. They know why!
And for those readers who wonder, “What do those records sound like?” I encourage them to search “Kansas City Six” and “A Viper’s Moan” on YouTube, as well as Bird and Dizzy. Reassuringly audible.
Between 2005 and 2008, the Dutch photographer and jazz scholar Jaap van de Klomp began a series of soulful pilgrimages in honor of the men and women who had created the music he so loves.
The result is the lovely and often sad book of photographs, JAZZ LIVES, which takes its subtitle, TILL WE SHALL MEET AND NEVER PART, from the words chiseled into Lester Young’s gravestone.
Every jazz lover knows the familiar photographs of our heroes and heroines: Billie Holiday with her dog; Louis Armstrong snappily dressed in London; Charlie Parker on the bandstand. But where are our idols now?
The two hundred and more pages of JAZZ LIVES document where their mortal remains lie: with elaborate gravestones, unmarked plots of overgrown land, monuments proud and forlorn. Jaap took his camera across the United States and Europe to capture these landscapes, resulting in a heartfelt pilgrimage to shrines of the dead. Each photograph is accompanied by a concise biography by Scott Yanow, and the book is organized by instruments once played.
The gravestones sometimes speak of posthumous reputation and fame: huge blocks of costly stone or unmarked areas of grass. A monument for Ellington and empty space for Bud Powell. An essay by Dan Morgenstern opens the book; one by the jazz musician and writer Bill Crow closes it. A simply written but evocative essay by the photographer himself explains something about his travels.
But the graves say so much — by presence and absence, reality and implication — about Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Serge Chaloff, Vic Dickenson, Andrew Hill, Sarah Vaughan, Illinois Jacquet, Django Reinhardt, Jack Teagarden, Britt Woodman, Al Grey, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet, John Carter, Russell Procope, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Dorsey, Eric Dolphy, Willie the Lion Smith, Gigi Gryce, Roland Kirk, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Wardell Gray, Stuff Smith, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Hank Mobley, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Teddy Wilson, Herbie Nichols, Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian, Grant Green, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Milt Hinton, Jimmie Blanton, George Duvivier, Jo Jones, Zutty Singleton, Denzil Best, Billy Higgins, Sidney Catlett, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Ivie Anderson, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, Johnny Hartman, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Billy Strayhorn, Sun Ra, Bennie Moten, W. C. Handy, Tadd Dameron, Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, and others.
To give some sense of the breadth of his searching, the gravestones of trumpet players included in this book are: Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Hot Lips Page, Henry Red Allen, Cootie Williams, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, Lester Bowie.
Jaap, born in 1940, has been involved with the music and the musicians for more than half a century, including Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd, Kenny Drew, and Kenny Clarke among others.
But he is not only a person of great feeling and a fine photographer. Jaap is one of those rare souls who wants to share what he has done. He wrote this to me, “The book which is sold out in the Netherlands by now will not be reprinted and has been proven to be physically too heavy for worldwide distribution. In this form I still hope to reach more jazz enthusiasts with a book which was a great pleasure to make.and which is still a very dear project to me.”
He has offered to make his book available as a digital download — for free — to anyone who emails him at email@example.com with JazzLives in the subject line. The whole book is about 150 MB and it might take a few minutes to download.
This is generosity without hidden motive, and it is a beautiful work of art and devotion.
I have to tell you about two jazz books that have given me immense pleasure: Mick Carlon’s TRAVELS WITH LOUIS and RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN. Yes, they are officially “children’s books” or “YA fiction,” but I delighted in every page.
I confess that I initially resisted both of Carlon’s books for reasons peculiar to me. I was a precocious sort who grew up among adult readers and got into their books as soon as I could. So I have no deep connections to children’s literature. And having seen some books “about jazz” or “about jazz heroes and heroines” for children, books that were inaccurate, oversimplified, or were unintentionally condescending, I was exceedingly wary of the genre. (Much “adult” fiction about jazz strikes me the same way, including the revered Baldwin story “Sonny’s Blues.”)
Because I’ve spent my life studying and revering Louis and Duke, I was ready to pick a fight with any book that didn’t do them justice. So even though both books had been praised by people I respect — Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley, even Ruby Braff — I found other things to read.
