Tag Archives: Jimmy Ryan’s

DAN MORGENSTERN CELEBRATES CECIL SCOTT, DICK KATZ, AND NANCY HARROW (Sept. 29, 2017)

I won’t go on at length about my good fortune — having Dan Morgenstern patiently sit and tell wonderful stories to my camera so that you can all delight in his warmth, his first-hand experience, and his beautifully articulated love for the music and the musicians . . . but here are two interview segments from my most recent visit, September 29, 2017.

The first, a belated celebration of reedman and splendid figure CECIL SCOTT:

Here’s Cecil in a 1935 Oscar Micheaux film, MURDER IN HARLEM:

and one of my favorite recordings ever, Red Allen’s ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON (with Cecil and J.C. Higginbotham):

Here are Dan’s affectionate memories of someone who was much loved and is not, I fear, well-known today, pianist / composer DICK KATZ and the very much with-us NANCY HARROW:

On a personal note or two: I am more involved in this video than I usually am, and I hope our conversation bothers no one.  On the subject of conversation . . . as soon as I’d shut the camera off, I said to Dan, awe-struck, “YOU KNOW Nancy Harrow?” and through the kindness of Daryl Sherman and Dan, Nancy and I have met and exchanged compliments and gratitudes — a great blessing.

But back to DICK KATZ.  Here is Dick playing THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU:

and THREE LITTLE WORDS:

and with Nancy Harrow on a very touching rendition of IF YOU WERE MINE (I need no excuse to recommend Nancy to you):

Dan Morgenstern says, “Dick was a dear man.”  Dan Morgenstern is a dear man.

May your happiness increase!

I CALL ON MICHAEL HASHIM, PART TWO (July 19, 2017)

Because he is justifiably one of the most busy musicians I know, it was hard to find a time when saxophone master and master raconteur Michael Hashim and I could sit down and talk at leisure.  And because Michael is so busy gigging, it was hard to find a photograph of him without a horn attached to him, but I did.  (I love the dashing color palette here.)

Michael and I had a long afternoon’s conversation last July, the first two segments of which I posted here.

Now, throwing caution to the winds — or another apt cliche — I offer the four remaining segments of our talk.  And, as you’ll hear, Michael is one of those rare creatures who can speak beautifully, extemporaneously, without hesitation: lovely long sentences, full of information, feeling, and wit, come tumbling out.  A master of improvised prose as well as one of improvised music.

Three.  In which Michael speaks so well and affectionately of Jimmy Rowles — the pianist, the man, and the artist — with side-glances at Robert Mitchum, Henry Mancini, and The Fifth Dimension, Tommy Flanagan, Phyllis Diller, Benny Carter, Michael’s own recording with Rowles, Ray Brown, and some comments on race:

Four.  In which Michael tells anecdotes of encounters with heroes in New York, saxophonist Pony Poindexter, trombonist Benny Morton, as well as jazz clubs Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s, with memories of Red Balaban, Jo Jones, Bobby Pratt, Tony Bennett, Joe Muranyi, Artie Baker, Roy Eldridge, Scott Hamilton, Lou Donaldson, Freddie Freeloader, and others:

Five.  In which Michael remembers not only individual musicians but the feeling and understanding of their art that they embodied, including Cab Calloway, the Widespread Depression Orchestra, Eddie Barefield, Sammy Price, Jerry Potter, Earle Warren, Phil Schaap,Toots Mondello, Percy France, Doc Cheatham, Scott Robinson, Roy Eldridge, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Lester Bowie, Haywood Henry:

Six. In which Michael lovingly speaks of the importance of the drums and remembers memorable percussionists and the players surrounding them, including Buddy Rich, Philly Joe Jones, Eddie Locke, Ray Mosca, Oliver Jackson, with a special pause for the master Jo Jones, for Sonny Greer, Johnny Blowers, Brooks Kerr, Russell Procope, Harold Ashby, Aaron Bell, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Irvis, Bubber Miley, Elmer Snowden, Freddie Moore, Eddy Davis, Kenny Washington, Billy Higgins, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, George Butler, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Joe Henderson:

What an afternoon it was, and what a person Michael Hashim is.

May your happiness increase!

“BEST SESSION IN TOWN”: OUR HEROES, GIGGING AROUND

Buck Clayton, Bob Wilber, Johnny Windhurst, 1951:

buck-at-storyville-flyer

Red Allen, 1956,

red-allen-central-plaza

Tony Parenti, 1949:

tony-parenti-at-ryans-1949

Pee Wee Russell, 1964:

pee-wee-and-johnny-armitage-october-1964

I am tempted to close this very unadorned exhibit of treasures with a sigh, “Ah, there were wonders in those days!”  That sigh would be a valid emotional reaction to the glories of the preceding century.  But — just a second — marvels are taking place all around us NOW, and those who lament at home will miss them.

May your happiness increase!

DICK, RYAN’S, FIVE CONNIE-SIGHTINGS, and PEE WEE

An eBay assortment of curiosities!

A Forties photograph autographed to Dick — by Count Basie (who seems to have signed it first in some careful way, then inscribed it on the site) and Jimmy Rushing:

TO DICK BASIE RUSHING

An autographed flyer for Jimmy Ryan’s — that jazz oasis (after a fashion) of West Fifty-Fourth Street, featuring Roy Eldridge, Bobby Pratt, Joe Muranyi, Dick Katz, and Ted Sturgis, Eddie Locke:

JIMMY RYAN'S DIXIELAND flyer

Collectors of sheet music know that the artists pictured or photographed on the cover may have had only the most tenuous connection to a particular song (I’ve seen copies of — among other oddities — WHEN THEY PLAYED THE POLKA featuring Adrian Rollini, LITTLE SKIPPER featuring Bobby Hackett, and LIGHTS OUT featuring Louis, which of course they may have played.)  But here are five Connie Boswell-sightings, circa 1931-33, both reassuring and elusive.

One:

CONNIE ONE

Two:

CONNIE TWO

Three:

CONNIE THREE

Four:

CONNIE FOUR

Five:

CONNIE FIVE

If anyone has acetates of Connie singing these songs, do let me know!

For those who want the rarest Boswelliana, check out the official Boswell Sisters eBay store — http://stores.ebay.com/theboswellsistersstore — which is run by Kyla Titus, Vet’s granddaughter, so you know the treasures are authentic. You can also visit it at helvetia520 — which has a 100% approval rating from buyers.

And this — I know that Al Bandini, a trumpet player who for a time ran the band at the Riviera in New York (which still exists, although serving food rather than music)  and Pee Wee Russell collaborated on GABRIEL FOUND HIS HORN, but this was new to me:

PEE WEE sheet music

I note with pleasure that this song comes from Mr. Russell’s Boston period, circa 1945, and find it particularly affecting that it was part of a music therapy program, which is more than apt.  (Someone outbid me on this, which is fine with me, although I won’t have Pee Wee gazing down at me from one of my apartment walls, alas.)

Draw your own conclusions about provenance and what it might mean that these lovely odd artifacts are bubbling to the surface.  I’m just delighted that they are.

May your happiness increase!

