Tag Archives: Joe Rushton

HOT MUSIC, GOOD STORIES, LASTING FRIENDSHIP, KINDNESSES: HANK O’NEAL RECALLS SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT (Nov. 2, 2018)

Here is one perspective on Hank O’Neal — writer, archivist, record producer, photographer, friend of Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott . . . and many jazz musicians from Willie “the Lion” Smith to Borah Bergman.  Hank is also an incredible resource and storyteller, someone I am thrilled to call a friend: reasons that Hank visits JAZZ LIVES, as he speaks with great fondness of Squirrel Ashcraft.  If you say, “Wow, Squirrel!” then you have come to the right place.  If you say, “Who IS that?” you’re also in for pleasure and enlightenment.

Hank O’Neal by Annie Tritt for the Boston Globe, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And since Hank is a masterful photographer, here is another character study, one I like even more — shot by Sherry Sereboff (2017, near Fort Worth, Texas) even better.  When I meet Hank next, I will ask what was on his plate:

I had asked Hank to speak about Squirrel for JAZZ LIVES, and the conversation began very informally, as he was paging through Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft’s scrapbook.  I just started videoing . . . with happy results — little anecdotes about sacred objects connected to Bix, Tesch, and Dick Voynow.  But for future researchers, any time someone you respect says the words, “Letters from Brad Gowans,” you know something important is being revealed:

“Who was Squirrel Ashcraft and how did I meet him?”:

Paging through Squirrel’s 1928-9 notebook, “JAZZ MUSIC,” with entries devoted to the Wolverines, Hoagy Carmichael, Benny Goodman, the Georgians, Jack Pettis, Leon Roppolo, Henderson’s adaptation of RHAPSODY IN BLUE, and more:

I first learned about Squirrel through EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ (a book Eddie did with Hank) and then through Squirrel’s home recordings, later issued on rare lps by . . . Hank.  Here’s the story of Squirrel’s career — about fifteen years — as an archivist of home recordings, often aluminum, including performances by Johnny Mercer, Joe Rushton, Jimmy McParland, George Barnes, Boyce Brown, Bob Zurke, Spencer Clark, Rosy McHargue, also Joe Rushton, his motorcycle, and Pee Wee Russell, and Squirrel’s later playing career in Washington, D.C., and sidelights on Jean Bach, Jimmy Dorsey, and jazz reunions at Princeton University from 1975-79:

Finally . . . Hank brings us up to date (Squirrel died in 1981, but his relics are going to a good place.  And don’t miss the story about the Bob Crosby band: Squirrel and friends obviously knew how to live:

The best part of this story, just over an hour with Hank, is his obvious affection and indebtedness to Squirrel, and Squirrel’s sweet feelings for the music and musicians.  Thank you, Hank, for making the reclusive Squirrel appear to us in this century.

And . . . because Hank is a wonderful writer, here’s his “little piece” on Squirrel from his book on pianists. Some of the stories you will have heard from the videos above, but they don’t wilt with a second telling:

SQUIRREL ASHCRAFT
September 20, 1905 – January 18, 1981

Edwin Maurice Ashcraft III, better known as “Squirrel”, is the least known pianist in this book, but he was by far the most important to me. It all started because of two courses I’d taken at Syracuse University; one in Russian Studies and another in African Studies. The Russian Studies course ultimately led me to be employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The African Studies course, particularly one taught by Eduardo Mondlane, who was later to lead and win the revolution in Mozambique, led me to the CIA’s Office of Operations, where Squirrel Ashcraft was the Director.

Though forgotten today, Squirrel was a legendary figure in the world of jazz, at least into the mid-1970s, but much can be lost and forgotten in a quarter of a century. He was, for example, the only person I knew who had heard Louis Armstrong and King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens, and had known and associated with a host of other legendary players from the 1920s, who were just names in a book or music in the grooves of old records to me. He was the kind of man who could make a simple telephone call and John Hammond, Neshui or Ahmet Ertegun would welcome me warmly. The same was true of any number of musicians of a certain age, i.e. the Austin High Gang, and their musical associates or disciples.

He was the first jazz artist I ever heard perform in an informal setting, that is away from a concert hall or club, where I was a paying spectator. By that time, he was in his 60s, hadn’t played regularly for years, never had been a first rank player anyway, and now had an affliction in one of his hands that affected his dexterity. But for someone of my age, and limited experience, it was more thrilling to be standing two feet from a legendary figure in his living room than hearing a great pianist from the top balcony in Carnegie Hall.

He was also the man who first introduced me to an active jazz musician, in this case, Jimmy McPartland. Later, he would introduce me to many others, and simply because he made the introduction, I was accepted by these men and women without question.

A little background is in order. Squirrel was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1905. His family was socially prominent and well situated. In the early 1920s he discovered jazz and became as deeply involved with it as possible. He was active in Chicago in the same way John Hammond was in New York, and he met many of the up and coming young jazz musicians in that city long before they had come up, befriended them, helped them whenever possible, and continued to for years and years.

Squirrel came east in the late 1920’s and attended Princeton. He played both piano and accordion, was part of Princeton’s Triangle Club, wrote songs, recorded with the Triangle Jazz Band, was known to and played informally with such legendary figures as Bix Beiderbecke, and even corralled the elusive cornet player one night, convincing him to record with the Princeton band. It almost came off, but not quite; Bix was there when everyone fell asleep but had vanished when they woke up. He continued at Princeton, but eventually returned to Chicago in the early 1930s, and took up his post in the family law firm.

He opened his home to every jazz musician who could find their way to Evanston, and hundreds did, usually on Monday nights. The sessions at Squirrel’s featured a who’s who of whoever was in Chicago at the time. He began to record these proceedings in about 1933 and, until he left for World War II, hundreds of private discs were made, sometimes with the help of his friend John Steiner. Steiner eventually issued some of the goings-on on Paramount 78 rpm discs and later on 10” LPs.

World War II closed down the Monday night sessions; Squirrel was inducted in the U.S Navy, and assigned to naval intelligence. After the war, he returned to Chicago, his law practice, and the music and recording began again, this time on a crude tape recorder that used paper tape. The music didn’t last long, however, because in the late 1940s Squirrel was selected by the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency to run its Chicago field office, and the music slowed down once again. He was so good at the CIA game, he was urged to become the Director of all domestic operations in the early 1950’s.

Squirrel accepted the challenge, closed down the house in Evanston, moved to Washington, and vanished into another world, his whereabouts unknown, except to the musicians and friends with whom he kept in touch. There were no sessions at Squirrel’s massive apartment in Washington. When I arrived on the scene in 1964, his piano sounded a bit like one from a Charles Addams’ haunted house. But that was soon to change.

Suddenly there was someone around who knew his past, and even had one of those old John Steiner-issued Paramount records to prove it. I was the junior guy in the Office of Operations, but I had immediate access to the Director because of the music. This is when I learned that love of jazz of a certain sort could cross any cultural divide, regardless of age, race, or anything else.

It didn’t take long before the piano was tuned and regulated, and informal musical gatherings began. The first was with Jimmy and Marian McPartland, and two wonderful local Washington musicians, clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney (who founded and owned Blues Alley) and guitarist Steve Jordan. Squirrel got his hands back in shape, so he could spell Marian when she wanted to relax and, just like in the old days, everything was recorded. The first “new” informal session was eventually issued as a record that was given away to anyone who wanted one. I cut my recording teeth on Squirrel’s Ampex F-44 and two Electrovoice microphones.

Listening back to the old acetate and aluminum recordings from the 1930s, Squirrel reminds me of a pianist like Frank Melrose. A great deal more passion than technique, but good enough to get the job done. He was a better than average amateur in those days, and could easily hold his own with his peers, and provide good accompaniment to A-list artists when it was required. I remember him telling me that one night the entire Bob Crosby band came out to his house for a Monday night session. The thing that pleased him most was that the first complaint was from a neighbor whose house was three blocks away. And he got to play with the band when Bob Zurke was doing something else.

Squirrel’s influence in the jazz world was not as a pianist. He was always behind the scenes and, eventually, way behind the scenes. If Eddie Condon couldn’t get a liquor license to open Condon’s; Squirrel could make the call to the right person so it could be worked out, despite the checkered past of some of the club’s owners. If a certain player were down on his luck, there would be a check in the mail. There were any number of people he supported for life. He was a safety net for many, many of the first generation of jazz musicians, and probably some of the second and third. My guess is he was a safety net for a lot of people I didn’t know about, musicians, old friends down on their luck, or even a struggling bullfighter.

After he officially retired in the late 1960’s, Squirrel spent less and less time in Washington and more time at his home in Spain. Sometimes a year would pass and I wouldn’t see him, except perhaps to see him off on either the ocean liners Michaelangelo or Rafaello, his favorite modes of transportation between New York and Spain. When in Spain, he had little time for music, but towards the end of a letter from there, dated November 12, 1969, he says, “We are listening, which we do seldom at all, to Miles’ Sketches, and I wish so very, very much that Bix could have heard it…. We think about you often. Please write the whole story.” I’m not sure I ever did, but in the 1970s, and early 1980s, he had a burst of musical energy, at least every June, for half a dozen years.