But when the books came to me, I decided to treat them fairly. Within twenty pages into TRAVELS WITH LOUIS I was hooked. I am a quick reader, and yesterday and today you could have found me ignoring what I was supposed to be doing to sneak in a few more pages. (This, for me, is the test of fiction: do I care about the characters and what happens to them? If not, down the book goes, no matter how respected the author.)
Both these books are heartfelt, endearing, and the jazz heroes come off true to their essential selves. Louis first.
TRAVELS WITH LOUIS follows a twelve-year old African-American neighbor of Louis’ — little Fred Bradley — who is an aspiring trumpeter. Louis is his neighbor, supremely kind not only to Fred but to all his neighbors (something we know to be true) and the book charts their sweet relationship as Fred grows as a young man and an aspiring musician. I won’t give away the plot, but it isn’t all ice cream and good times: there is grief over a parent’s death, race prejudice, a sit-in in a Southern town, failure, embarrassment, danger. But Fred’s love for the music, for his family, and for his Corona world shines through. And Louis is a beaming avuncular presence not only for Fred but for us. In some ways, this book is the fulfillment of what must have been the dream of many: “Suppose Louis Armstrong was my friend and I could hang out with him!” The book is not restricted to one Corona street, and the outside world intrudes, but I will leave those episodes for readers, without spoiling their surprises. (But Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington make appearances, speaking convincing dialogue and acting in ways that don’t seem out of character.)
Carlon is an easy, plain-spoken writer who has avoided many traps. For one thing, he has based his knowledge of Louis on first-hand real-life experience: twenty years of conversations with Jack Bradley, who loved and loves Louis deeply and followed him everywhere. So one never feels that the author is at a distance from his subject — picking up his subject’s DNA from hours in the library. Affection is the spine of this book, and I had tears in my eyes more than once. Carlon also has neatly sidestepped areas of Louis’ life that would be troublesome for a YA audience. Louis doesn’t tell dirty jokes, nor does he smoke pot in front of Little Fred, but that seems true to life. The slippery presence of Joe Glaser doesn’t pop up here, and that’s a relief.
RIDING ON DUKE’S TRAIN, Carlon’s first book, is in some ways even more ambitious, because it attempts to portray Ellington (that intriguing mixture of declarations of verbal love and a deep distance from anyone) as well as his 1937-39 band here and in Europe. I was charmed by his portrayal of Ivie Anderson, both gentle and salty, of Juan Tizol, of all the Ellingtonians. Django Reinhardt shows up here, as do the Nazis and the Swing Kids — in this tale of nine-year old Danny, an African-American Georgia orphan who finds himself nearly adopted by the whole band, especially Rex Stewart, and begins a career in Ellingtonia. At times I thought Danny was much more eloquent and perceptive than a nine-year old might be expected to be, but then again, the young Danny is a quick study and the narrator is Danny, grown much older, who is telling his story retrospectively (a device often used by the Irish writer Frank O’Connor.)
Both books work. I love this music and the people who create it so much that if I am taken to a film with jazz in it, I will be muttering to myself, “That record wasn’t out in 1944,” and “People didn’t use that expression in 1939,” but I had very little of that bristling in either book. Of course the jazz scholars among us can pick at some of Carlon’s poetic license: “Louis never played POTATO HEAD BLUES in his shows.” “Louis never played the Village Vanguard.” “Sonny Greer wasn’t tall.” “Billy Taylor was Duke’s bassist then, not Jimmie Blanton.” “Where’s Strayhorn?” And the scholars would be right.
But Carlon is writing fiction, not a discography, and it is much easier to criticize someone’s efforts for their imperfections than it is to create them.
And the poetic license ultimately isn’t the point.
These books aren’t written to please adults who have spent their lives figuring out what ever happened to the Hot Choruses cylinders, but for new audiences. Heaven knows jazz needs new audiences! Carlon is writing for the next generation who might, let us hope, be stirred by these fast-moving, varied human stories here to check out what Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington sounded like.
And who knows? Conversion experiences have happened with less inspiring encouragement than these two books offer. All I can say is that I am looking forward to Mick’s next book, GIRL SINGER, which will have a female protagonist (hooray!) and be set in 1938 with a band out of Kansas City led by a pianist named Basie. It should swing.