PAPERS WITH DEPTH: LOUIS, “SINGLES WELCOME,” JIMMY RYAN’S, BARBARIN in BOSTON

Yes, I’ve been nosing around on eBay again . . .

First, Louis c. 1952: possibly Russ Phillips, Milt Hinton, Cozy Cole, Louis, Barney Bigard, in front of some startled-looking patrons (did the flashbulb make them jump?):

LOUIS 1952 candid

then, a handbill from 1970, when Vic Dickenson had left the Bobby Hackett Quintet to join the World’s Greatest Jazz Band.  “Singles welcome”:

WGJB Hacket flyer

and a Jimmy Ryan’s flyer from 1963:

RYAN'S 1963 front

and if you needed it explained to you by Virgil Thomson, here you are:

RYAN'S 1963 inside

Perhaps you’d like some New Orleans music in Boston, May 12, 1952:

BARBARIN at SAVOY 1952

It’s pleasing when collectors clean out their troves and put them up for sale. Otherwise, how would we live vicariously?

May your happiness increase!

THE SPANIER WORLDVIEW, 1945

A generous friend sent me this . . . the front cover from a Manhattan Records 78 album (which, when new, contained three 10″ discs) under Muggsy Spanier’s leadership, to be sold at Nick’s in Greenwich Village.  An authentic Spanier autograph!  “The good doctor” was Henry Sklow, a swinging dentist who watched over the pouring of drinks for the musicians at Jimmy Ryan’s jam sessions.

Muggsy writes “Barnum was right,” which I presume is a self-deprecating comment about the ubiquity of suckers.  I wonder if he was referring to the people who were buying this album — or was it a comment on all humanity?  No one who ever spoke of Muggsy referred to his cynicism (Maggie Condon remembers him fondly) so I suspect it was an offhanded example of artistic self-mockery:

MUGGSY 1944

Whatever the context, a genuine Muggsy!  (And he always was.)

May your happiness increase!

FOR LOUIS, SIDNEY, and CLARENCE: BENT PERSSON, STEPHANE GILLOT, THOMAS WINTELER, MARTIN SECK, HENRI LEMAIRE, CECILE McLORIN SALVANT at the 2012 WHITLEY BAY CLASSIC JAZZ PARTY (October 28, 2012)

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:

May your happiness increase. 

BIG JAZZ: CELEBRATING ROY ELDRIDGE’S 100th at THE EAR INN (Jan. 30, 2011)

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Otto “Toby” Hardwick of the Ellington band dubbed Roy Eldridge LITTLE JAZZ a long time ago.  Not simply because Roy was short (great trumpeters often are, as Whitney Balliett pointed out).  But Roy he was animated by the spirit of the music. 

Roy always wanted to play; he had a gleefully feisty spirit; he swung harder than anyone could imagine.  He has been gone for some time now, but I remember seeing him in concerts — at Williams College and Newport in New York — and at his late-life home base, Jimmy Ryan’s.  He didn’t coast; he didn’t ever want to play it safe.  And his giant spirit is alive in our hearts and our ears. 

Jon-Erik Kellso admires Mr. Eldridge greatly — not only the built-in rasp of his trumpet tone or his hot, speedy articulation, but his inventiveness, his emotional force.  In fact, the first time I heard young Kellso on a CD, years ago, I thought, “Who is this young cat who sounds a little bit like young Roy without copying the Master?” 

Since January 30, 2011 happened to be David Roy Eldridge’s one-hundredth birthday, the EarRegulars turned their regular Sunday gig at the Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) into a small heartfelt tribute to the spirit of Little Jazz, again without copying the records. 

In this, Jon-Erik was aided mightily by several swing sages: Dan Block on clarinet and tenor sax; Jon Burr on bass; Chris Flory on guitar.  Oh, how they rocked!

Here are a few highlights: 

Although AFTER YOU’VE GONE is sometimes a song played as a farewell, it was offered early in the evening at a relaxed yet steamy tempo, with the EarRegulars clicking in to gear.  (Pay paricular attention to bassist Jon, who was eloquent beyond his usual eloquence in solo after solo.):

Roy was known for searing playing at fast tempos, but his ballads were something special, and audiences who knew this often came in to Ryan’s about 11:30 for “The Ballad.”  I remember once hearing an extraordinary WILLOW WEEP FOR ME. 

The EarRegulars didn’t make us wait that long to hear I SURRENDER, DEAR (yet another reminder of how much Coleman Hawkins and his generation devoted themselves to the singing and repertoire of Bing Crosby, with good reason):

I don’t recall Roy recording I FOUND A NEW BABY as such, but he improvised on its chord changes more than once, I believe — and this wasn’t a repertory tribute to Mr. Eldridge, but another Sunday night excursion into deep fun.  (At the end of the night, Jon-Erik said, “I started making a list of tunes associated with Roy, but I realized that’s what we play, anyway!”):

The second set brought forth a classic Gift From The EarRegulars scenario: the chance to hear someone new to me and to be impressed. 

I’d already been impressed by clarinetist / reedman Eric Elder from Chicago without hearing a note: his perceptive, witty emails got to the heart of things.  When we met, we spent a good long time talking about music and musicians and life — a wonderful combination.  So when Eric came up to play, I was excited.  And he didn’t disappoint.  Mind you, for a younger reedman (“Jon-Erik called him Eric Elder the Younger) sitting next to Dan Block and Pete Martinez is both Paradise and the hot seat — but Eric played nimbly and with feeling on the selections that closed out the night.

You’re going to hear a lot from him, I assure  you. 

Here’s one delicious highlight of the second set, containing a sweet surprise that (in my experience) happens often at the Ear Inn on Sunday nights.  I was seated at the bar behind my camera, fixated on what was in my viewfinder, when I heard a trombone both smooth and gutty.  I didn’t quite think of WHERE’S WALDO? or “Who is the mystery guest?” but eased myself forward, still shooting this veideo, to find our pal Jim Fryer seated, playing, adding joy to a pretty medium-tempo ROCKIN’ CHAIR (that’s Ruby Braff-tempo, by the way):

The session ended much later than usual.  

I missed what would have been the convenient train.  

I overslept the next morning and missed work. 

I apologize to my students, but this session was sublimely worth it.

And if these video performances make you feel warm and sunny inside, you’ll know what to do!

THE GOLDEN EAR(A) (Dec. 12, 2010)

I’ve heard live jazz in many settings here and abroad.  In New York City, I can think of the last Eddie Condon’s, Jimmy Ryan’s, The Cajun, Smoke, Cleopatra’s Needle, Gregory’s, The Cookery, Arthur’s Tavern, Smoke, Iridium, Jazz Standard, The Garage, Bradley’s, The Half Note, The Onliest Place, Banjo Jim’s, Your Father’s Mustache, Bourbon Street, Sweet Rhythm, Smalls, Fat Cat, and many more. 

With all due respect to these clubs that have provided lasting memories from the early Seventies onward, I can’t over-estimate the joyous resonance of the Sunday night sessions at The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City) which have been going on for nearly three and a half years now.