In 1975, Jack Howe liberated a funny little band, affectionately called The Sons of Bix, from cornetist Tom Pletcher. Jack was an amateur tenor saxophone player, who’d been part of the in the Princeton Triangle Jazz band with Squirrel in the 1920s. He augmented the SOBs with Princeton alumni musicians, aided by the likes of Spencer Clarke, Bob Haggart, Max Kaminsky, Maxine Sullivan and others. The band only had one certain engagement each year, to play a class reunion at Princeton. It turned out, however, the band played the reunion of the Class of 1929 or the Class of 1930, every year until at least 1982. Squirrel actually played a little piano on all the dates until 1981. I recorded the performances, which, as often as not, were presented in tents. Squirrel and Jack then chose their favorite tunes, and I arranged for a few LPs to be pressed up and distributed to the dwindling faithful. The records are often spirited, but not landmark recordings. A friendly souvenir, but little more. Much to my surprise, some of them have been listed in Tom Lord’s landmark The Jazz Discography.

In those years, if I had to be in Washington, for whatever reason, Squirrel’s Watson Place apartment was always open, whether Squirrel and his wife, Patter, were in residence or not. I haven’t stayed in a hotel in Washington since 1960; but to confess, I only went back a few times after Squirrel died in 1981. The last time I was there was at the urging of his wife. She telephoned in the mid-1980s and said she was cleaning out files and had found some correspondence from me in a box of music-related junk in the back of a closet. Would I please come down and save all these found items from the trash collector? I was also urged to pick up the crank-up Victrola with the bamboo needle cutter that was now stored in the basement. I’d first seen it at an old filling station somewhere in Virginia in the mid-1960s, offered the owner $10, which he was happy to have, and had passed it on to Squirrel, so he could play his old Hot Five 78s as he played them in the 1920s, when they were fresh and new. I was happy to have it back, and it still works just fine.

I drove down, had a nice visit with Patter, and loaded all the papers, the boxes of stuff she’d found in the closet, and the old Victrola in the back of my car. I had a last look around, and never went back, but stayed in touch with Patter until she became ill and her Alzheimer’s progressed to the point where she didn’t know who I was.

When I got home after that last trip, I had a good time looking at the correspondence, the old clippings from the 1930’s and 1940s. At the bottom of the box I saved from the trash man, I found the bell of a battered cornet, with a note from Jimmy McPartland. This was all that was left of the cornet Bix had bought him, when Jimmy replaced Bix in the Wolverines. This was the kind of thing that turned up at Sqiurrel’s house. And I’ll bet things like that don’t turn up too many other places.

Squirrel Ashcraft was a kind and generous man who touched the lives of many men and women in a positive way. When he found time to touch a piano, it was equally positive. I never heard him play the blues.

May your happiness increase!

STILL SPARKLING: JOE BUSHKIN AT 100

joe-bushkin-on-piano

I suspect that everyone who reads JAZZ LIVES has heard the magical sounds of Joe Bushkin‘s piano, songs, voice, and trumpet.  My birthday celebration for him is a bit early — he was born on November 7, 1916, but I didn’t want to miss the occasion.  (There will also be birthday cake in this post — at least a photograph of one.)

He moved on in late 2004, but as the evidence proves, it was merely a transformation, not an exit.

I marvel not only at the spare, poignant introduction but Bushkin’s sensitive support and countermelodies throughout.

“Oh, he was a Dixieland player?” Then there’s this:

and this, Joe’s great melody:

A list of the people who called Joe a friend and colleague would include Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon, Lee Wiley, Joe Marsala, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bobby Hackett,Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Bunny Berigan, Fats Waller, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Zoot Sims, Bill Harris, Buddy Rich, Hot Lips Page, Sidney Catlett, Judy Garland, Jimmy Rushing, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Spargo, Red McKenzie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Tough, Brad Gowans, Benny Goodman, Joe Rushton, Roy Eldridge, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Ruth Brown, June Christy, Barney Kessel, Pearl Bailey, Gene Krupa, Stuff Smith, Chuck Wayne, Jake Hanna . . .

Here’s a sweet swinging tribute to Irving Berlin in 1951 that segues into Joe’s own homage to Miss Bankhead, PORTRAIT OF TALLULAH:

He’s on Billie’s SUMMERTIME and Bunny’s first I CAN’T GET STARTED; he’s glistening in the big bands of Bunny, Tommy, and Benny.  He records with Frank Newton in 1936 and plays with Kenny Davern, Phil Flanigan, Howard Alden, and Jake Hanna here, sixty-one years later:

But I’m not speaking about Joe simply because of longevity and versatility.  He had an individual voice — full of energy and wit — and he made everyone else sound better.

A short, perhaps dark interlude.  Watching and listening to these performances, a reader might ask, “Why don’t we hear more about this wonderful pianist who is so alive?”  It’s a splendid question.  In the Thirties, when Joe achieved his first fame, it was as a sideman on Fifty-Second Street and as a big band pianist.

Parallel to Joe, for instance, is Jess Stacy — another irreplaceable talent who is not well celebrated today.  The erudite Swing fans knew Bushkin, and record producers — think of John Hammond and Milt Gabler — wanted him on as many record dates as he could make.  He was a professional who knew how the music should sound and offered it without melodrama.  But I suspect his professionalism made him less dramatic to the people who chronicle jazz.  He kept active; his life wasn’t tragic or brief; from all I can tell, he didn’t suffer in public.  So he never became mythic or a martyr.  Too, the jazz critics then and now tend to celebrate a few stars at a time — so Joe, brilliant and versatile, was standing behind Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, then and now.  He was also entertaining — someone who could act, who could do a television skit with Bing and Fred, someone who could fill a club by making music, even for people who wouldn’t have bought a Commodore 78.  Popularity is suspect to some people who write about art.

But if you do as I did, some months back, and play a Bushkin record for a jazz musician who hasn’t heard him before, you might get the following reactions or their cousins: “WHO is that?  He can cover the keyboard.  And he swings.  His time is beautiful, and you wouldn’t mistake him for anyone else.”

One of the memorable moments of my twentieth century is the ten-minute YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY /  MOTEN SWING that Joe, Ruby Braff, Milt Hinton, Wayne Wright, and Jo Jones improvised — about four feet in front of me — at the last Eddie Condon’s in 1976.  “Memorable” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Consider this: Joe and his marvelous quartet (Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton or Sid Weiss, and Jo Jones) that held down a long-running gig at the Embers in 1951-2:

Something pretty and ruminative — Joe’s version of BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL:

And for me, and I suspect everyone else, the piece de resistance:

For the future: Joe’s son-in-law, the trumpeter / singer / composer Bob Merrill — whom we have to thank for the wire recording (!) of SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY —  has organized what will be a stellar concert to celebrate his father-in-law’s centennial.  Mark your calendars: May 4, 2017.  Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Ted Rosenthal, John Colianni, Eric Comstock, Spike Wilner, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Steve Johns, drums; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Adrian Cunningham, clarinet; Bob Merrill, trumpet; Warren Vache, cornet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; and of course a surprise guest.

Here’s the promised photograph of a birthday cake.  Perculate on THIS:

louis-birthday-cake

Thank you, Joseephus.  We haven’t forgotten you.

May your happiness increase!

“I GIVE UP, HONEY!” or WORDS TO THAT EFFECT (San Diego Jazz Fest, Nov. 30, 2014)

surrender lanin

Both Louis and  Bing recorded this wonderfully emotional song in 1931, as did the Boswell Sisters and Sam Wooding.  In the decade to come, Red Norvo, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Mundy, Artie Shaw, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Bob Zurke and Joe Rushton, Harry James, Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison, Frank Trumbauer, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum.  And that’s only its first decade, and only those performances that were recorded.

surrender1

But we are also concerned with the more recent present — since I call this blog, with full intent, JAZZ LIVES.  On November 30, 2014, a stellar ad hoc small band under the leadership of pianist, vocalist, composer, and fantasist Ray Skjelbred took the stand at the San Diego Jazz Fest, and performed this song.

Before they begin (after the little whimsical 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert interlude)  — you can hear someone, perhaps  Marc, warping its title into I SEE RENDERED DEER, but this is America and freedom of speech is said to prevail.  The other nobilities on the stand are Hal Smith, drums; Beau Sample, string bass; Katie Cavera, guitar; Marc Caparone, cornet; Jim Buchmann, clarinet and saxello:

The mood, for those who know their antecedents, is more Boyce Brown – Wild Bill Davison (“The Collector’s Item Cats”) than Bing.  But for those who haven’t had enough of this lovely song in its natural habitat, here is something rare and, even better, complete.  Bing starred in several Mack Sennett shorts early in his career, often appearing as himself and delighting in the slapstick and broad verbal comedy.  Here is I SURRENDER, DEAR:

May your happiness increase!