Rather than keep these books on my shelf, I’m giving them away to jazz friends I know who have young children: it couldn’t hurt. I encourage you — even if you think you know all about Louis and Duke — to buy copies of these books, read them, savor them, and then give them away to the youngbloods we know. Something good could happen.
You can purchase the two books in the usual places, and you can find out more about Mick Carlon here.
All jazz fans have their own versions of Jazz Camelot — one bright shining hour when the greatest figures improvised together. For some, it’s Basie at the Famous Door 1938, or Ellington-Webster-Blanton 1940, Bird and Diz 1945, or even oddities such as Bessie Smith singing Cole Porter in 1936 or the Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday jam sessions.
But one particularly bright constellation is the early intersection of young Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet under Clarence Williams’ aegis — in the first half of the nineteen-twenties. Yes, they reunited twice — in a 1940 Decca studio session and a 1945 concert — but nothing touches the ardent intensity of those early sides, which this splendid band evokes once again: Bent Persson, cornet; Stephane Gillot, Thomas Winteler, reeds; Jens Lindgren, trombone / vocal; Martin Seck, piano; Henri Lemaire, banjo / string bass; Cecile McLorin Salvant, vocals — recorded October 28, 2012, at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party.
Fats Waller’s early WILD CAT BLUES:
The deep-down TEXAS MOANER BLUES:
Cecile, evoking the Twenties blues queens on CHANGEABLE DADDY O’MINE:
The incendiary CAKE WALKIN’ BABIES FROM HOME:
PAPA DE DA DA, irresistible as a song and perhaps as a model of behavior:
COAL CART BLUES:
DINAH, with a remarkable vocal by Jens:
CANDY LIPS, a reed riot:
PERDIDO STREET BLUES, in honor of the 1940 NEW ORLEANS JAZZ session for Decca:
A studio photograph, a handbill for a band’s engagement in a hotel, and an autographed photo. Where else but on eBay?
Here’s a photograph from the late Frank Driggs’ collection — showing the six-man brass section of the 1940 Duke Ellington Orchestra, with Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown, trombones; Rex Stewart, Wallace Jones, Cootie Williams, trumpets. Presumably that’s Jimmie Blanton’s string bass and Sonny Greer’s Chinese cymbal in the foreground.
And someplace we would all like to go, if possible. Especially since the prices are so low:
And a rare remembrance of one of the nicest men in jazz, someone who should be better known today than he is:
George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, by John Smibert
I was thinking about the Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753), Bishop of Cloyne, the other day: I had read about him in W. B. Yeats’ celebration of the intellectual and powerful figures of the Irish past. What appealed to me was the notion that objects have to be perceived to exist: in whimsical form, the question is “How do you know that your books exist once you leave your house and can no longer see them?” Is a table “there” if we are not perceiving it?
I’m not about to propose that the jazz fans’ Vocalions and Brunswicks vanish as soon as the collectors leave the music room; I don’t want to face the possible responses, nor do I want to start massive panic. But for jazz devotees, the Bishop’s ruminations take on an intriguing shape: the subject being the music we know exists or once existed which is inaccessible to us. When we read somewhere in a Whitney Balliett profile (I believe his subject was Illinois Jacquet speaking) of a 1941 West Coast jam session where the rhythm section was Nat Cole, Charlie Christian, Jimmie Blanton, and Sidney Catlett, we know on the basis of all the evidence of individual recorded performances that this would have been beyond our wildest dreams. But it is made all the more extraordinary is that we weren’t there. It thus takes on the magical quality of the Arabian Nights.
Another manifestation of this idealizing of what we can’t reach (a larger human principle, perhaps) is the idea that musicians are playing magically when we are not in the room — when the concert is over, when the club is closed.
It may not always be true, but here is some evidence — recorded with permission at the 2012 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party — that miracles happen when no one except the musicians (and someone with a video camera) is around: two performances from one of the rehearsals that took place before the Party officially started — on Thursday, October 25, 2012.
This session was devoted to the Louis Armstrong Hot Choruses (and Breaks).