The EarRegulars — co-led by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet, and Matt Munisteri, guitar — have offered serene / hot chamber jazz by a quartet staffed by a changing cast of characters . . . with expansion possibilities up to a dozen strolling players. 

But Sunday night, December 12, 2010, was a high point: two brass, two rhythm.  That combination might have been challenging with other players, but when the two others were Joel Forbes, bass, and Randy Reinhart, cornet, I knew great jazz was in store.  Joel and Matt are a wonderful team — as soloists and a wasteless, energetic but never noisy rhythm section.  Piano?  Drums?  Not missed.

Jon-Erik and Randy are pals (as you’ll hear) and although an evening featuring two other trumpeters — even though Randy plays cornet — might turn into a competitive display of ferocity, an old-time cutting contest, nothing of the sort happened here.  The two hornmen sounded for all the world like dear friends having a polite but involved conversation.  They soloed without interruption; their contrapuntal lines tumbled and soared; they created great hot ensembles, each one handing off the lead to the other.

Deep music and rollicking fun as well.

How about two tributes to the forever-young man from Davenport,  the dear boy Bix, compositions that have become hot jazz standards, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES and JAZZ ME BLUES? 

Written by Earl Hines, performed by Louis and Basie — some solid credentials for the song YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME:

What followed was a highlight of the evening — a deep, rocking exploration of DALLAS BLUES.  They’re on the right track!

Honesty counts, and candor is a great virtue.  So IT’S A SIN TO TELL A LIE, as Fats Waller told us:

Fidelity, even for a short period, is a great thing.  IF I COULD BE WITH YOU (ONE HOUR TONIGHT) is James P. Johnson’s wistful evocation of the desire for more than sixty minutes:

But everything in this life is mutable (root word: “muta”) and so THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE:

I’m so grateful that such music is being created where I and others can see and hear it!

SAY IT SIMPLE: DICK WELLSTOOD

Once the English pianist Harold Bauer gave a concert in San Francisco, and an F-sharp got stuck just after he’d begun his last piece.  He struggled with the note, trying to disguise that from the audience, trying to keep it from ruining the piece, trying to get through.  When he came offstage, his manager said to him, “Harold, I’ve listened to you up and down the world for twenty years, and that last piece was the most moving performance I have ever heard.”  Which means that audiences are rarely on the same wavelength as performers.  In fact, two very different things are going on at once.  The musician is wondering how to get from the second eight bars into the bridge, and the audience is in pursuit of emotional energy.  The musician is struggling, and the audience is making up dreamlike opinions about the music that may have nothing at all to do with what the musician is thinking or doing musically.  If audiences knew what humdrum, daylight things most musicians think when they play, they’d probably never come. 

— told to Whitney Balliett, “Easier Than Working,” American Musicians 312-13.

The Dear Departed Days:

December 1946, Jimmy Ryan’s, New York City: Ed Phyfe (drums), John Glasel (tpt); Bob Wilber, Wellstood, Charlie Traeger (bass).  Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

FIFTY-SECOND STREET WEST (Cafe Borrone, Oct. 15, 2010)

Because of the wonderful photographs that Charles Peterson and others took, some of my readers will be able to visualize the bandstand at Jimmy Ryan’s sixty-five years ago — crowded with hot musicians jamming on, say, BUGLE CALL RAG, with every luminary in New York City eagerly improvising at the peak of their powers.

Now imagine that scene with additions.  A wondrous singer — let’s say Connee Boswell, Lee Wiley, or Mildred Bailey is joining in for a few numbers. 

And, if your imagination can hold this, Django Reinhardt and some members of his group are also there, off to the side, having a fine time.  Bob Wills is coming through the door, too. 

Did this happen?  If it did — in New York City, circa 1945 — it hasn’t been documented.  But something very much like it happened last Friday, October 15, 2010, in Cafe Borrone, which sits happily in Menlo Park, California.

Cafe Borrone has — through the generosity and prescience of its owner, Roy Borrone — having Clint Baker’s All-Stars as its Friday night jazz band.  For twenty years of Fridays, mind you.  And the 15th was a twentieth-anniversary party.

And “SFRaeAnn,” who is Rae Ann Berry on her driver’s license, was there to record this occasion.  Clint’s regulars were in attendance, but so were some instrumentally-minded friends.  As was the eloquently hot Gypsy-tinged small group Gaucho, and New York’s own wonder, Tamar Korn.  The musicians (collectively) are Clint Baker, playing everything expertly; Robert Young, saxophone; Leon Oakley, cornet; Katie Cavera, banjo, guitar; Tom Wilson, trombone; Jim Klippert, trombone; Dave Ricketts, guitar; Rob Reich, accordion; Mike Groh, guitar; Ari Munkres, bass, J. Hansen, drums, Riley Baker, drums.

A word about GAUCHO — a group I’ve seen in San Francisco (and I’ve also listened happily to their recordings): many “Gypsy swing” groups that loosely resemble this one specialize in superhero-speedy readings of the Reinhart-Grappelly repertoire.  In such cases, I agree with my friend Anthony Barnett when he proposes a moratorium on such endeavors.  In my case, all I want is not to be pummelled with notes.  But GAUCHO is superbly different.  The overall affect is superficially of music you’d hear on the porch or in the living room, but that feeling is undercut by the instant awareness that no amateur musicians ever, ever sounded this good.  Its two guitarists play and swap roles with grace and a stylish casualness.  Rob Reich makes the accordion an instrument I would happily listen to, as he spins out wandering lines (I was traumatized by an accordion as a child.)  And Ari Munkeres brings together Pops Foster and Paul Chambers very adeptly.  The overall feeling brings together Teddy Bunn and Western swing and a whole host of refreshing improvisations on various subtle, profound models.   

Here’s part of a delightful EXACTLY LIKE YOU, where Tamar and Leon converse:

And a full-fledged YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY — where Tamar’s eyes and facial expressions reveal a great comic actress, singing the twisty lyrics at a rapid clip.  (Not only that: she sings the verse twice!)  This performance becomes a series of witty conversations and overlapping monologues, most fetchingly: 

How about SOME OF THESE DAYS, with an incredible outchorus where instruments and Tamar (the Mills Sister) blend so exuberantly:

Here’s a  delicate, unaffected I’M CONFESSIN’ — a performance where Ari’s arco bass, Leon’s Ziggy Elman – Harry James emoting, Robert’s sweet alto, and more theoretically disparate elements come together to create something terribly moving:

The simplistic philosophy of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING remains true — complain too much and even the dog walks out of the room — but what catches my eye in the first minute of this performance is that an audience member has asked Tamar to dance (unless I am missing the essential subtext).  At what other site do band members dance with the audience?  I ask you!  And don’t miss the vocal duet between Tamar and Jim Klippert, a man who is having just too much fun to keep it to himself:

Tamar sat out PLEASE DON’T TALK ABOUT ME WHEN I’M GONE (perhaps the jitterbugging had worn her out for the moment?) and Clint took the vocal, with solos from everyone: 

And the evening ended with a romp nothing short of ecstatic on BILL BAILEY (or, as Joe Wilder calls it, THE RETURN OF WILLIAM BAILEY), which should have you grinning for days:

I’m thrilled that this music was created and that the apparently tireless Rae Ann Berry saved it for us and for posterity.  Bless Roy Borrone, all the musicians, and our own devoted videographer, too.

