Tag Archives: Jimmy Knepper

“OF THINGS PAST”: JIMMY KNEPPER, DICK KATZ, GEORGE MRAZ, MEL LEWIS (1986)

This doesn’t require much commentary: it is a gorgeously tender themeless improvisation on THESE FOOLISH THINGS by Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Dick Katz, piano; George Mraz, string bass; Mel Lewis, drums.

Knepper began his recording career with big bands, so playing ballads was part of the training, since one played for dancers.  And if you’ve never heard of him, I invite you to be uplifted by calm, searching music that is at once melancholy and uplifting.

I hope you are as moved by this as I am.

May your happiness increase!

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PETER VACHER’S SUBTLE MAGIC: “MIXED MESSAGES:

The best interviewers perform feats of invisibility.  Yes, they introduce the subject, give some needed context or description, and then fade away – – – so that we believe that X or Y is speaking directly to us.  This takes a great deal of subtlety and energy . . . but the result is compelling.  Whitney Balliett did it all the time; other well-regarded interviewers couldn’t.  Peter Vacher, who has written for JAZZ JOURNAL and CODA, among other publications, has come out with a new book, and it’s sly, delightful, and hugely informative.

Vacher

MIXED MESSAGES: AMERICAN JAZZ STORIES is a lively collection of first-hand recollections from those essential players whose names we don’t always know but who make the stars look and sound so good.  The title is slightly deceptive: we are accustomed to interpreting “mixed messages” as a combination of good and bad, difficult to interpret plainly.  But I think this is Vacher’s own quizzical way of evaluating the material he so lovingly presents: here are heroic creators whose work gets covered over — fraternal subversives, much like Vacher himself.  One might think, given the cover (Davern, Houston Person, and Warren Vache) that this is a book in which race features prominently (it does, when appropriate) and the mixing of jazz “schools” is a subject (less so, since the players are maturely past such divisive distinctions).

Because Vacher has opted to speak with the sidemen/women — in most cases — who are waiting in the lobby for the band bus, or having breakfast by themselves — his subjects have responded with enthusiasm and gratitude.  They aren’t retelling the same dozen stories that they’ve refined into an automatic formula; they seem delighted to have an attentive, knowledgeable listener who is paying them the compliment of avidly acknowledging their existence and talent.  The twenty-one musicians profiled by Vacher show his broad-ranging feeling for the music: Louis Nelson, Norman ‘Dewey’ Keenan, Gerald Wilson, Fip Ricard, Ruby Braff, George ‘Buster’ Cooper, Bill Berry, Benny Powell, Plas Johnson Jr, Carl ‘Ace’ Carter, Herman Riley, Lanny Morgan, Ellis Marsalis, Houston Person Jr, Tom Artin, John Eckert, Rufus Reid, John Stubblefield, Judy Carmichael, Tardo Hammer, Byron Stripling.  New Orleanians, beboppers, late-Swing players, modern Mainstreamers, lead trumpeters and a stride pianist, and people even the most devoted jazz fancier probably has not heard of except as a name in a liner note or a discography.  Basie, Ellington, and Charlie Barnet make appearances here; so do Johnny Hodges, Jimmie Lunceford, Al Grey, Charlie Shavers, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Red, Maynard Ferguson, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, Ornette Coleman, Papa Celestin, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, J. J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, the AACM, Freddie Green, John Hammond, Roy Eldridge, Dick Wellstood, Duke Jordan, Sal Mosca, Junior Cook, Bill Hardman, Art Farmer, Mary Lou Williams.

But the strength and validity of this book is not to be measured by the number of names it includes, but in the stories.  (Vacher’s subjects are unusually candid without being rancorous, and a number of them — Braff, Berry, Stripling — take time to point out how the elders of the tribe were unusually kind and generous mentors.)  Here are a few excerpts — vibrant and salty.