If you’ve never heard of them, they are perhaps another illustration of what would have pleased the Bishop so. In the middle Twenties, music publishers were beginning to notice that amateurs would buy music books that proposed to help them play as their idols did. I believe that the first jazz musician so honored by having his solos transcribed for other players to emulate and copy was the often-maligned Red Nichols. Walter Melrose, head of a Chicago music publishing firm, engaged Louis Armstrong to create hot choruses on popular songs — most often from the Melrose catalogue — and hot breaks. Louis was given a cylinder machine and blank cylinders; he played solos and breaks, which were then transcribed by pianist / composer Elmer Schoebel. The cylinders? Alas, to quote Shelley, “Nothing beside remains.”
But my hero Bent Persson has been considering, playing, exploring those choruses and breaks for thirty years and more — in the same way that Pablo Casals kept returning to the Bach cello suites. The transcribed solos and breaks, in themselves, seem almost holographic: yes, this is Louis; no, this is only a representation. But Bent has done superhuman creative work in blowing the breath of life into those notes.
Here are two musical rewards for your patient reading. I first met Bent in person at the 2009 Whitley Bay jazz extravaganza, after having listened to his recordings since the middle Seventies, and he has grown to accept my shadowing him with a video camera — the results, I tell him, are for the feature-length documentary.
I positioned myself in the center of the room while my shirt-sleeved heroes worked their way through a selection of the Louis Hot Chorus material. They were, in addition to Bent, Jens Lindgren, trombone; Gavin Lee, Thomas Winteler, Rene Hagmann, reeds (with the astonishing M. Hagmann doubling trumpet); and a rhythm section of Martin Wheatley, banjo; Malcom Sked, sousaphone; Martin Seck, piano; Frans Sjostrom, bass saxophone; Josh Duffee, drums.
These are two of my favorite things, to paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein II.
Here is CAFE CAPERS — and if you need any evidence of how the band is enjoying itself, watch Thomas, Jens, and pay special attention to the moving sneakers of M. Hagmann — and that’s even before Bent becomes our superhero with rocking support from Josh:
Then, SPANISH SHAWL, with the band rocking from the start — with wonderful reed playing, blazing outings from Jens, Rene, and Thomas, Josh, Henri, Frans and Gavin, before the key changes and the band romps home. “Very good!”:
To me, “Very good!” is rather like the Blessed Eddie Condon muttering, “That didn’t bother me.” Not at all. May your sneakers always be as happy as those of Rene Hagmann.
P.S. Magic like this happens very frequently at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party — click here to learn how you, too, can get in on the fun in November 2013. Aurelie Tropez and Jean-Francois Bonnel will be there. Jeff Barnhart and Daryl Sherman, too. And Bent and his Buddies.
From an English formal garden, 2010, a flower that is very much alive. Photograph by Michael Steinman
When does deep reverence become a self-created prison?
With my video camera, I attempt to capture what I think of as emotionally powerful performances by musicians playing and singing in 2012. I don’t expect everyone to share my preferences. But a comment posted on a YouTube video of an artist who isn’t yet forty took me by surprise. Here it is, paraphrased:
Younger Artist’s performance is alright but isn’t distinct enough. Where are the Xs, Ys, and Zs (insert the names of Great Dead Musicians here)?
My first reaction was annoyance on behalf of the Younger Artist, someone whose work I admire, being made tiny in comparison with The Heroic Dead.
And then I felt sad for the commenter, whose ears were so full of the dead artists he loved that he didn’t have room in his consciousness for someone living who sounded different.
Many of us who love this music have spent a long time entranced by the sounds and images of those people who have “made the transition,” who are no longer on the planet. Charlie Christian and Jimmie Blanton died before I was born, and that doesn’t obstruct my admiration for them. So a historical perspective — something to be cultivated — has a good deal of reverence for the dead as its foundation. Otherwise the reader / listener / viewer chases Novelty: this is the best band because it’s the newest, and Thursday’s child is fairer of face than Tuesday’s. What was his name again?