P.S.  And I have it from good authority that GAUCHO’s new CD has Miss Korn and Mister Oakley in attendance — with some songs that Tamar has written lyrics for.  I check the mailbox every day . . . and will let you know when it arrives!

“WE’RE READY TO BLOW”

I have $2.50, and could go on Tuesday night.  I hear Hot Lips Page might come in —

And this, courtesy of MULE WALK AND JAZZ TALK, Agustin Perez Gasco’s lovely blog (http://thereisjazzbeforetrane.blogspot.com/) is enough to make anyone pass out with delight:

Beyond imagining . . . think of the combinations! 

So what if it’s 1942 . . . can we go?

JAZZ RELICS

A recent eBay search turned up still more paper delights.  Collectors sometimes call these “ephemera,” suggesting, I think, that they were not meant to last.  But the evidence indicates that these treasured items have a reassuring permanence.  See for yourself:

The most famous of the irreplaceable Misses Boswell — apparently before she began signing her name with two E’s.

Perfectly self-explanatory . . . from Roy’s long run on Fifty-Fourth Street.  And the bar opened at 10 AM!

Again, perfectly self-explanatory.  But I want to know the story behind this unused ticket.  Who got sick or couldn’t go?  That tale needs to be told.

Lucky “Pat,” a Swell Fellow indeed!  And lucky us . . .

This blurry Christmas card looks unimportant, even cheaply produced, until you see the signatures and realize its rarity.  Lee Wiley and Jess Stacy weren’t married for a long time (or happily, for that matter) so they can’t have sent out years of Christmas cards.  Immensely rare and perhaps immensely sad.  (For the precise readers out there, I do know that Jess was happily married, later in life, to Pat Peck, but I am taking the eBay seller at his or her word when the card is presented as from Jess and Lee.  It would have been nice to see their signatures, although they may have been printed, too.)

CHARLES PETERSON: HACKETT and RUSSELL

image0000007A_007To have the man you consider one of the greatest photographic artists capture your heroes at work and play . . . what could be better?

I am happy to present three of Charles Peterson’s on-the-spot portrait studies of Bobby Hackett and Pee Wee Russell in their native habitat.  Hackett met Russell when Bobby was quite young, and, much later, credited Pee Wee with “teaching him how to drink,” not the best lesson. 

But if you listen to their playing — captured on records for more than twenty-five years — they were busy teaching each other more salutary things.  Standing next to Russell on a bandstand would have been a joyously emboldening experience: “Here, kid, close your eyes and jump off.  Nothing to be afraid of!”  Pee Wee’s willingness to get himself into apparently impossible corners was always inspiring.  “What could possibly go wrong?”  And, for Russell, having Hackett nearby, that sound, those lovely melodies, that sensitivity to the harmonies, would have been soul-enhancing: “Listen to the beautiful chorus the kid just played!” 

The portrait above was taken at one of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s, January 19, 1941, and it presents another Ideal Moment in Time and Space that Peterson captured.  It’s possible that Brad Gowans (playing his “valide,” a combination slide / valve trombone of his own manufacture). Bobby, and Pee Wee are doing nothing more adventurous than holding whole notes behind someone else’s solo: they seem remarkably easy, effortless.  But that would have been enough for me. 

They all look so young.  And — adopting the slang of the period — spiffy.  Pee Wee’s crisp suit, folded pocket handkerchief; Brad’s bowtie; their hair, neatly slicked back.  Of course, the combination of Pee Wee’s height and the low ceiling — as well as the angle of Peterson’s shot — makes the three men seem too big for the room.  Which, in terms of their talent, was always true.

As always with Peterson’s work, I find the details I didn’t catch immediately are as enthralling as the big picture.  There’s another musician on the stand — a drummer I can’t immediately identify.  Is it Zutty Singleton?  He is hidden behind Gowans, both the man and the instrument, and less than half his face is visible.  But from what we can see, he is taking it all in, delighted. 

This photograph, with Eddie Condon’s taciturn caption, “TRIO,” appears in the irreplaceable EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, assembled and edited by Hank O’Neal — one of the many things we have to thank Mr. O’Neal for.

The next view comes from a rehearsal for a Commodore Records date a few years earlier — I believe in the rather claustrophoblic Brunswick studios.   (It seems that every studio of that time except for Victor’s Camden church and Columbia’s Liederkrantz Hall stifled both the sound and the musicians.  That so much stirring jazz was captured in such circumstances makes me agree with Norman Field who said, “Can you imagine what those guys sounded like live?”).  The recognizable figures are again Bobby and Pee Wee, with Bud Freeman to the right.  The man I didn’t recognize until Don Peterson identified him, second from left, is jazz enthusiast and amateur drummer Harry Ely.  This is a rehearsal rather than a jam session, so it’s possible that the three men are trying out chords for a background,  Russell and Freeman are intent, but Hackett is at his ease.  His shirt-sleeve is neatly rolled up (revealing his boyish, thin arm), he holds the horn casually.  Musicians dressed beautifully for recording sessions even when no photographers were present — their habit and custom! — thus the neckties and suspenders, the fresh white shirts. 

image0000008A_008

Here, again, the photograph can’t convey the sound these men made.  And if you were new to the art and had been handed the photograph, it would just seem reasonably antique: three men in archaic dress with instruments to their lips, a metal folding chair, its paint worn off in spots, in front.  But look at Ely’s face!   Head down, a mild smile, eyes closed to block off any visual distraction — although he never got to make a record, he is IN the music, serene and thrilled.

Finally, a photograph from one of the “Friday Club” sessions at the Park Lane Hotel, circa 1939, with an unusual lineup.

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Of course, that’s Eddie Condon on the left, Hackett, Zutty Singleton at the drums, Jimmy Dorsey on alto sax, left-handed Mort Stuhlmaker at the bass, and the intrepid Mr. Russell on the far right.  Condon is exhorting as well as strumming, and everyone else is floating along (Dorsey watching Condon to see what will happen next). 

Pee Wee has struck out for the Territory, jazz’s Huckleberry Finn, and where he’s going is not only uncharted and exciting but the journey requires every bit of emotional and physical effort.  I can hear a Russell wail soaring above the other horns.  And — perhaps as a prefiguring? — Russell’s face, almost cavernous with the effort, is an unearthly echo-in-advance of the famously skeletal man in the hospital bed in 1951, when Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong came to comfort and solace him. 

After Russell’s death, Hackett wrote of his friend, “Pee Wee and I were very close friends for many years and what little musical knowledge I may have I owe plenty to him.  He was truly a great artist and a very honorable man.  His music will live forever, along with his wonderful spirit.  I’m sure we all miss him, but thank God he was here.”

I feel much the same way about Charles Peterson, who saw, recorded, and preserved marvels for us.