WHAT DOES THE CAMERA SEE? LEE WILEY’S LOVE LIFE IN PHOTOGRAPHS

The endearing singer Lee Wiley was said to have legendary erotic energies, but they are not my subject.

Rather, I present to you two public photographs just encountered on eBay — each one oddly evocative, both presenting and concealing.

The first finds Miss Wiley with the composer Victor Young — a publicity shot from the early Thirties (circa 1934-6) for Al Jolson’s radio program SHELL CHATEAU:

LEE WILEY VICTOR YOUNG large

and the slip glued to the photograph’s back:

LEE WILEY VICTOR YOUNG large backThat photograph has an understandable stiffness: two musicians caught in the act of pretending to rehearse.  Everything is too neat: the “informal” clothing; the way that they are both looking at the camera while trying not to — not at each other.  I can hear the photographer: “Look like you’re singing, Lee.  Victor, don’t look down at the piano.  Look as if you’re accompanying her but don’t look at her.”

From this photograph, one wouldn’t know that Lee and Victor were “an item,” lovers for a long time.  There was a Mrs. Young, but the Wiley-Young affair was known among musicians.  The photograph of “Lee Wiley . . . and her old maestro” doesn’t even look as if they knew each other before this session. The truth of Lee and Victor — one of the possible truths — would not have been captured for the public eye.  Is it fitting that Lee and Victor made music together most frequently for records and radio broadcasts, where they would have been heard but never seen?

Slightly less than a decade later, another uncomfortable photograph freezes a present moment and accurately forecasts a less happy future:

LEE AND JESS 1943 largeGranted, wedding pictures do not always catch the moment in authentic ways, but the body language of this couple is less than ardent: their hands barely touch, their gazes are remote.  Even the text of the press release is more concerned with Lieut. Boettcher than with Jess Stacy, a great artist and a gentle man but hardly a “member of a wealthy Denver family.”  (Was this Charles Boettcher II, who had been kidnapped in 1933 and a $60,000 ransom paid?)

LEE AND JESS large back

The back of the picture tells its own story.  The marriage did not last five years.

These photographs come from the files of J. Walter Thompson.  Years later, an administrative assistant went through the files with a rubber stamp, noting the DECEASED — a job with certain melancholy overtones.  (I think of Bartelby in the Dead-Letter Office.)  Someone on eBay will buy these as cheerful nostalgic artifacts.

Music, Maestro, please?

CARELESS LOVE is from 1934 — Lee, with Victor directing.

SUGAR is from a 1944 Eddie Condon Town Hall concert / radio broadcast (Ernie Caceres, clarinet).

And — since I can’t see it too often — here is Joe Rushton’s home movie of Lee and Jess, newly married, walking down the street.  Is it the same day as the press photograph? Lee has on a different outfit; Jess wears what seems to be the same double-breasted suit.  Consider what this shows of their marriage.

Does the camera capture only a moment of staged reality or does it show more than we know at the time?

May your happiness increase!

A FEW GLOWING SECONDS OF GLORY

When I returned to my apartment in New York, I thought, “I need music in here. Music will help remind me who I am, what I am supposed to be doing, where my path might lead.”  Initially I reached for some favorite performances for consolation, then moved over to the crates of homemade audiocassettes — evidence of more than twenty-five years of tape-trading with like-minded souls.

One tape had the notation PRIVATE CHICAGO, and looking at it, I knew that it was the gift of Leonora Taylor, who preferred to be called “Gypsy,” and who had an unusual collection of music.  When I asked drummer / scholar Hal Smith about her, he reminded me that she loved the UK clarinetist Archie Semple. Although I don’t recall having much if any Archie to offer her, we traded twenty or thirty cassettes.

PRIVATE CHICAGO had some delightful material recorded (presumably) at the Evanston, Illinois house of Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft — amateur pianist, sometime composer, friend / benefactor to jazz musicians. Squirrel was both a dear friend of Pee Wee Russell, Joe Rushton, Eddie Condon, Boyce Brown, Johnny Mercer, George Barnes, Lee Wiley, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, and many others — one facet of a very intriguing life.  He deserves a biography.

But back to the music.

I played through the side of the cassette, rewound it, and played it again.  And I kept returning to a short improvisation: BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC, played by Johnny Windhurst (cornet or trumpet) and Jack Gardner (piano) with possibly other players in the background — I hear a murmuring clarinet offering harmony notes — recorded, Gypsy’s typed notes say, circa 1950.

Neither Windhurst nor Gardner is as well known as they should be. Windhurst (1926-1981) was recognized young as a brilliant player, and got to play with the best — Sidney Bechet and Pops Foster in Boston when he wasn’t voting age, then Ed Hall, Vic Dickenson, Kenny Kersey, John Field, Jimmy Crawford a few years later, moving on to be one of Eddie Condon’s regulars, briefly recording with Jack Teagarden and on his own date with Buell Neidlinger, on a Walt Gifford session, with Barbara Lea (he was both colleague and boyfriend) then moving upstate to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he died too young (once being mugged and beaten) of a heart attack.

I saw him in person once, at Your Father’s Mustache in New York in 1972 — with Herb Hall and Herb Gardner (the latter someone who is very much with us) and Red Balaban.  Windhurst was capable of the most beautiful melodic flights of fancy — a cross between heavenly music of the highest order and Bobby Hackett — but he couldn’t read music, disdained the idea of doing so, and thus turned down higher-paying and possibly higher-visibility gigs from bandleaders.  I read somewhere that Woody Herman wanted to hire him, offered him good pay, promised to teach him to read, but Windhurst — a free spirit — would have none of it.

There is one video extant of Windhurst — I wrote about it, and him, in 2009 (and received wonderful comments from people who had played alongside him) here.

I did not know much about pianist Gardner, except that what I’ve heard suggests a delicate barrelhouse approach, and I seem to recall he was a large man called by some “Jumbo Jack.” But an exquisite biographical sketch of Jack by the diligent writer and researcher Derek Coller can be found here.  (Our Jack Gardner is not the man who led an orchestra in Dallas in 1924-5.)  Jack first recorded with Wingy Manone and Jimmy McPartland, then got more visibility with Harry James (you can hear him on SLEEPY TIME GAL and he is also on Sinatra’s first recording with James) 1939-40, then he crops up with Muggsy Spanier, Red Nichols, Bud Freeman, and after being captured on sessions at Squirrel’s from 1950-52, we hear no more from him.

I know THE BATTLE  HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC as a very assertive religious song in which the enemies of the Lord receive divine punishment:  “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” and so on, even though later verses of the song — known to how many? — suggest that there is a balm of kindness.

More importantly than the theological, I and others know it as a hot number — think of “Red Nichols” as played by Danny Kaye and “Louis Armstrong” as played by himself in THE FIVE PENNIES, sending the sermon. Everyone from Art Hodes to George Lewis to Gerry Mulligan has recorded it, but I suggest that no version you will ever hear matches the sweet delicacy of this brief celestial interlude by Windhurst and Gardner.

Windhurst doesn’t venture far from the melody — the recording catches less than a whole chorus, and aside from a bluesy transformation near the end, it is melodic embellishment rather than harmonic improvisation.  But he treats the melodic line with lightness, fervor, and love; every note is caressed; his tone is so beautiful as to make “golden” into an affront.  Gardner plays a simplified version of barrelhouse support but never gets in Windhurst’s way. The whole duet is tender, yearning — the music of the spheres in under a minute.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

May your happiness increase!

JOE RUSHTON’S JAZZ HOME MOVIES, 1943: HERBIE HAYMER, JIMMY McPARTLAND, MIFF MOLE, BILL PRIESTLEY, AND A FEW OTHER LUMINARIES

Joe Rushton was an eminent bass saxophonist and clarinetist.  You can hear him on a variety of recordings — perhaps most often with Red Nichols’ later Pennies.

home movie camera

But he also owned a home movie camera in 1943 and onwards, as many people did.  However, where the average amateur films show Mom and the kids at holiday meals, or perhaps the new puppy on the lawn, Joe’s films show his jazz friends goofing around — on the West Coast, as members of the Benny Goodman band, on their way to play the gig and to appear in THE GANG’S ALL HERE.

Joe’s son, Josh, has not only rescued these film clips — black and white and silent — from oblivion, but he’s taken good care of them, annotated them, and put a few on YouTube here for us to marvel at and be amused by.  Here are two recent gifts to us and an astonishing one — in case you haven’t seen it recently. The odd allure of these films is strong yet hard to define.  Is it that the people captured here almost always come to us as sound, occasionally with a still picture — and those sounds have come to represent the whole men or women.  So when we see, for instance, that Miff Mole actually had a corporeal reality in some ways larger and more human than his notes coming out of the speaker, that’s a pleasure and a surprise.  When we see him in motion, putting on one suspender for the camera, not wearing his suit or his tiny eyeglasses, we might think, “They were human, too!”  Always a valuable realization.

Thank you, Joe!  Thank you, Josh!

Saxophonists Herbie Haymer (who played with Norvo as well as BG and showed up on a fine Keynote Records date around this time:

Any expert lip readers in the worldwide JAZZ LIVES audience?