Benny Powell on working with Lionel Hampton:

He was a pretty self-centered guy.  Kinda selfish.  When something wasn’t right or he wanted to admonish somebody in the band, he would have a meeting just before the show.  He’d get us all on stage and tell us how unworthy we were.  He’d say, “People come to see me.  I can get out on stage and urinate on stage and people will applaud that.”  He would go on and on like this, and when he was finished, he’d say, “All right, gentlemen, let’s have a good show.”  I’d say to myself, “Good show!  I feel like crying.”

Pianist Carl “Ace” Carter:

. . . the drummer . . . . was Ernie Stephenson, they used to call him Mix.  He said, “Why don’t you turn to music?  You can get more girls.”  He’s passed on now but I said if I ever see him in heaven I’m gonna kill him because to this day I haven’t got a girl.” 

Trumpeter John Eckert:

I didn’t appreciate Louis Armstrong until I played a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band, when I was. maybe, 26 years old [circa 1965].  A lot of big acts were there, including Maynard, Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond, and three or four other modern groups.  Louis ended the concert.  I’d always seen him as this old guy, with the big smile, saying negative things about bebop, but I was just thunderstruck at how he sounded.  I couldn’t believe how powerful he was, his timing, just the authority he played with — his group wasn’t really that impressive — but he was the king.

To purchase this very satisfying book, click here.

May your happiness increase.

RARE ITEMS

Judging by the frequency by which their signatures appear on eBay’s “Entertainment Memorabilia,” some famous musicians spent as much time signing autographs as they did playing.  Others may have been less well-known or more reticent, so when their autographs appear it’s a pleasant surprise.  (And some eBay sellers label items “rare” in inverse proportion to their value.)

Eddie Durham wanted to be paid for his services, and rightly so, considering what marvels he accomplished with his arrangements for Basie, Glenn Miller, Lunceford, and many others.  Fifteen dollars for a band arrangement now seems a pittance; was this piece of paper actually from the Thirties or was Eddie simply notating, “Hey, you owe me fifteen dollars”?  Research, please:

William “Cat” Anderson, for all his blazing high register in the Ellington bands, might have been somewhat insecure: would anyone have mistaken him for an anonymous saxophonist or bassist?

This rare program from Benny Goodman’s 1962 trip to the USSR is something I hadn’t seen (a souvenir of that unhappy experience, according to the bandsmen); this one sports autographs by Mel Lewis and Jimmy Knepper, jazz stalwarts:

And the expected full-page portrait of the King himself:

And what I assume is a program of songs and performers:

And more of Benny, here in caricature:

Not the usual thing (Mindi Abair, Sonny Rollins, Les Paul,  or Don Redman signatures) . . .

“SWEET MAN”: BOB PORTER REMEMBERS DICK KATZ

I know Bob Porter as a jazz scholar, record producer, radio broadcaster — and fine writer.  Here’s his recent piece on the much-missed Dick Katz, reprinted with permission from Bob’s website, where you’ll find many rare records for sale in his auctions, “JAZZ ETC.” (http://www.jazzetc.net):

For much of the 1980s, I was a Governor of the New York NARAS chapter. One of the fringe benefits of such a position was the opportunity to hang out with and make friends with fellow Govs, in this case musicians such as Pepper Adams, Mel Lewis, Helen Merrill, Gerry Mulligan and Dick Katz. George Simon and Dan Morgenstern were also involved so there was a lot of jazz knowledge on our panel.

Together we schemed to get as much recognition as possible for jazz. One year we even managed to get Pepper, who was nominated for a Grammy, to appear on the TV show! On the other hand, we worked, to no avail, to get some relief for Woody Herman from his oppressive tax burden. I got a chance to do a record with Pepper and another with Katz, records that probably would not have been made were it not for the monthly NARAS Governors meetings.

The Pepper Adams album was entitled”Urban Dreams” and featured Jimmy Rowles on piano. It was the only time I ever worked with Rowles but I managed to pick up two or three great stories from him and I’m still living off those stories after all these years. When Pepper discovered that the budget was all inclusive and that what was left, after all the other costs were covered, went to him, he knocked that album out in about two and a half hours!