EDDIE LOCKE (1930-2009)

The great players of a certain generation are leaving us in body, although what remains in sound and memory will outlive us all.  I remember Eddie Locke as one of the anchors of Roy Eldridge’s band at Jimmy Ryan’s, at various concerts and gigs across New York City — cheerful, energetic, musically attuned, a disciple of the Master, Papa Jo Jones.  And what better tribute could he have had then to be chosen by Coleman Hawkins for the rhythm section?  

Like Ruby Braff, Eddie should — if art is measured by the calendar — have been a vigorous bopper, playing alongside Clifford Brown rather than Willie the Lion Smith.  But he followed that four-beat rhythm he had heard in the Forties.  It sustained him and he sustained every group he played with.   

Eddie will be missed!  But photographer John Herr caught a beaming Eddie in June 2008: a treasure.

Photograph by John Herr, June 2008

CHARLES PETERSON, JAZZ VISIONARY

Jazz owes a great deal to people who never take a chorus: Milt Gabler and Lucille Armstrong, Norman Granz and Helen Oakley Dance.  And Charles Peterson. 

Long before I knew anything about Charles Peterson, I admired the photography and artistic sensibility.  Because photographs get reprinted without attribution, I had seen much of his work without knowing it was his.  That is, until the fine book SWING ERA NEW YORK: THE JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHS OF CHARLES PETERSON (Temple University Press, 1994) appeared, with priceless shots by Peterson and commentary by W. Royal Stokes.  (The book is now officially out of print, but copies are available from the usual online sources.)  

Between 1935 and 1951, his camera and flashbulbs ready, Peterson went to jazz clubs, parties, concerts, and recording sessions.  That in itself would be enough, but he also approached his subjects in subtle, ingenious ways.  He avoided the formulaic full-frontal studio portraits or the equally hackneyed poses that jazz musicians are forced into.  He saw what other photographers didn’t. 

Granted, he had wonderful visual material to work with.  Many jazz musicians are unconsciously expressive, even dramatic, when they play, sing, or listen; many of them have eloquently unusual faces.

But who was Charles Peterson?

His son, Don, who takes such good care of his father’s invaluable prints and negatives, told me about his father’s fascinating life.  And, not incidentally, the photographs that follow are reproduced with Don’s permission. 

Charles Peterson wasn’t born with a camera in his hand, just off Fifty-Second Street.  Rather, he was born to Swedish wheat farmers in Minnesota on January 3, 1900.  On a trip to New Orleans while he was still in high school, he bought himself a banjo in a pawnshop.  Musically self-taught, he spent his college years playing local dance halls and summer resort hotels.  By 1926, he was such an accomplished jazz player on guitar and banjo that he was part of a band with a residency at the Dacotah Hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota.  The band was so good that its stars were raided for big bands as far away as Chicago — bands whose leaders were alumni of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

The Dacotah Hotel, before 1923

Peterson had what they called “pluck” in those days, and drove his Mercer Raceabout to New York City to interview for job in publishing.  But once there he followed his love of music, and he met Pee Wee Russell and many of Russell’s Chicago colleagues and friends — including one Eddie Condon.  He and Pee Wee shared a room and Peterson worked with first-string hot jazz players including Wingy Manone.  But hot jazz didn’t pay well, and Peterson found steady employment with Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees, a successful but much more staid group.  Married and with a son, Peterson looked for a steady job instead of one-nighters on the road.  With the money he had saved from Vallee, where he had been earning $300 a week in the Depression, Peterson took a year off to study photography at the Clarence White School — on the recommendation of Edward Steichen (Peterson had met Steichen when Steichen was photographing the Connecticut Yankees for Vanity Fair. 

Peterson’s knowledge of the music business and his friendship with musicians were invaluable, and he was at the right place and moment in history — not simply because he took rooms above the Onyx Club.  He began with portraits and publicity shots, then moved to capturing jazz players and singers in action — Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, and dozens of others in big bands and small, jam sessions and apartment get-togethers.  His photographs were prominently featured in multi-page spreads in LIFE and other glossy magazinesDon remembers that while he was a fifth-grader at the progressive Walt Whitman School, his father assembled a jazz band to play for the students and their families in an informal concert that began at 1 PM and went on into the evening.  The participants?  Only Louis Armstrong, Brad Gowans, Pee Wee Russell, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Eddie Condon, and Zutty Singleton — all Peterson’s friends. 

During the Second World War, Peterson’s jazz photography came to a halt, and after the war, although he photographed Ella Fitzgerald and Terry Gibbs, Buck Clayton, Joe Bushkin, the Red Norvo Trio, and his friends at Eddie Condon’s club, his career gradually came to a close in 1951.  Peterson wasn’t fond of modern jazz and had moved, with his wife, to a small farm in Pennsylvania.  He had many interests outside music and photography, and devoted himself to them — from farming to literature to metalwork and boats — until his death in 1976.   

Here are photographs by Charles Peterson that have not been published anywhere else — the first of several installments.

The first one isn’t a classic photo, but we need to the man himself — in the best company.  Peterson sometimes liked to include himself in the shot, so he would set up his camera, arrange the photograph, and ask a competent anonymous amateur to press the button.  He did just that on December 29, 1940, capturing himself and Pee Wee Russell at a private party in what I assume is a New York City apartment.  It is a candid snapshot: I imagine Peterson saying to someone, “Hey, take a picture of Pee Wee and myself,” and the person holding the camera has waited a beat too long.  Pee Wee’s amused expression is beginning to freeze; surely he would rather have lit the cigarette in his hand.  Peterson himself is caught in the middle of saying something perhaps under his breath, which I imagine as “Press the button already.”  A professional photographer wouldn’t have made this a trio of Peterson, Rinso, and Russell, either.  But we see Peterson in his natural surroundings, someone who could have been taken for a handsome, sharply-dressed character actor in a current film.  

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The next photograph moves both Peterson and readers away from boxes of crackers and detergent to a much more emotionallycharged space: the recording studio used by the newly-hatched Blue Note record label for the Port of Harlem Seven session on June 8, 1939.  Peterson was fortunate enough to be invited to a number of recording sessions — his friends were playing and everyone hoped that a Peterson photograph might be published in a major magazine.  (One of his most famous photographs is of drummer Zuty Singleton at a 1938 session for the Hot Record Society, featuring Pee Wee, Dicky Wells, and Freddie Green!) 

Peterson captured the whole Port of Harlem Seven — including Frank Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Meade Lux Lewis, Johnny Williams, Teddy Bunn — in action, but he chose in this shot to concentrate on Sidney Bechet, who would eventually give up the clarinet for the soprano saxophone, and Sidney Catlett.   

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 In this photograph, it is June, and although musicians typically kept their suits and hats on while recording, Catlett has come prepared to exert himself, dressed for hot work in an open-necked short-sleeve shirt that seems more country than town, with suspenders that pull his suit trousers up beyond what we might think of as comfortable.  If there was any doubt as to why he was called “Big Sid,” this photo should act as silent testimony to breadth as well as height: his shoulders, the solidity of his upper arms, even though the fingers of his right hand are holding the drumstick gracefully and delicately, the suggestions of Native American bone structure in his face. 