And this group of playful jazz icons, captured at their ease:

So far the best guess at “the mystery man” is that he is Chummy MacGregor . . .

Finally, what may have been the most astonishing find in the Rushton archives, something I’ve already written about here:

May your happiness increase.

SKVORECKY and ROBINSON — BASS SAXOPHONE(S) in CONCERT

Skvorecky

That’s the much-missed Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky, who died in 2012, and the happily-with-us multi-instrumentalist and deep thinker Scott Robinson.  I don’t know how I first found my way to Skvorecky’s work, but perhaps thirty years ago I picked up THE BASS SAXOPHONE, a novella — recommended on the back by Graham Greene (!) and was entranced in the first few pages.  Skvorecky was wry without being broad (although he indulged a taste for slapstick in several of his books), whimsical without being silly, political without being overly didactic.

Skvorecky Bass Saxophone

And he wrote beautifully about jazz — how it felt to play it (he had been an amateur tenor saxophonist in his teens), what the music did for listeners and dancers . . . in the Forties world where having a Chick Webb record was both a radical act and a life-affirming one.

I found out that he was teaching at a Canadian university, and (acting on impulse) I sent him an admiring letter and a cassette tape which had Joe Rushton (the bass saxophone master) on one side and and Art Tatum on the other.  He sent back a very gracious handwritten note of thanks which I still have — it’s tucked into my copy of THE ENGINEER OF HUMAN SOULS.

I just found out about a wonderful concert that I know JAZZ LIVES readers in the New York area would find very rewarding.  I will still be in California, so you’re on your own here.  It’s taking place this coming Wednesday. January 9, 2013,  at 7 PM, at Bohemian National Hall on the east side of Manhattan.

From Scott Robinson himself:

This special event, a “jazz and literary tribute to Josef Skvorecky,” is co-sponsored by the Czech Center and the Dvorak American Heritage Association.  Readings from the great writer’s work, including excerpts from his famous novel The Bass Saxophone, will be interspersed with the music.  I will play bass saxophone exclusively, along with my dear friend pianist Emil Viklicky – who knew Skvorecky personally – plus Martin Wind on bass and Klaus Suonsaari on drums.  All the details are here.

It’s not an overstatement to say that this is a rare opportunity to enjoy the best intersection of literature and music — with great improvisers in each realm.  I urge you to be there!  Admission (at the door) is $20; students, senior citizens, Czech Center Club Members $10.

May your happiness increase.

LEE WILEY and JESS STACY ON FILM, 1943

Lee Wiley continues to fascinate us.  Her husky voice, her physical beauty, the legends of her personality, her sexuality.  But she now exists purely as a disembodied sound, a beautifully posed still picture.  How many people saw and heard her in her prime, or at the 1972 Newport concert that was her last public appearance?

HERE is an astonishing rarity — not known to exist before now — a minute of Lee Wiley and Jess Stacy on film.  In high definition, no less:

This brief collection of film clips (originally silent) is given to all of us through the immense generosity of Josh Rushton, son of bass saxophonist, clarinetist, and motorcyclist Joe Rushton.

The film was taken in California in 1943 — before Lee and Jess embarked on their unhappy marriage and brief musical partnership.  The other couple is Joe and Priscilla Rushton.  Josh told me, “The bookend shots of just Wiley and Stacy are probably from around June 1943 in San Francisco, and the ones with my mom and dad are probably from October 1943 on the roof of a Hollywood hotel near the penthouse exit.”

This is the only film footage discovered so far of Lee — who looks lovely and slightly plump, her hair dark, resembling the actress Patricia Clarkson.  If there are skilled lip-readers in the JAZZ LIVES audience, they can decipher the dialogue for us.  And if there are readers skilled in couples counseling, they can certainly say something about the Wiley – Stacy union through the couple’s gestures and body language.  Jess looks and acts like a man smitten; Lee seems much more intrigued by the camera, although if they had been happily married for decades, we would interpret this film more optimistically.  (The parking sign needs no explication but makes me nostalgic for 1943.)

For the camera, Lee and Jess enact flirtation, playful happiness, and romance, although the enactment soured quickly.  But I would be thrilled to see that couple coming down the sidewalk to me.  Jess remained a handsome fellow but never looked better than he does here.  And Lee, simply walking or swaying back and forth, shows why she captured hearts without singing a syllable of Gershwin or Robison.

We have still got a crush on her!

(Note: the sardonic soundtrack, Lee singing the E.Y. Harburg – Harold Arlen DOWN WITH LOVE, is a contemporary addition to the silent home movie.  The rueful comment at the end comes from Deane Kincaide, who knew the couple well.)

“BLACKBOARD, LIT SCREEN and RED HOT JAZZ,” by ANDREW J. SAMMUT

To say that I’m honored would be an understatement! 

Read what Andrrew J. Sammut has written about JAZZ LIVES and the person who is currently typing these words — in a profile of this site and me at ALL ABOUT JAZZ:

http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=38345

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A VISIT TO THE IDEAL WORLD (Jan. 27, 2011)

Who knew that one version of Paradise could be found in Williamsburg, Brooklyn? 

It’s true!

It’s the Radegast Hall and Biergarten, at 113 Third Street — at the corner of Berry Street — take the L to Bedford Street. 

In December 2010, I’d gone into new territory to hear the Grand Street Stompers, a delightfully compact jazz ensemble led by Gordon Au, and I had a fine time.  The people I’d met had been lovely, the music surprising and reassuring in equal measure, the beer — a lemon-colored, fizzy Gaffel Kolsch — delicious.   

http://www.radegasthall.com/

But it was even better last Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011. 

I had learned that the GSS would be playing that night.  But the days before had been particularly snowy.  It wasn’t the Blizzard of 2011 by any means, but it was messy and slushy.  Stubbornly, I had decided that I had to be there.  

Snow boots, knapsack with video equipment, gloves, cash, a street map . . . I patted my pockets to assure myself I had everything a bold jazz explorer needs! 

I arrived at Radegast more than an hour early, and went into the long rectangular room next to the bar to eat something.  After being gently directed by a pleasant waitress to the grill in the back of the room, I stood in rapt contemplation (like Joe Rushton) of the sausages and burgers-in-training sizzling on the grill. 

“Sizzling” is a dreadful cliche of menu-speak, I know, but in this case it was true.  I had a gracious mind-expanding discussion with the grill-Sage about choices, and I ended up with an awe-inspiring meal for less than ten dollars: smoked kielbasa, a mound of warm sauerkraut, some grill-toasted peasant bread, large self-serve helpings of Radegast’s own mustard. 

I was already in culinary Paradise with this wonderful unassuming hearty unfussy food.  I ate it slowly and savored every last molecule.  The temptation to return to the grill and say, “Do that again . . . with this sausage,” was strong but but I resisted.

Now, I hear some of you saying, “Michael, this narrative of your dinner has some appeal, but when did JAZZ LIVES become DINNERTIME?”

Have patience.

I found out later from the friendly manager, Chris, that the owner tailors the music on the sound system to the band playing there that night.  So while I contemplated my meal with true reverence, I was even more uplifted by the music. 

For me, to walk into a place and hear music I love on the sound system is a great, rare gift.  For it to be Sidney Bechet and Jonah Jones (Blue Note, circa 1954) was wonderful.  For it to be Bobby Hackett and the Andrews Sisters performing BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN (1937), even  better.  For the iPod shuffle to come up with I HOPE GABRIEL LIKES MY MUSIC by Mr. Strong . . . !  Bliss.

Then, I went to the bar and ordered my Gaffel Kolsch (I am a one-drink person while videorecording) and it was just as good as I’d remembered. 

Then the musicians — people I admire and like — began to come in.  I had lovely conversations with Gordon (trumpet, arranger, composer); Tamar Korn (vocals and astral travel); Dennis Lichtman (clarinet and wit); Emily Asher (trombonist in charge of blossoming); Nick Russo (banjo, guitar, and true hipness); Rob Adkins (bass, and serious joy).  And — for the cinematically-minded — when I had first been at Radegast the room had been so atmospherically dark that I could just about discern the faces of the musicians.  Better light this time, much appreciated!

The Grand Street Stompers settled themselves on their wooden chairs and Gordon kicked off the first number (he doesn’t announce them although he is happy to talk about what the band played after the set, if you ask).  I didn’t recognize it from the verse.  Then the band swung into the chorus and I nearly fell off the barstool in delight: I’ve only heard two bands perform SHE’S A GREAT GRET GIRL: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks in 2010 and the original, Roger Wolfe Kahn in 1927 — a record featuring Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang and a very hungover but startlingly original young man from Vernon, Texas, Jack Teagarden.  It’s a great great song for easy jamming:

I have watched that clip a dozen times and it improves under scrutiny: the GSS rocks, and you might enjoy watching the body language of a group of very happy improvisers — they rock and grin, too!