The Katz album was one of three I did for Jim Neumann and his Beehive label. Neumann was one of great LP collectors of the twentieth century (his collection was recently donated to Oberlin). A successful businessman, Jim always wanted to run things his way and the record business was a challenge. It wasn’t easy for him to run his business in Chicago and make records in New York. I suggested Junior Mance to him, knowing that Neumann was ready to record almost any good jazz player with Windy City roots. We did a mostly quartet date with Junior’s working trio and David Newman added. In another conversation with Jim, I suggested Dick Katz.

Through our monthly meetings and the conversations that ensued, I found Katz to be extremely well versed on pianists. He knew Teddy Wilson, his original inspiration, but he knew Monk’s music far better than most. He had a slim discography but one that had quality as its recurring theme. Every time I heard him play, I was impressed, thinking that lots of people were sleeping on his talent. And he wrote about jazz with authority. Add to all that was the fact that he was truly a caring human being, one sweet man.

The Dick Katz album was part trio, part quintet. It was taped in May of 1984 with Jimmy Knepper and Frank Wess as our horns. Marc Johnson and Al Harewood provided the rhythm. Dick prepared well in advance of the session. “A Few Bars For Basie”, written to honor the recent passing of Count Basie, was the only tune featuring Wess on tenor, everything else featured his flute. I remember thinking at the end of the date that Katz was very well represented on the album. His choice of material was exemplary, his trio playing elegant and he seemed to get everything possible from the quintet. The album was titled, “In High Profile” (Bee Hive 7016). The album was issued on LP but when I asked about CD, Neumann showed no enthusiasm.

After the expiration of our NARAS Governor terms, I would encounter Dick Katz occasionally, playing with Roy Eldridge , in a meeting of some sort, once at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The conversations were always brief but always contained a reference to “In High Profile” and the question of when it might be issued on CD. To me, he referred to the album as his personal favorite.

The last time I saw him, perhaps five years ago, a different attitude showed up. Beehive had been gone for a long time and the only music from the label that had appeared on CD was the Johnny Hartman material used on ‘The Bridges of Madison County” soundtrack. Neumann still held his masters but wasn’t doing any deals to get the music to CD. Katz said to me, “I never should have made that album for Beehive.”

For many years, I held to the belief that because the record industry had supplied much of my living for a long time that I should abide by their rules. Thus, I had resisted burning vinyl to CD-thinking that in time, the labels would get around to what I wanted. Well some of them, namely Beehive, never got around to it. When Dick Katz died in November last year, there were obituaries that discussed his career in considerable detail. Not once was “In High Profile” mentioned. Because it wasn’t on CD, it didn’t exist.

Well it exists on CD in my collection now. I burned it and sent a check to The Jazz Foundation of America in his memory. Dick Katz, writer, teacher, pianist, friend of mine. One sweet man.

GIVING THANKS TO WHITNEY BALLIETT

Giving thanks shouldn’t be restricted to grace before meals.  When I think of the people who formed my musical taste, Whitney Balliett, who died last year, is at the top of the list (joined by Ed Beach and Stu Zimny).  As I was truly learning to listen, I would read his work, immersing myself in an essay on the trumpeter Joe Thomas while listening to the relevant records: an enlightening experience, not just for the clarity and empathy of Balliett’s insights, but for the beauty of his understated, accurate prose.  Balliett made readers hear — as they would have been unable to do on their own. 

Balliett was generous in person and on the page, and I will have more to say about him in future postings, but here is a piece I wrote about his work several years ago.  He was particularly pleased by my last sentence, which became a blurb for this book, something of which I am very proud.

 

AMERICAN MUSICIANS II: Seventy-One Portraits in Jazz.  By Whitney Balliett.  Oxford University Press, 1996.  $39.95   520 pp.

             “Aesthetic Vitamins,” Whitney Balliett’s portrait of Ruby Braff, concludes with Braff’s self-assessment: “I know I’m good and I know I’m unique.  If I had to go out and hire someone just like me, it would be impossible, because he doesn’t exist.”  Such narcissism would not occur to Balliett, a modest man, but Braff’s words fit him well.  Others have written capably of jazz musicians and their anthropology, but for forty years Balliett has been a peerless writer of jazz profiles, a form he has perfected.  In American Musicians II, Joe Oliver, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Greer, Art Farmer, and many others glow under his admiring scrutiny.