Catlett’s mouth is part-open, and unlike the first photograph, where it seems that Peterson is inadvertently caught speaking, here Catlett is clearly exhorting, cheering Bechet on.  “Yeaaaaaahhh,” he says, quietly intent.  Bechet’s eyes are half-closed; his necktie seems a montage of mock-neon letters; he holds the clarinet at a distinct angle.  His arm, or perhaps the clarinet, casts a dark shadow across the canvas that is his white dress shirt.  (The angle itself is suggestive: Bechet said that he gave up the clarinet because the vibrations hurt his dental work.  Does this picture capture him in pain, working hard to play that most difficult of single-reed instruments?) 

What Peterson understood, even in the restrictive confines of the recording studio, where the photographer has no control over what his subjects are doing — this is obviously the very opposite of a “posed” shot — was the possibilities of shadow and light.  Figuring out what the camera and the flashbulb would make bright, half-bright, dim, or black, determined much more about the total effect of the shot. 

Look closely at Catlett’s three cymbals — from the left, a Chinese cymbal, then in right foreground a ride cymbal, and apparently submerged beneath it, the top of his hi-hat: three pieces of  round metal, all except the Chinese tapering down from a center cap to their edge.  Without noticing it at first, the viewer takes in the different visual textures of the three: the Chinese cymbal, its surface not flat but rather a series of small convexities, appearing dark and light, “like gold to airy thinness beat”; the top of the ride bymbal, although not grooved, reflecting light much like the grooves of a 78 rpm record; the hi-hat, darkly hidden beneath it.  The viewer senses the shadowing of Catlett’s face, highlighting the texture of his skin, the solidity of his skull, and the dark shadow on the studio wall.  

Peterson’s photographs have resonant depth, unlike our modern digital snapshots of groups of people that make their subjects look like cardboard figures flattened against the wall.  Nothing is blurred, even though these two men are in motion; one imagines the exultant, gutty sounds they make.   00000002

Many photographs of trumpet players catch them straight-on, their faces wracked with the effort of hitting a high note.  Foreshortening makes them look tiny behind the bell of their horn.  This June 1939 photograph, taken from the side, catches Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom as he takes a breath between multi-noted phrases.  Taking in air, he appears to be smiling, and it’s a good possibility he is.  To his right, tenor saxophonist Franz Jackson is clapping his hands, an arranged routine — the band marking time rhythmically as Eldridge, in the best Louis manner, hits some high ones at the climax of a hot number.  The bassist, who may be Ted Sturgis, is concentrating, as is the guitarist.  Jackson’s section-mate in the reeds is also keeping time enthusiastically.  Peterson has framed his shot so that Eldridge and his horn are central, an upturned capital letter L, with all the light focused on that silvery mute, where all the energy was focused.  Luckily for us, this band broadcast on the radio, and airshots were issued thirty-five years later . . . . so one could play these exuberant performance while burying oneself in this photograph — the nearest thing possible to going back in time.        

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In 1945, Sidney Bechet formed a quintet for an extended run at “Boston’s Hot-spot of Rhythm,” the Savoy Cafe.  This photograph captures the band when Bunk Johnson was the trumpeter; bassist Pops Foster stayed throughout the run.  Bunk had a hard time keeping up with Bechet, who seemed to have limitless energy and stamina.  Bechet also shared the front line with the rather introverted Peter Bocage; finally, the only trumpeter who could stand alongside Sidney and not be swept away was the 18-year old Johnny Windhurst, whose golden tone and youthful verve come through on airshots of the band’s “Jazz Nocturne” broadcasts. 

In this photograph, it’s hard to imagine the tempo that the band is playing, but we feel the unstated contest of wills.  Bechet is fierce: his head and eyes revealing the effort.  Pops Foster is smiling at what Sidney is playing; one side of his shirt collar is trying to break free.  Bunk is sitting down, his horn pointed downward, its shadow a dark arrow.  His face is serious, even pained.  Were his teeth bothering him?  Was he feeling the strain of trying to equal Bechet?  Was he only playing a quiet countermelody?  It’s impossible to tell, but the picture is a study in masterful power: Bechet has it, Pops Foster is riding in its wake, and Bunk looks nearly exhausted, defeated by it. 

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This photograph, taken at a Jimmy Ryan’s Sunday afternoon jam session on November 9, 1941, is the emotional opposite of the struggle bwetween Bechet and Bunk.  There is no struggle for mastery between trombonist Vic Dickenson and bassist Al Morgan.  Rather, the bell of Vic’s horn is close to Morgan’s ear.  Through that length of metal tubing, Vic is telling Morgan something important and gratifying.  What’s the secret?  Is it a characteristically deep meditation on the nature of the blues, or is it exactly why all the boys treated Sister Kate so nice?  We’ll never know, but Morgan hears it, and his smile shows that he gets it, too. 

And Peterson got it: the joy and the stress of the soloist trying to have his or her say, and the urging, happy community of jazz players bound together in common for expression and exultation.  When SWING ERA NEW YORK appeared, the best assessment of Peterson’s work came from another photographer-musician: bassist Milt Hinton, who wrote, “I saw it, lived it, Charles Peterson captured it.  His visual imagery of the swing era in New York is authentic, intimate, and filled with emotion.”

More photographs to come — including Billie Holiday, Frank Newton, Bobby Hackett, Eddie Condon, and some surprises. 

YEARS GONE BY

Here are two of William P. Gottlieb’s less known but highly evocative photographs from the collection now held by the Library of Congress.  First, a wonderful trio — three musicians who never found themselves in a recording studio, although the pianist and clarinetist joined forces, however briefly, for a famous and elusive 1936 radio broadcast called “A Demonstration of Swing.”  Here they are, circa 1939, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. — Joe Marsala, Zutty Singleton, and Teddy Wilson:

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And this must have been a very sedate night at Jimmy Ryan’s in 1947 — featuring Hot Lips Page, J. C. Higginbotham, Bud Freeman, and Freddie Moore, with — no doubt — other stomping compatriots out of the range of the photograph.  Moore looks atypically somber, but I am sure that he was alone in that regard: 

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CANGELOSI CARDS: SWEET SATORI!

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Because of a much-appreciated friendly email nudge from Jim Balantic, the Beloved and I (with Flip tagging along) wended our way down to Banjo Jim’s last Monday night.

Banjo Jim’s sits at the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue C.  The area feels much like the mysterious East but it was worth the trip.  The club is a small squarish room with tables, stools, and a bar (the latter presided over by the cheerfully expert “Banjo” Lisa).  Banjo Jim’s is a neighborhood hangout, and it offers a dazzling variety of groups who play for the tip basket.

The crowd is mostly younger people, which I find encouraging, and even when the chat level gets high, they get reverently quiet when the band begins a ballad or they sense something unusual is happening.  (And, when feelings run high, there’s a good deal of fervent jitterbugging and even slow-motion tangoing in front of the band.)

Of course the club has a website: www.banjojims.com., and a MySpace page:  www.myspace.com/banjojims — everyone seems to have a MySpace page except the Beloved and myself.  (Flip isn’t telling.)