What could follow that?  (I thought, “Well, if nothing else happens tonight — which I seriously doubt — I’ve had my Jazz Moment for the month!”)  But equally fine music was in store . . . a dirty, gutty, downhome version of AUNT HAGAR’S BLUES that made me think of Louis in the Columbia studios, proceeding seriously through W.C. Handy’s sermon on the healing powers of hot music, that low-down stuff, rendered as sensitive dance music to hold your Beloved close.  I wouldn’t change a sixteenth-note, from the thoughtful deep conversation among the horns to Rob’s bowing to the lovely head-arrangement passages.  Their mixture of care and ardor is something to admire:

Many musicians who are brilliant irreplaceable improvisers aren’t equally compelling composers — which is understandable, for they create their compositions every night on the second chorus of BLUE LOU.  Gordon Au is an exception: his compositions sound like songs rather than improvisations on someone else’s ideas.  And, as Dennis Lichtman pointed out, Gordon’s songs sound like his improvised playing — the same nice balance between rise-and-fall lines full of repeated notes and a cheerful reverence for the melody itself.  Here’s his ESCALLONIA RAG, which reminds me once again of an imagined piece for the Sixties Louis Armstrong All-Stars:

Gordon’s university training is in science, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that he named this original after a lovely Hawaiian flower: http://www.hear.org/starr/images/species/?q=escallonia+rubra+var+macrantha&o=plants

Then it was time for Tamar to sing, always an Event in my book.  It takes courage to open your performance (in a room full of chat) with a ballad, and then to begin that ballad with two rubato choruses.  But this is what the intrepid, searching Miss Korn did with MEMORIES OF YOU.  Her voice, as always, makes me think of great acting that isn’t acting, “country music” that isn’t the Grand Old Opry . . . you get the idea.  And the musicians follow, adding their own commentaries on this song, both sad and hopeful, coming together for hymnlike cadences while Rob is, cello-like, bowing away to great effect in the darkness, before Tamar returns to sing, so deeply, and with such feeling for the lyrics: 

MEMORIES OF YOU was (and is) so intense that I didn’t know what could follow it — certainly not something in the same wistful mood.  I don’t know who suggested SWEET SUE, but it was a fine choice — the delights of love realized rather than a song of yearning and remembering.  Not too fast, and pretty.  And the band!  Emily Asher is blossoming as a player: while we are sleeping, she’s spreading her wings!  And in case you wonder where the drum-cymbal-tambourine propulsion comes from, it is just another of the many faces of Tamar.  I love the dialogue between the two “trumpets,” as well.  This band doesn’t only share our dreams; it creates them:

Since I’ve heard so many formulaic performances of WON’T YOU COME HOME, BILL BAILEY? I tend to approach the song cautiously.  Of course Louis and Danny Kaye did it hilariously in the film THE FIVE PENNIES and, more recently, the most eminent Joe Wilder played it at a concert — having announced it, deadpan, as THE RETURN OF WILLIAM BAILEY.  This version is a delight — from the opening and closing vocal interludes (Tamar’s soprano scatting is what the angels would sound like, if 1. I believed in them, and 2. they swung) and the rocking momentum.  If Bill stayed away after hearing this imploring in jazz-time, there would be no hope for him:

As before, I said to myself, “What could follow that?” and Gordon, who is a wise leader, changed the mood with his own PAVONIS (named for the species or genus of the peacock) which reminds me of Carmichael and Strayhorn at the same time — moody, shifting, surprising, and lovely:

And the set ended with a little rough-and-ready jam session on the wonderful LOVE NEST (which will remind some of you of Burns and Allen, some of a 1944 Commodore record session that brought together Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, and James P. Johnson).  Here the Grand Street Stompers were joined by the very engaging Lucy Weinman (of the Big Tent Jazz Band) who knows what it is to swing out.  Cool stockings and great ensemble lines, no?

A wonderful experience, as you can tell.  And it happens at least once a month!  (There’s a natural segue to be made from this post to the PayPal button below, but I’ll let my readers get there on their own.)

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WHAT RAPT CONTEMPLATION LOOKS LIKE

Josh Rushton, the very generous son of bass saxophonist (and clarinetist) Joe Rushton, sent along this photograph of his father — one of our collective heroes:

Josh says:

Hope your new year is starting out OK.  Just came across another shot of dad in rapt concentration, probably to a playback of just recorded track.  Not sure when this taken, could be early 1960’s or thereabouts in LA.  After seeing the PanAm bag in the distance, I might assume this took place after the 1960 good will tour for the US government?  Most of our family’s great B&W shots (including this one no doubt) were courtesy of Bill Wood, Red Nichols’ clarinet player back then, a good friend and frequent visitor to the Rushton household, and an avid near-pro photographer who never went anywhere without his Leica camera.

Making beauty is serious business!

Heartfelt thanks to both Rushtons and Bill Wood for their generous spirits.

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“CHICAGO CLARINETS” (San Diego, Nov. 26, 2010)

I don’t necessarily associate Chicago solely with clarinets, since so many other jazz players made it their home, physically or spiritually, from Art Hodes to Marty Grosz to Sidney Catlett to the Armstrongs, Louis and Miss Lil . . . the list could go on for a long time.

But reed players seem to have found that city and its environs congenial, even though the winds coming off the Loop must have dried out freight trainloads of reeds.  Think of Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, Omer Simeon, Frank Teschmacher, Bud Jacobson, Benny Goodman, Frank Chace, Franz Jackson, Joe Rushton, Joe Marsala, and many more.

Drummer and jazz scholar Hal Smith led a small group at the 2010 Dixieland Jazz Festival (the thirty-first!) in San Diego, featuring Kim Cusack on clarinet and vocal; Anita Thomas on clarinet and saxophone; Bobby Gordon on clarinet; Chris Dawson on piano; Marty Eggers on string bass and sousaphone, and Katie Cavera on guitar, banjo, and vocal.  Here are four selections from their set, each one splendid in its own way.

The first one is a real surprise.  PRETTY BABY, the aesthetic offspring of Tony Jackson, is usually done as a langorous rhapsody: not Kim Cusack’s romp, which has a decidedly Condon flavor to it, thanks to that rhythm section, which could move mountains:

Katie sings one of my favorite period songs — HE’S THE LAST WORD — another evocation of the innocent-looking but seductive male swain, with intertwining commentaries from Kim and Anita.  (Katie’s amused mock-naivete is perfect for this set of lyrics!):

I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW takes us back to the Apex Club Orchestra (with Chris filling in neatly for Earl Hines) — Anita and Kim play at being Doc Poston and Jimmie Noone before Bobby cuts his own ferociously individualistic path through the performance, reminding us that even though Pee Wee Russell said he had no Chicago union card, he did touch down there for periods of time:

Finally, Anita’s gutty tribute to Johnny Dodds — BLUE CLARINET STOMP — that gets down in the emotional depths and stays there, with help from that wonderful rhythm section:

Meet me in Chicago!  Or is it San Diego, next Thanksgiving?  Heartfelt thanks to the tireless and on-target Rae Ann Berry, chronicler of all things swinging.

LISTENING TO BIX, 1956

Josh Rushton, son of the late bass saxophonist / clarinetist Joe Rushton, sent this photograph — taken in his family house in Silverlake, California, in 1956.  The three men here are rapt in concentration, listening to Joe’s Bix Beiderbecke 78s.  From the left, they are cornetist Tom Pletcher, happily still with us, his father Stewart Pletcher — no longer alive but brought back to life through an extraordinary audio portrait on the JAZZ ORACLE label, and Rushton himself.  Josh pointed out the very exciting wallpaper (how could anyone miss it?) and the fact that it was used to cover the front of the floor-standing speaker to the right.  And don’t miss the photos on the wall of the Rushton den!  The photograph here gets deeper as you look more into it: the family photograph on the wall echoes the jazz family depicted and the jazz family gathered to listen to Bix. 

To me, casual photography seems devalued these days, with everyone snapping candids of themselves on their smartphones, but a photograph like this captures people, a place, a way of being: you can almost hear the records spinning. 

The photograph appears here courtesy of Josh Rushton, and is reproduced with his kind permission.

LETTERS FROM FRANK CHACE, 1998-2002

I first heard the Chicago clarinetist Frank Chace on 1951 broadcast recordings from Storyville (issued on Savoy records and reissued in the late Seventies) where he held his own alongside Wild Bill Davison, Ephie Resnick, and a loud rhythm section.  (Later, Frank would tell me that he was half-deafened by Davison’s habit of blowing into the clarinetist’s ear.)  Chace impressed me as having absorbed Pee Wee Russell’s style without exactly copying Pee Wee.  Years later, I thought that he was to Pee Wee what Buck Clayton was to Louis — a loving reflection, a distillation.  But in the early days of my vinyl-searching, there was no other Chace to be found on record. 

in 1986, when I began corresponding and trading tapes with John L. Fell — film scholar, amateur clarinetist, and erudite jazz collector — he sent a cassette of private Chace performances: some with Marty Grosz, others with the guitarist / cornetist Bill Priestley.  On this tape, I heard thoughtful questing that had only been hinted at on the Storyville recordings.  And I wanted to hear more.  After asking all the collectors I knew (among them the late Bob Hilbert and the still-active Joe Boughton, Wayne Jones, Gene Kramer) to dig into their Chace holdings, I had a good deal of music in settings where he felt comfortable enough to explore, from 1951 duets with Don Ewell to a Marty Grosz nonet and various small groups.  Frank’s brilliance and subtlety — his willingness to take risks — moved me greatly.  I iamgine I was also intrigued by his elusiveness: his name appeared in none of the jazz reference books; his issued recordings were out of print, except for a Jim Kweskin session on Vanguard. 