But for some listeners, the dark shadow of NOT AS GOOD AS hangs over their experience of this lively art. So that Kid J, a wonderful musician, is somehow unworthy when compared to Bix, Louis, Bunk, Coltrane, Jo, Billie . . . And because we can so easily acquire almost every note that Lester Young or Peggy Lee (to pick names at random) recorded, we can fill our ears and iPods with the almost three-dimensional aural presence of our Gods and Goddesses from morning to night. Very seductive!
What if that idolatry closes the door on our ability to appreciate the men and women who are creating it LIVE for us in clubs, concerts, dance halls, videos, discs, and the like? The experience of being in the same place as musicians who are improvising is not the same as listening to a recording or even watching the video clip.
The improviser or improvisers creates something new and tangy, something that didn’t exist before, right in front of us. And if there’s no one recording it with a video camera or an iPhone, it’s gone into memory. The people on the bandstand giggle, take a deep breath, wipe their faces, take a swig of water, and prepare to create something vibrant on the next song.
This williingness to take risks in the name of music is very brave and very beautiful, and we should embrace the living people who are attempting to make a living by making art. There will be time to sit on the couch and listen to records or mp3s. There will be time to make critical judgments that the Living aren’t as good as the Dead.
In the recent past, I have heard tenor saxophonists who made me feel the same way Ben Webster does, pianists who make me as elated as Mel Powell does . . . and I could keep both perceptions in my mind, honoring the living and the dead.
I am not, by the way, saying that Everyone has to like Everything. My own range is narrow by many people’s standards. But when I hear an artist I’ve never encountered before, and (s)he elates me, it is a deep reward. It doesn’t mean I am being disloyal to the dead if I applaud a living musician, does it? But I think some people live in the land of Either / Or and thus, unwittingly, cut themselves off from possible pleasure.
I imagine someone, seventeen or so, walking past the Greenwich Village club called THE PIED PIPER or the RIVIERA (the latter stands, although without music) in 1944, looking at the sandwich sign on the street, advertising James P. Johnson, Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, Frank Orchard . . . and thinking, “Nah. He’s no Fats Waller; he’s no Bix; he’s no Tesch; he’s no Jimmy Harrison,” and choosing not to go in . . . and having the next fifty or sixty years to regret his choice.
Artists (and people) are perhaps only Different . . . not Better or Worse.
People who listen to jazz, read about it, write about it, seem to be entranced by drama. So many of them are drawn to artists whose careers and lives are boldly delineated: the arc of early promise and a life cut short through self-destructive behavior or illness; the narrative of great achievement that tails off into stark decline. Early Fame, Great Decline. Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Jimmie Blanton, Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young . . . the list is long.
But what of those musicians who had long careers, functioned at a high level of creativity, were undramatic in their professionalism? They get less media attention in life and in death; their sheer reliability makes them almost shadowy figures. (Of course, if they happen to live long lives — Doc Cheatham, Benny Waters, Eubie Blake, Hank Jones, Lionel Ferbos — then they may get a story in the paper. But that’s another subject.)
One of the greatest trumpet players — also a wonderful composer and arranger — doesn’t get the attention he should: Buck Clayton from Parsons, Kansas, whose recordings over a thirty-year span are exceptional but not always celebrated as they should be. Anyone familiar with the best music of that period can call to mind a dozen sessions that Buck not only plays on, but elevates: consider the dates with Basie, the Kansas City Five and Six and Seven, Billie, Mildred, Teddy and Ben, Hawkins on Keynote, Ike Quebec on Blue Note, his own dates for HRS, the Jam Sessions for Columbia and the later ones for Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label, his recordings with Mel Powell at Carnegie Hall, the Vanguard sessions, a Verve date with Harry Edison, his own small band (circa 1961), recordings with Jimmy Rushing and Ada Moore and Mae Barnes, with Earl Hines, Bill Coleman, Don Byas, Flip Phillips, Horace Henderson, Sir Charles Thompson, Charlie Parker, Ed Hall, Alex Combelle, Joe Turner, Big Joe Turner, “Jazz From A Swinging Era,” Humphrey Lyttelton, Eddie Condon, J. J. Johnson, Benny Goodman . . . and I am sure I am leaving out many sessions.