We were there because of the regular Monday night gig of the Cangelosi Cards, that musical cornucopia, and Jim’s news that their splendid singer Tamar Korn had been working on Boswell Sisters-inspired repertoire with two other harmonizing women.

And — this is no small matter — Tamar had graciously agreed to do some of the new trio material in the band’s first set (their gig ordinarily runs from 9 PM to 2:30 AM) so that the nine-to-fivers could hear some of it before their ancient eyelids began to sag.  I was especially grateful to her for this kindness, because my clock radio makes itself known four mornings a week at 5:45 AM.

When we arrived, we were met on the sidewalk by Jim and his wife Grace and a beaming Tamar; Tamar and I talked happily until our faces began to grow numb from the cold.  We spoke of the Boswell Sisters, and how their vocal arrangements seemed to have the same intense purity of chamber music — to be revered, but also to be improvised on in a personal style.  Tamar said that she and her two friends — Mimi Terris and Naomi Uyama — found that they could do instant improvisation in the style they loved on songs the Boswells had never recorded, which suggests that they have moved well beyond imitative groups, and there have been a few.  (Copying the Boswell Sisters, incidentally, is not at all easy to do.)

Inside, a young band, calling itself “The Scandinavian Half Breeds,” no fooling, was plunking away.  That foursome, offered surrealistic gypsy swing, some Thirties songs, and some lopsided yet earnest singing. The Scandinavians have a CD for sale — a mere five dollars — and they also have a MySpace page with audio samples: www.myspace.com/scandinavianhalfbreeds.

But they were what my people call a forshpeits — an appetizer, an amuse-bouche before the entree.

The Cards were at full strength: in addition to Tamar, they had Marcus Millius on harmonica, Karl Meyer on violin, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Jake Sanders on guitar (he set tempos and routines as well), Cassidy Holden on string bass, Matt Musselman on trombone, and Gordon Webster on piano.

Here’s some of what Flip, that tidy little fellow, captured.  I have to point out that Banjo Jim’s isn’t a movie set, so that people walk in front of Flip (he’s used to it) and there were couples gyrating in front of the lens.  These clips offer atmospheric cinema verite of a particularly unbuttoned sort, but I think it’s in keeping with the spirit of the club and the Cards, who are more like an ecstatic travelling ceremony than a formal orchestra.  And that’s high praise.

Here’s a wonderful rocking version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody”:

In the name of accuracy, I have to say it begins in darkness — but soon your eyes make out the nimble fingers of Jake Sanders playing his National steel guitar in the wonderful manner I associate with the West Coast genius Craig Ventresco.  Then it starts to rock, and rock hard.  This is the kind of music that great improvisers of any kind make when no one is paying attention, when they are blissfully playing for themselves.  And the dancers!  Tamar couldn’t keep still at the beginning, and the whole room was swaying, although Flip couldn’t take his little monocular self away from the band.  (He’s a fan.  Now it can be told.)

The Cards decided to slow the tempo down — and Tamar explored a truly lovely ballad, “It’s Like Reaching For the Moon,”  which most people know, if at all, through Billie’s version.  Examined closely, the song is a rather simple motif, repeated, and the lyrics aren’t exactly Larry Hart.  (Charlie Levenson, jazz man-about-town, was sitting next to me, and he kept muttering ecstatically, “I love this song.  This is my favorite song!” so perhaps I am being too harsh.)  But what lifts it above the ordinary is Tamar’s singing — full of genuine yearning.  We believe her, as do the Cards.

After two songs about unfulfilled love, even at different tempos, it was time to explore another dramatic situation, and the Cards turned to Irving Berlin’s satiric Socialism (like “Slummin’ On Park Avenue,” it has a sharp political subtext).  Catch the weaving, seductive tempo they choose, and admire Matt’s wicked trombone playing:

Then it was time for what Jim had promised: Tamar, Mimi Terris, and Naomi Uyama got together on the tiny bandstand (this is one of those clubs where nothing delineates the end of the Audience and the beginning of the Stage, which is a truly good thing in this case) for “Moonglow,” which was properly ethereal.  These girls have it:

We were glowing!  The set ended with another loving consideration of meteorological phenomena, “Stardust,” which Tamar said she “learned from the music,” but clearly she, Naomi, and Mimi are well beyond the notes on the page, into some beautifully mystical realm:

When the Cards’ set was over, it was around 11:30 — time for the aging wage-slaves to find their cars and drive home.  But there was more!

As we were getting ready to go, Tamar said there was one more Boswell Sisters piece that she, Mimi, and Naomi had been working on.  They planned to perform it much later on but knew we would want to hear it.  Would we mind waiting for them?  Jim, Grace, and I looked at each other, grinned, wrapped our coats a little tighter, and waited on Avenue C.  In a few minutes, the Girl Trio came out (as an unrequested surrogate parent, I checked that their coats were properly buttoned up).

The trio positioned themselves in front of us on Ninth Street, and began a most unearthly beautiful a cappella rendition of the Sisters’ radio theme, “Shout, Sister, Shout.”  As you may remember, that’s a moody slow-drag, all about how singing the right way has Satan on the run.  (Would that this were the case.)  Their voices were pure and low-down at the same time, soulful and intense.  I listened, transfixed.

In an odd way, it was as close to being a royal patron of the arts as I will ever be — with Mozart playing his new piece near the dinner table to give the guests a little night music.  It was eerie, lovely, and awe-inspiring. . . as if Beauty had slipped her arms around me while I stood out in the cold.

Listening to live jazz is, with luck, a series of special moments when a listener feels that Something Rare is taking place, and it often is.  But it’s even rarer for a musician or musicians to create such tender intimacy that the listener feels, “They are playing this song just for me.”

Even though I knew it was an illusion, I felt that way while Lee Wiley sang in her 1972 farewell concert in Carnegie Hall, and I remember a much more personal example.  Once, Stu Zimny and I went to hear Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s — this would have been the same year.  Ryan’s was an inhospitable place for college kids who wanted to make their bottle of Miller High Life (awful beer even at $2.50 a bottle) last for hours.  Roy must have been playing another gig, so his place was taken by the veteran Louis Metcalf, who had played with King Oliver and Duke Ellington in the Twenties.  He was a far less electrifying player than Roy, but one moment cannot be erased.  On a medium-tempo “Rosetta,” Metcalf put his Harmon mute (the stem still attached) in his horn and went from table to table, playing a half-chorus here and there, six inches from our ears.  I can no longer remember the shape of his solo or the contours of the melodic paraphrase, but the experience — jazz at the closest possible range — gave me delighted chills then and I can see it now.

This version of “Shout, Sister,Shout,” girlish and earnest, graceful and disembodied — their three voices harmonizing as if in the middle of the darkness — was even more electrifying.  As I drove home, shaken and levitated, I thought, “I might have died and never heard this.  My God, I am lucky!”

To experience something of the same repertoire — although I can’t promise that you will have a private serenade on the sidewalk — be sure to follow the Cards wherever they go.  If you judge musicians by the quality of their formal wear, the Cards seem loose and casual, but the musical experiences they offer you won’t encounter elsewhere.  Blazing enlightenment is possible if you’re listening closely.