Quite by accident I learned that he was still playing.  WBGO-FM broadcast live remotes from the Chicago Jazz Festival over the Labor Day weekend.  In 1997, listening idly to the proceedings, I heard the announcer say, “Up next, the Frank Chace Quintet.”  I scrambled for a new cassette, and, feeling as if the heavens had opened to let divinity in, heard Frank play, marvelously, including a bossa nova and LITTLE MAN, YOU’VE HAD A BUSY DAY.  This gave me hope that he was alive and well, and I imagined that I might see him play sometime or have a new Chace recording to study. 

Because I had spent much of my academic life as a literary detective, poring over unpublished manuscripts and correspondence, I became fascinated by Frank as a subject for study.  I knew that he lived in Evanston, Illinois, and when I had his address confirmed by the Chicago musicians’ union, Marty Grosz, and John Steiner, I felt bold enough to proceed by writing to him.

I don’t have my letters to Frank, although his friend and executor Terry  Martin tells me that Frank saved them, but I am sure that I introduced myself as an admirer, someone who would like to write about him (I had been reviewing CDs for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors Journal and was soon to start writing for The Mississippi Rag).  In this post, I present his side of the correspondence.  I have omitted only a few telephone numbers and addresses of individuals; otherwise I have left the letters intact.  I have guessed at the placement of the few undated items; readers are free to do their own reshuffling if my logic offends. 

I must have sent him some Pee Wee Russell cassettes, and addressed him (politely) as Mr. Chace:

12 Apr 98

Dear Michael,

     A hasty note of thanks for the astounding packet.  Golly, Pee Wee was even better than I thought.

     I had no idea anyone was tracking my transgressions.  If I recall, some of those pallid Pee Wee-ish peregrinations are even lousier than others.

     You still think I should be interviewed?

     I wish Hilbert had looked me up.  I might have filled in a few spaces, e.g. PWR for Jack T. at Curley’s in Springlfield IL Oct 93 [sic], et alia.  Five glorious drunken nites. 

     My father was from Mayville, N.Y.  Any relation?

Cordially, Frank.

P.S.  I’m Mr. Chace only to the IRS.

Frank’s opinion of his playing here is positively sunny.  “Hilbert” was Robert Hilbert, who had written a Russell biography and compiled a discography.  Later, Frank told me that the Curley’s gig was meant to be a Jack Teagarden quartet — Teagarden was by then appearing only with Don Ewell, a bassist Frank remembered only as “Pappy,” who was derisive about the other players, and drummer Barrett Deems.  When Teagarden took sick, Pee Wee filled in for him, and Frank remembered long explorations of each song that would end with many choruses of eight-bar and four-bar trades among the quartet.  Don Ewell was his great friend and musical mentor.  And “Mayville” is a mild joke; I was living in Melville, New York.

Encouraged by his response, I sent Frank a photocopy of my then amorphous Chace discography:

 20 April 1998

Dear Michael,

     I’ve entered some guesses along with one or two certainties.  I recall some of these sessions vividly, others not at all.

     As for the penultimate entry on the reverse side, if you send a cassette I might sort it out.  But aside from a few tunes with Marty [Grosz] and a bassist [Dan Shapera] from the Chi. Jazz Institute’s Jazz Fair in Jan. 1984 I haven’t listened to myself since before 1982, when I stopped drinking.  Too grisly.  (Except for a few S[alty] D[og] ensembles, below*.)

     There was a 1968 session (at John Steiner’s, like many of them) during Marty’s brief affair with electricity: Lullaby in Rhythm, Exactly Like You.  These should be around, God knows, if the rest of this stuff is.

     Birch Smith sent me a CD “Selty Dogs 1955” last year.  He finally issued them (Windin’ Ball) but so far as I know distributes from his home, only.  I’d make you a dub but don’t know how.  (I have only a Sony Diskman for playing.)

     Do you have the 1961 Jabbos?  Lorraine Gordon issued [a] two-LP boxed set around 1984.  Sure enough, we didn’t try any Jazz Battles or Boston Skuffles, but we thought Jabbo was wonderful seapite reviewers’ demurrers.  I never had other than a tape dub but gave it away 30 years ago!

Cheers back atcha,

 Frank

I don’t remember when I asked Frank if we might talk on the telephone; he agreed, although our conversations were intermittent at best, usually on Sunday evenings.  Once I interrupted him when he was about to eat some soup; other times I would let the phone ring twenty or so times before giving up.  I now assume, and Terry Martin agrees, that Frank was at home — as he aged, his mobility was limited by illnesses — but did not want to talk. 

I do recall his amusement when I asked his permission to record our conversations for a profile of him; he was both flattered and puzzled.  He had said that he didn’t write to me as often as he would like because he lacked paper and pens; ever enterprising (or overbearing?) I sent him some.  Now, I think he was being polite and evasive; I was more interested in interviewing him than he was in being interviewed.  Gene Kramer, who had co-written a book on Don Ewell, had sent me a collection of Pee Wee rarities, which I copied for Frank:            

24 Aug 98

Dear Michael,

     It’s yet unclear how churlish I can get — might at least have sent a thank you card, but didn’t think I had any stamps.  (NO — please don’t send stamps – I found some.)

     *I haven’t listened to it all so far — it’s easier to replay the marvelous alternate Ida.  Marty once opined that PW’s style came to fruition only around Home Cooking time, but it seems PW was annoying and perplexing his colleagues years earlier.  And, how those other guys could play B I Y O Backyard.  I’m reminded again of hos much I love Max.

     *I’ve wondered for a long time how the US got this way — a week ago at the N[orthwestern] U[niversity] library I read NSC 68 (to be found in “Foreign Relations of the United States,” 1950 Vol I page 234).  Example: “We seek to achieve (our values) by the strategy of the Cold War.”  The whole thing is absorbing.  Books I might have mentioned to youare The Frozen Republic by Daniel Lazare and Harry Truman and the War Scare of 1948 by Frank Kofsky.  If you’re interested.

     Later.  it’s to hot and humid for now.

     *The “I” violated your code.

     SPPFL = Society for the Preservation of Pete Fountain’s Legacy.

 Love, Yakov, master of the ocarina.

The “Ida” was an alternate take of the 1927 Red Nichols recording.  In retrospect, this letter mirrors our phone conversations.  Frank was articulate and well-read.  Although he could be wheedled into talking about himself (briefly and grudgingly) and the musicians he admired, his real subject was the downfall of the United States.  I was much less well-informed about global history, and this seemed to exasperate him.  I shared some of his views, but his gloom and rage were far deeper.  I suspect now that he humored me when we spoke of jazz, but that it struck him as almost irrelevant.  His comments about “I” and the “SPPFL,” which he had written on the envelope, need explanation.  Frank disdained players he thought “synthetic”; Fountain was one.  And I had mock-apologized in a letter for beginning several paragraphs in a row with “I”; hence his asterisks.

I didn’t hear from Frank until the end of the year, when a Seasons Greetings card arrived. 

  Dear Michael,

     A bacterial infection put me in the hospital (out cold) Sept 14 – Oct 13 and Rehab Oct 13 – Dec 4, but I recover apace.  Sorry about the hiatus.  Hope you are well and prospering in this psychotic Republic.

 

[undated]

Dear Michael,

     Hoping all’s well with you.  You wanted a picture.  All I’ve unearthed so far are pix from Aspen, where Marty got me a few weeks with The Village Stompers.  The wide angle shot shows Alfie Jones, a dandy Toronto trombonist, greeting Lou McGarity.  The others you know or are listed.

     I’ve been out of touch with Sandy Priestley, Bill’s younger son, the one most interested in his dad’s music.  He one told me that Avis, Squirrel [Ashcraft]’s daughter, had rescued some stuff from the Evanston Coachouse and needed ID’s for some of the players.  He, Seymour, lives in or near Milwaukee.  I don’t want to put him in touch with you without your permission.  The 1951 tracks with Nichols and Rushton, and Bill’s anthem Isn’t It Romantic might interest Sandy and Avis a lot, but it’s been a while . . . . This makes me miss the old “Club 55” (Lake Forest).  John Steiner, too.  The old order passeth.

Cheers anyway,

As ever, Frank.

I had sent Frank a private tape (original source possibly John Steiner, the great archivist of Chicago jazz) of a 1951 Squirrel Ashcraft session featuring Red Nichols and Joe Rushton.