Even though Buck was playing jazz in Shanghai in 1934, before he came home and stopped off in Kansas City, he seems to have been a rather undramatic man for all his exploits. He showed up on time for the gig; he could talk to the audience; he wrote excellent charts and swinging originals; he was beautifully dressed; he transcended late-in-life health problems to launch a new career as a bandleader when the trumpet no longer responded to his urgings. How unfortunate to be so bourgeois.
I only encountered him in person once: in 1971, there was a New York Jazz Museum Christmas party (if I have this right) where he was among a large number of musicians advertised as performing. Buck was there, not playing, but splendidly dressed and very polite to a young fan who asked for his autograph. (A side story: the musicians who actually did play, beautifully, were Chuck Folds, Gene Ramey, and Jackie Williams. Someone requested MISTY and Ramey, upon hearing the song title, said, quietly, “I don’t play that shit,” and leaned his bass against the wall for the next three minutes, returning when the music was more to his liking.)
I also saw Buck — perhaps in 1980 — at a Newport in New York concert possibly paying tribute to Billie, with musicians including Zoot Sims and Harry Edison — attempting to return to playing. His beautiful tone was intact on a fairly fast SUGAR, but he was having trouble hitting the notes one could sense he was aiming for . . . heroic but painful.)
Let’s listen to Buck again.
Here are the two takes of WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS from the 1938 Kansas City Six session for Commodore — with Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones. It’s hard not to focus on Lester — but it can be done. Hear Buck, golden, easeful, and lithe . . . the only trumpet player I know who approaches his sly mobility is Bill Coleman of the same period. Like Louis, he constructs his solos logically, one phrase building on its predecessors and looking forward to the next, each one acting as a small melodic building block in a larger arching structure — melodic embellishment with a larger purpose:
Any improvising musician would say that Buck’s solo choruses are not the work of an immature musician and not easy to do; his graceful ensemble playing is the work of a master. But it sounds so easy, as if he were singing through his horn. And that tone!
Here he is in a 1954 session that few know of — a Mel Powell-led jam session at Carnegie Hall, with Ruby Braff, Jay Brower (trumpet), Vernon Brown, Urbie Green (trombone), Tony Scott (clarinet), Lem Davis (alto sax), Buddy Tate, Eddie Shu (tenor sax), Romeo Penque (baritone sax), Mel Powell (piano), Steve Jordan (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Jo Jones, Gene Krupa (drums):
Buck appears near the end –just before Gene and Jo trade phrases. And, yes, you read that correctly. A marvel!
Here’s Buck with Ben Webster, Vic Dickenson, Hank Jones, George Duvivier, and Jo Jones in C JAM BLUES (1959):
And after his playing days had ended, as leader / composer / arranger of his own Swing Band, captured in France (1991) on RAMPAGE IN G MINOR:
The other swingers on that stage are Gerry Dodgion, alto; James Chirillo, guitar; Joe Temperley, baritone sax; Randy Sandke, trumpet; Matt Finders, trombone; Doug Lawrence and Arthur “Babe” Clarke, tenor saxophones; Phillipe Combell, drums.; Dick Katz, piano; Dennis Irwin, bass; Bobby Pring, trombone; John Eckert, Greg Gisbert; trumpet.
Someone who hasn’t forgotten Buck Clayton is the UK bassist / writer / radio host Alyn Shipton, who has performed often with Buck’s compositions and arrangements as the Buck Clayton Legacy Band. Here they are in this century performing Buck’s tribute to his friend and fellow brassman Humph, SIR HUMPHREY:
That band is full of people who understand Buck and his music (some of them heroes of mine): Menno Daams, Ian Smith, Adrian Fry, Alan Barnes, Matthias Seuffert, Martin Litton, Martin Wheatley, Alyn Shipton and Norman Emberson.
I would encourage anyone reading this post to go to his or her shelves and take down a recording by Buck and revel in its glories. Milt Hinton used to have a memo pad with this heading (because of his nickname “The Judge”):”You are hereby sentenced to thirty days of listening to good music.” If you were to explore and re-explore Buck Clayton’s jazz world, you would have more than a month of pleasure.
He never provoked controversy; I doubt he will ever have his own online forum with vigorous acrimonious discussion of the minutiae of his life . . . but he created beauty whenever he raised his trumpet, composed a melody, or led a band.