ENTERING BILLIE’S WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WITH DISPATCH AND VIGOR (Thursday Night at Chautauqua)

Seven months ago, when I edged into blogging and sat down to write my first post, I was immensely pleased that I could tell people that Jazz at Chautauqua would be held, once again, in September.  It came to pass!  And last Thursday night, we heard four sets of informal, joyous jazz.  The setting was as close to ideal as anyone could want: a well-lit room full of cheerfully listening people, with the musicians set up, informally, on the same level.  No stage, no suits; buffet food and a well-stocked bar.  Outside this room in the Athenaeum Hotel was a wooden porch with comfortable chairs, from where you could see an expansive lake.  And the staff at the hotel was happily always at the ready.  (Here they resemble a barbershop quartet, although they never burst into song.)

Things began in a sly, understated way when the “faux frenchmen” took up positions at one end of the room.  They are an earnest, supple quartet of players from Cincinnati who model themselves after the Quintette of the Hot Club of France.  Yes, the quartet follows Django and Stephane in their love of beautiful melodies and hot rhythm, but they aren’t committed to reproducing cherished records note-for-note, a good thing.  After an ambling “Bye Bye Blackbird,” they eased into a sidling, slow-drag “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and romping versions of “I Saw Stars” and “Limehouse Blues.”  Jazz party promoters here and abroad should take note: they’re a fine group.

The second set made me think I had died and gone to Heaven — no, strike that — to Jimmy Ryan’s, circa 1942, for one of Milt Gabler’s Sunday afternoon jam sessions photographed by Charles Peterson.  Led by Marty Grosz, guitar, vocals, and raillery, the band included Randy Reinhart, Duke Heitger, and Bob Havens on the brass, Dan Block and Bobby Gordon on reeds, Jim Dapogny on piano, and Arnie Kinsella on drums.  Generously filling a vacancy in the rhythm section, Andy Stein, most well-known for his Venuti-inspired violin capers, strapped his baritone saxophone on and took up a chair next to the piano, providing Rollini bass lines and climbing solos.  Marty was in good spirits, happy to be surrounded by friends, and took us back to 1936 with a jolly “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” which mixed a little Bing Crosby in Marty’s hot crooning with some Condon touches.  Usually sets are assembled so that the second song is slower than the opening rouser, but Marty kicked off a fast “Them There Eyes,” again singing the sweet, silly lyrics — inspiring Duke to great early-Louis flights of passion.  The Beloved, who had never seen Duke play before, leaned over and said, “His playing is clear as a bell!”

A trotting “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” followed, and the set concluded with a song Marty explained as the band’s tribute to Connie Francis, who, he said, had recorded a “maudlin, mawkish” version of it in her heyday.  I was momentarily mystified — Connie Francis isn’t usually hailed at jazz parties — but then the band swung into a ferocious version of “Who’s Sorry Now?” that owed its heart and soul to the Blue Note Jazzmen, nothing at all to Connie.  The soloists were so fine that it would take a whole page to celebrate them, but I still marvel at how Arnie’s thundering accents drove the band, how Dapogny’s right hand evoked the glories of Stacy and Hines, his left some of the magic of James P.  And the band worked hard — on the way out after the last song, a listener got up to shake Randy Reinhart’s hand, and I heard Randy say, “Now I can relax.”

A somewhat more pastoral set followed, with the front line of the inestimable Joe Wilder (now eighty-six!) on fluegelhorn and Bob Reitmeier on clarinet, whose easy lines complemented each other beautifully, making the most familiar pieces of jazz repertory, “Lady Be Good,” “Fine and Dandy,” and a ballad medley come alive.  Wilder continues to amaze: it’s not the simple matter of his age — playing a brass instrument is difficult for anyone — but the surprises he unfurls as he plays, his dancing, leaping phrases never going in predictable ways.  And he got the highest praise: when Joe was playing, Bob Reitmeier grinned at particularly felicitous inventions.

In one of those odd turns that jazz parties and jam sessions often bring, the elder statesman of the party (and of the brass world) was followed in the closing set by two immensely talented youths — Bix-inspired fellows from Wisconsin: Andy Schumm (cornet and piano) and David Bock (trombone), 22 and 20 respectively.

They were joined by players we know well: Rossano Sportiello on piano, Pete Siers on drums, and Dan Barrett on trombone.  Jon Burr, who had packed his bass, was prevailed upon to stay (another good thing!) and the session began.  It’s one kind of pleasure when a listener hears someone fine and familiar, another entirely when someone you’ve never heard steps onstage and proceeds to shine.  Schumm reveres Bix and can easily reproduce the nuances of that style, but he isn’t playing copies of the records.  Rather, he has somehow gotten inside the Bixian thought patterns, so that what comes out, alternatively hesitant and plunging, sounds like what Bix might have played had he been allowed to live into 1939.  On the one song the band played that was outside the Beiderbecke canon, “In A Mellotone,” Schumm drew upon a nicely tailored Mainstream approach, somewhere between Hackett and Harry Edison, always a reassuring combination.  His trombone playing friend, wearing a Gennett Records t-shirt, was more energetically rough-hewn, but he was no tailgater: his solos made Dan Barrett smile and applaud.  And Barrett was in fine form: not only playing smoothly and exuberantly, but taking an unexpected vocal, plaintive and casual, on “Louise.”

As the set was nearing its end, two moments happened that seemed to echo the great Hollywood fictions about jazz players in clubs — recall the scene in THE FIVE PENNIES where Danny Kaye, playing Red Nichols, comes back from drunken embarrassment to play extravagantly glowing phrases from the back of the speakeasy — phrases so compelling that he nearly steals the spotlight from one Louis Armstrong?  While the Wisconsin Bixians were playing, a once-exhausted Jon-Erik Kellso sat down next to me, put his horn together, and joined them, from the audience, moving on to the stage, on a very fast “Somebody Stole My Gal,” then leading the troops on an affectionate “Sugar,” and closing the set with “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”  At the same time, Dan Block was standing behind the piano, assembling his clarinet, joining the band in mid-chorus.  Wonderful additions to an already gifted band!  I had yet another occasion to note Kellso’s gentle, intuitive leadership.  He never says “Do this,” but he shapes a performance by suggesting riffs, backgrounds, and solos.  He is a great soloist with an architectural sense of the jazz band as small, flexible orchestra.  It’s the kind of thing Count Basie and Ruby Braff did so splendidly, and a band with Kellso in it has a certain loose-limbed intelligent order that it wouldn’t have otherwise.  When one player is soloing, the musicians don’t lean against the wall or tell jokes.  They become a living organism, and the music soars.

I’ll write about the highlights of the next three days (and there were plenty) in future posts.

P.S.  The inexplicable title?  That’s one of Marty Grosz’s stage jokes.  “We’ll do the next tune with dispatch and vigor,” he says seriously.  Gesturing to the left and right, to two musicians standing nearby, he then says, “That’s Dispatch, and that’s Vigor.”  English music-hall or Twenties vaudeville, I don’t know, but it makes me laugh every time.