2 Feb 1999

Dear Michael,

     I only just uncovered your Prima cassette amidst four cases of accumulated mail, mostly junko.  I had never even known of the enhanced orch. of side B.  PWR’s chorus-long trill on Dinah has me confounded.  Never knew him to do the circular breathing thing.  Prima clearly exhilarated him.  Egged him on.  Exhorted him.  PWR IS SUPERMAN.

     I (hereby disobeying your paragraph rule) never replied to your probe for an 8 x 10 glossy.  Fact is, I never had one.  The J D Salinger of the clarinet.

     Yet another fellow, a Brit, has written about doing a piece on me for IAJRC publication of Miss. Rag.  I’ve come across his note ten times, but now can’t find it.  Name of Derek Coller from County Berkshire if I recall.  Do you know of him?  I might never find his address.  I am less churlish than lazy and disorganized.

     Your cassettes are better for me that Wodehouse’s BUCK-YOU-UPPO.

Cheers,

Frank

Frank was referring to the Brunswick recordings Pee Wee had made as a member of Louis Prima’s band, which show off Prima as successfully ouis-inspired, and Pee Wee responding with great enthusiasm.  Ironically, Derek Coller (a fine jazz scholar) and Bert Whyatt did finish a long essay on Frank for JAZZ JOURNAL — in 2009 — and an accompanying discography for the IAJRC Journal in the same year.  Like Bix and some of the Austin High Gang, Frank loved P.G. Wodehouse.

9 March 1999

Dear Michael,

      You Leave Me Breathless.  What?  No Simeon too?  Do I not play like Simeon?  Beale (Billy) Riddle thought I played like Simeon.  Possibly not like him on”Bandanna Days” tho.  Beautiful. 

      Your encomiums had me groping for my blue pencil, but I won’t query you less’n you want.  The finale, or coda, “inspired improvisation,” is a dandy.  STET.  I told you I was fighting for my life.

     As for your S[umma] C[um] L[aude] submissions, they only fortify my esteem for those guys.  How competent they are.  The medley, stitched together with modulations ouf of Easy to Get, seems an outstanding ploy.  Signature segues.  The Miff unissued V-Disc: I heard Peg O’My Heart at Nick’s, then on Commodore, but PWR is positively SEIZED on this on.  And on what you call “Notes on Jazz,” see if you don’t identify Mel Powell.  The Bushkin right-hand grupetti, the fleeting salute to the Lion.  And if Bert Naser is Bob Casey, why?  AFM?  And Joe Sullivans, I’d never heard these.  No wonder [Richard] Hadlock’s fixation. 

     And Swing It.  Priceless.  My undying gratitude is yours.  I’ve watched it only once so far, perhaps refusing to believe it.

     And that fool Brunis.  (Ending tape segment.)  PWR phoned from the hotel upon arriving [in] Chicago with McP (MaFathead) for that NPR thing (Oct. 67?).  I said, “Pee Wee!  You called me”!*  He said, “Who would I call, Brunis”? (Georg was his lifelong tormentor.)

     I found the Coller letter and replied saying that the recounting of my legendary career had been already besought, but omitting your name and address.  If you care to write him . . . .

     Instead of dredging out my apartment I did so with my wallet and found the enclosed.  It’ll have to do.  Soon I’ll be “a tattered coat upon a stick.”  Whence the quote?

Love and XXX,

Frank

*I have to watch my punctuation p’s and q’s, Prof.

P.S.  My regards to [Gene] Kramer.  We’ve got out of touch.

Have you read “the Ends of the Earth” by Robert D. Kaplan?  An outstanding travel book.

Frank admired the Fifties John Coltrane, and “You Leave Me Breathless” was one of his favorites.  I had written an exultant review of the 1955 Salty Dogs CD to the IAJRC Journal and sent Frank a copy.  Since it infuriated him when people assumed he was imitating Pee Wee, I made the point that Frank had reinvented many of the classic clarinet styles — Dodds and Noone among them.  Beale Riddle was a jazz fan, amateur drummer, and recordist who had captured an early trio of Frank, Don Ewell, and himself for posterity.  “Bandanna Days” was recorded by “the Carnival Three” in 1947 for Disc — Simeon, James P. Johnson, and Pops Foster.  I had sent Frank airshots of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra (with Kaminsky, Gowans, Pee Wee, and Bud) from the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in 1940, as well as an unissued V-Disc performance of “Peg O’My Heart” by Miff Mole, Pee Wee, Stirling Bose, and others.  “Notes on Jazz” captured a number of Condon concert performances — before the Blue Network series began in 1944 — for distribution to South America.  I had been given thirty minutes of this material by John L. Fell; the announcements were in Portuguese.  I had also sent Frank a videocassette copy of the Thirties film short subject SWING IT — featuring Pee Wee and Louis Prima at their most lively, and may have included the 1967 JAZZ ALLEY television show with Hodes, McPartland, and Pee Wee.  (Frank was in the audience, and remembered that Pee Wee offered McPartland five dollars to change places with him onstage.)  Richard Hadlock continues to be an active West Coast jazz historian and reedman; he did a good deal for an aging Joe Sullivan in the Sixties.  The quotation was from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” which Frank knew I knew.  Still looking for a picture to send me, he had found an outdated bus pass in his wallet and enclosed it, which I still have.  Obviously he was in a happier mood.  And I was thrilled to be purveyor-of-jazz-treats, sharing pleasures.

28 June 99

Dear Michael,

      I went straight to the Marty-Ephie music.  Was there ever a one-man gang like Mart?  And Effie’s dry wit.  I can’t always tell whether he’s trying to be expressive or funny.  And he can play anything, sometimes all at once. 

     Grateful too for the Dodds stuff.  It seems the Harlem hot-shots foreswore mocking him musically – let’s hope they didn’t do so personally.  Terry Martin suggests he probably could hold his own in eiher context, Ewell’s fears notwithstanding.

     I never dreamt the Ashcraft stuff had been orgaznied and documented like that.  Pee Wee, guesting at Priestley’s in 1967, calimed he could identify Joe [Rushton’s] clarinet anywhere.  So far I’ve heard only a little from these cassettes.  Speaking of bass sax I have from the lib. “ART DECO” Sophisticated Ladies (Columbia, 2 CD’s set).  Ella Logan sings I Wish I Were Twins, with Adrian [Rollini], Max, Bud, [Carl] Kress, [Roy] Bargy, [Stan] King.

     It’s raining on this sheet.  Grateful to know someone who connects with my frame of reference.  Must run for cover.  WITH THANKS                      

FC

This time, I had sent a duet recording of Marty Grosz and trombonist Ephie Resnick, as well as the Decca sides pairing Johnny Dodds with Charlie Shavers, Pete Brown, and Teddy Bunn.  The Rushton recordings are informal duets recorded at Squirrel Ashcraft’s — Rushton on clarinet, Bob Zurke on piano.  Whether then or at another date, I had sent Frank a collection of other informal sessions at Squirrel’s: on the telephone, he told me that a prized listening experience was hearing Pee Wee on a 1939 or 1940 “Clarinet Marmalade.”

 27 Mar 00

Dear Michael,

     Don’t get a paper cut from these sheaves.  Not that these observations from K. Amis’s memoirs are new to you.

     I love the references to Hodes, with whom I played off and on between 1957 and 1984.

     Young J. Dapogny introduced me to Lucky Jim.  I evened up by playing him Tea for Two by one T. Monk, of whom he’d never heard.

As ever,

Frank   

The pages were excerpts from Kingsley Amis’s memoirs:  Amis, like his friend Philip Larkin, revered Pee Wee and especially the 1932 Rhythmakers sides.  In 1947, moving into an apartment, Amis glued to the wall “an over-enlarged photograph of the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, with a typed caption adapted from the last stanza of Tennyson’s poem, ‘To Virgil’: I salute thee, Pee Wee Russell, / I that loved thee since day began, Wielder of the wildest measure / ever moulded by the lips of man.’  Frank also took pleasure in Larkin’s dismissal of Hodes: “he sounded as if he had three hands and didn’t know what to do with any of them.”  When I see James Dapogny (now Professor Emeritus) I will ask him if the Monk anecdote is as he remembers it.

17 Jan 00

Dear Michael,

     I write this on my lap in front of football TV, having no surfaces owing to apt. mucking-out, and having no pen I like andneeding to buy six encased in plastic to find out.

     So this should be short – a mercy considering a sentence like the above.

     Nice to hear Jack [Gardner or Teagarden?] again.  An altogether agreeable cohort.  And such exciting Lester and Fats. Listening to that radio announcer makes my blood run cold.  I hate this f…..g country. 

     In that vein I’m reading Frances FitzGerald’s America Revised.  My high school’s history text was Charles Beard.  Reading him now suggests the textbook was seriously bowdlerized.  No wonder we’re all so ignorant.  Oh by Jingo.

     Do you have, I mean do you know, Bud’s I Remember Rio, done latterly in Chi?  Typical Bud.  He’s like a favorite uncle.  

     At the library I check[ed] out the 2 CD Art Deco, Sophisticated Ladies on Columbia.  I Wish I were Twins: Max, Bud, Adrian, Kress, Ella Logan? 1934.  You Go To My Head unusual sunny Pee Wee yet controlled.  Nan Wynn?  Lee W.[iley] and a flock of canaries w/ nice acc.