            Balliett’s earliest work, for The New Yorker of the mid-1950’s, reveals that he comfortably provided the reportage and criticism expected of reviewers: Hawkins played “Rosetta” well last night; the MJQ’s new long-playing record is worth buying.  But he attempted more: to reproduce the phenomena he had observed in words that made it nearly audible, to transform musical experience into language.  Although his intent was not aggressive, his early essays often unmasked mediocrity simply by bringing it to the light.  Here is Ahmad Jamal in concert: “He will play some ordinary chords, drop his hands in his lap for ten measures, reel off a simple, rhythmic single-note figure (often in the high registers), drop his hands for five or six more measures, slip in an arpeggio, drop his hands again, plump off some new chords, and so forth–all of which eventually gives the impression achieved by spasmodically stopping and unstopping the ears in a noisy room.  Accompanied by bass and drums, which sustained a heavy, warlike thrumming that seemed to frown on his efforts, Jamal played five numbers in this fashion, and after a time everything was blotted out in the attempt to guess when he would next lift his hands to hit the piano.  It was trying work.” Although he has been termed conservative, Balliett did not overlook his elders’ lapses; Zutty Singleton “has refined the use of the cowbell, wood block, and tom-tom into a set pattern that he never tires of, [and] played, in his solo number, as if he were shifting a log pile.”

            Deadly satire, however, was not his usual mode, for he preferred to praise the poets of jazz — lyrical improvisors of any school.  In reviews published in a three-month period, he celebrated George Lewis’s band for the “sturdy and lively dignity” of its “absorbing ensemble passages,” noted Cecil Taylor’s “power and emotion,” acclaimed Roy Eldridge’s solos for “a majesty that one expects not in jazz but in opera.”  His sustained affection for the music is evident throughout American Musicians II, an expanded edition of his 1986 American Musicians, with new portraits, whose roll call reveals him unhampered by ideologies: Goodman, Mel Powell, Dorothy Donegan, Bellson, Bird, Dizzy, Buddy DeFranco, Rowles, Shearing, Braff, Knepper, Desmond, Walter Norris, Thornhill.  

            Balliett does not present what he hears in musicological terms — Gunther Schuller would have notated what Jamal and Singleton played — but captures sound, motion, and rhythm in impressionistic images equally enlightening to neophyte and aficionado.  Like the best improvisations, his writing is both surprising and inevitable; he listens with great subtlety and makes shadings and nuances accessible to readers.  He is a master of similes and metaphors, in deceptively simple prose.  Skeptics who think that what he does is easy should sit down with a favorite CD, listen to sixteen bars of Bix, Ben, or Bird, and write down what they hear in unhackneyed words that accurately convey aural sensations.  Balliett avoids the vocabulary that conveys only a reviewer’s approval or disapproval: A “is at the top of his form”; B’s solo is “a masterpiece”; C’s record is “happy music played well,” etc.  Quietly and unpretentiously, finding new, apt phrases, he teaches readers how to listen and what to listen for. 

            Balliett’s Profiles (no doubt encouraged by his New Yorker editor William Shawn, an engaging amateur stride pianist) enabled him to create expansive portraits.  Were his subject deceased, a fate all too common to jazz musicians, Balliett could do first-hand research among surviving contemporaries; his Lester Young Profile is illuminated by the recollections of Jimmy Rowles, Buddy Tate, John Lewis, Gene Ramey, Sylvia Syms, Gil Evans, and Zoot Sims.  Since they are not the same people retelling the same stories, the result is fresh, insightful, and we see and hear Lester as if for the first time.  If the musician were alive, Balliett could observe, hang out, always with extraordinary results.  He has visited the famous, but American Musicians II is not a self-glorifying book of big names (“I Call on Duke Ellington”).  He has brought worthy supporting players (Mel Powell, Tommy Benford, Jimmy Knepper, Claude Thornhill) into the spotlight, yet he is no archeologist, interviewing the anonymous because no one else has and because they are still alive. 

            One of this book’s pleasures is the eavesdropping he makes possible.  Musicians, shy or seemingly inarticulate, sometimes self-imprisoned by decades of stage witticisms, open their hearts to him, describing their peers and themselves with wit and unaffected charm.  Unselfishly, Balliett makes the musicians who talk with him into first-rate writers.  Here is Clyde Bernhardt on Joe Oliver: “He was really comical about color.  If he spotted someone as dark as he was, he’d say, ‘That son is uglier than me. I’m going to make him give me a quarter.’  Or he’d light a match and lean forward and whisper, ‘Is that something walking out there?’  He wouldn’t hire very black musicians.  I suggested several who were very good players, but he told me, ‘I can stand me, but I don’t want a whole lot of very dark people in my band. People see ’em and get scared and run out of the place.'”  Vic Dickenson, musing on roads not taken: “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook.  I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.  I’d slap them on the finger all the time, and the last thing I ever want to do is mess up my cool.”  Balliett’s Profile of his hero Sidney Catlett closes with Tommy Benford’s memory: “I have a pair of Sid’s drumsticks, and this is why.  I was at Ryan’s with Jimmy Archey’s band, and one Monday, after Sid had sat in, he left his sticks behind on the stand.  I called to him after he was leaving, ‘Sid, you left your sticks,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right, man, I’ll be back next week.’  But he never did come back.”  When his subjects were alive, these Profiles might have seemed only beautiful prose.  Now, when we can no longer see most of their subjects in person, the historical value of Balliett’s evocations is inestimable.

            Through his writing, readers have been invited, vicariously, to join in gatherings and occasions otherwise closed to us.  The Profiles enabled him to eat peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches with Bobby Hackett, share a car trip with Mary Lou Williams, watch Jim Hall rehearse, go shopping with Stéphane Grappelly, walk New York streets with Mingus and Ellington.  These encounters are buoyed with the irreplaceable details we are accustomed to finding only in great novels:  Balliett sits down to eat with Red Allen and his wife at their home.  Junetta, the Allens’ six-year old granddaughter, eyes the fried chicken hungrily, mutely.  Mrs. Allen, a model grandmother, stern yet indulgent, capitulates, “All right, a small piece.  Otherwise, you’ll ruin your supper.  And don’t chew all over the carpet.”  I regret I was not invited to that dinner, but I am thankful Balliett was.    

            Even readers who have nearly memorized the Profiles as first published in The New Yorker will find surprises and delights here (the prose equivalent of newly discovered alternate takes) for Balliett is an elegant editor in addition to everything else.  He has done more than adding the inevitable paragraphs lamenting someone’s death; he has removed scenes no longer relevant (an Ellis Larkins recording session where the music, frustratingly, was never issued) and substituted new encounters.  Most jazz fans are well-supplied with anecdotes where the teller is the true subject, requiring listeners with divine patience (“I rode the subway with Benny Morton; I saw Jo Jones livid when the bassist was late”).  These tales, and their published counterparts, “and then I told Dizzy,” “Woody once said to me,” are not Balliett’s style.  In American Musicians II, he has subtly removed himself from the interviews as much as possible, making himself nearly invisible, silent.  The light shines on Warne Marsh, not on Balliett first, Marsh second.   

            The only regret possible after reading the book is that Balliett did not begin writing for The New Yorker when it began in 1925.  It is hardly fair to reproach him for not being older, but I imagine wondrous Profiles that might have been.  What would he have seen and heard at Connie’s Inn in 1929?  The Reno Club in 1936?  Minton’s in 1941?  Jimmy Ryan’s in 1944?  What stories might Eddie Lang, Frank Teschmacher, Jimmy Noone, Tricky Sam Nanton, Fats Navarro, or Tony Fruscella have told him?  Since these meetings must remain unwritten, we should celebrate what we have. American Musicians II is revealing and moving, because Balliett is a great musician whose instrument is prose, whose generosity of perception has never failed us.