     I hear of a complete Django – might buy.

     Ask me sometime about who I thought  (whom, Prof.) was Jerry Winter — turns out to be Jerry Winner who hung around North Brunswick, NJ in 1951-2.  Nice cl. With Raymond Scott 1947/8.

     Also ask about the Victory Club.

TaTa,

Frankie

P.S.  I used “nice” 3 X, C-.

Terry Martin tells me that Frank discarded nothing and hoarded things in stacks and piles.  Were the frequent references to desperate cleaning real or merely rhetorical?  What incensed him so much in this letter was a live 1938 broadcast Fats Waller did from the Yacht Club — infamous for a condescending racist announcer who persists in calling Fats “boy.”  Frank loved football but was aghast at the way the announcers spoke: he told me more than once of a famous sports figure, trying to sound polished, making a grammatical error.  Now, this letter seems to combine politeness and impatience: I did not get the opportunity to ask  about the subjects he threw in at the end.  He had told me that as a young clarinetist, he failed to get involved in the rivalry of Goodman and Shaw; he cited Winner as someone he admired.

29 June 00,

Dear Michael,

     I never expected that fooling around with a clarinet would fetch me such bounty as your books and cassettes.  This Buddy Clark sure had accurate pitch, is it not so?

     As for your Salty Dogs (Saline Canines: MOG) inquiries, as far as those of D. Coller about [Tony] Parenti, [Bill] Reinhardt and [Jimmy] Ille, I wouldn’t know what to say.

     Did I ever tell you of my European summers (’51 and ’52) with the Amherst Delta Five?  Their clarinet player preferred to sell used cars in Utica.  One “Bosh” (Wm. H.) Pritchard came along on guitar (’51) which h’d never played.   Someone showed him how to make a G7 chord.  Some girls on board ship told him he sounded like Eddie Condon.  Protchard became Henry Luce Prof. of Eng. at his alma mater.

Hastily,

Frank

I had sent Hilbert’s Pee Wee biography.  The Buddy Clark session was an oddity — for the Varsity label in 1940, where he is accompanied by a version of the Summa Cum Laude Orchestra, with Freeman and Pee Wee taking surprising solo passages.  “MOG” is Martin Oliver Grosz.  I hope that the story of Prof. Pritchard is true.

2 January 01

Dear Michael,

     Glad to have your letter, but saddened indeed at news of your mother.  Please accept my condolences.  What good is it to know that it happens to most of us before we depart, and that there’s always regret at what we failed to do or say in time.

     As for me, I’m trying to emerge from the Nov. – Dec. blahs — respiratory congestion followed by the BLAHS of SNOW and cabin fever.  Yes, I played a couple of gigs in Nov., just down the street really at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, a last refuge of cigarette smokers.  I paid for it.  [Bob] Koester showed up both times, and Paige Van Vorst, and someone named Jerry (a friend of Bill Russell of Am. Music) and an OTIS who is a P. W. fancier.  A katzenjammer quartet: [mandolinist  / guitarist Don] Stienberg, [Mike] Waldbridge, me, and an EAGER but blatty trumpet player.  Later, Paige sent me a year’s worth of  Miss. Rag.  Don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

     Koester keeps wanting a record session and I keep demurring.  As for your discography and entries I question the Jazz At Noon dates as to my presence, my having been absent with a misdiagnosed biliary tract infection.  I was in hosp. during the assassination of Fred Hampton.  The Oct. 18, 1968 date shows an odd title inversion suggestive of Steiner: “Pick Yourself Up” is really Let Yourself Go.

Hang in there,

Frankie

My mother had died, at 85, a few months before.  Frank’s comments transcend formula, I think.  And I take it as indicative of his worldview and political awareness that he should recall his hospital stay because of Fred Hampton:  the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, killed by police at the direction of the FBI.

02 Nov 02

Dear Michael,

     Terry Martin sent me a photocopy of D. Coller’s thing on Floyd O’Brien.  Takes me back, if not quite aback. 

     Here’s hoping you are somewhat restored to the quotidian world, the humdrum, what an Army buddy and I referred to as the drab mundane.  Meanwhile, I thought you might be bemused by the enclosed pic, from 1978 I think under a wedding-reception tent in Priestley’s backyard. (Lake Forest, IL).  Bill, left, has his back to the crowd as was his wont, duels with Warren Kime.  Your congenial leader is at back, looking like Bergen Evans.  Not shown: Bob Wright, piano; Joe Levinson, bass; Bob Cousins, drums.  Nice gig.

     I’m looking for a cassette to send you: a string of tunes from the Chi. Jazz Fest, Jan. 1984.  Doubt that you’ve heard them.  A trio: Marty, me, Dan Shapera, hass.  Last time Mart and I tangled.  Trying to get my apt. under control – I’m not exactly a fussy taxonomist.

As Ever,

Frank

I will share this photograph in a future posting. 

18 Dec 02

Dear Michael,

     So you laughed out loud at M[ichael]. Chabon – I coarsen myself listen to the enclosed examples of obtuseness, banality, and dead-ass playing.  I wrote Price and Thompson thanking them for the check and rhapsodic blurb, respectively.  Also mentioned that I was both terrified and pissed off throughout.

     Thanks anyway, but I can’t listen to Braff.  Musically, verbally and in print, he is, for me, a prototype of The  Boston Asshole.

     I really must learn to curb my expressionism.

     As Marty once abjured me, For Your Eyes Only.  I continue to rummage for that cassette – my housekeeping is execrable.

Ever,

Frank

The remarks above may offend, but at this late date I prefer candor to ellipsis.  I had sent Frank a copy of a Braff CD I particularly liked; he sent me the 2-CD set of his live recordings from 1967 with Jimmy Archey and Don Ewell — an odd group of players, their styles rarely coalescing.

This is the last letter from Frank — and my Sunday evening attempts to call met with no response.  I assumed he had fallen ill or no longer wanted to talk or correspond.  Thus I was greatly surprised to receive a package months later — that long-promised cassette, with a scrawled note on a tiny scrap of paper, which read something like, “Sorry, man — I’ve been sick with ascites (?)”  That was the last I heard from him.

Frank’s letters were always leavened to some extent by his wit, even when it was extremely dark.  I don’t, however, know if he would have written to me at all if he didn’t feel the need to thank me for the things I sent him, which he did seem to appreciate. 

Talking to him on the telephone, however, was often a depressing experience as conversation wound down.  I found Frank’s mixture of annoyance, contempt, and sadness sometimes difficult, often frustrating.  I wanted to celebrate and gossip about the older music (a fan’s ardor); he wanted me to listen to Coltrane.  But more, he wanted to vent his rage at United States imperialism and the decline of the West.  In retrospect, we had little to talk about.  Someone listening in might have considered our sonversations as little dramas, with each of us wanting to make things go his way, succeeding only briefly.  I know that musicians and non-musicians are often separated by an invisible wall, but these conversations had even greater barriers, although we were enthusiastic about the same things. 

But Frank often seemed as if he was going through some elaborate set of motions; whether he wearied of me, an enthusiastic correspondent who attempted to ply him with cassettes, whether he wearied of talking about what was now the receding past, whether he was weary of people, I do not know.  That enigma, still fascinates me, although the possibilities are saddening.       

Thus I was surprised when I heard from Terry Martin, perhaps in 2006, telling me that Frank was ailing (which did not surprise me: the long spaces between calls or letters were often the result of hospitalizations) and that Frank had mentioned my name to Terry as someone he wouldn’t mind speaking to.  I feel some guilt about this now, but I told Terry I couldn’t attempt to restart the conversation.  I was going through a difficult period and Frank’s darkness was too much to face.  Terry, to his credit, understood.  The next news I heard was that Frank had died at 83.   

I consider myself fortunate that I had these exchanges, and that we can hear him play on recordings.  Frank had something to tell us, and he still does.      

Frank Chace: July 22, 1924 – December 28, 2007. 

A postscript: when I was attempting to interview Frank for a profile, I amassed five or six pages of transcriptions of those taped conversations.  In the spirit of Frank’s housekeeping, these pages have vanished.  However, I recall a few fragments.  When young, Frank was initially intrigued by the sounds coming from the apartment below — a neighbor was a symphony flautist.  When he began to take up the clarinet (moved to do so, of course, by a Pee Wee Russell record), he listened to “everything” and thought it was his responsibility as a musician to do so.  He recalled with great glee a recording with  Don Ewell in the house band at Jazz Ltd: the band was playing the SAINTS, a song Don loathed, and he kept playing MARYLAND through his piano chorus.  (The details may be awry, but the intent is clear.)  When asked what recordings he particularly liked, Frank eventually called to mind the Mezzrow-Bechet OUT OF THE GALLION, Bud Jacobson’s BLUE SLUG, and expressed a special desire to hear Pee Wee’s solo on the Commodore Muggsy Spanier Ragtimers SWEET SUE, which I did not have, but acquired through Gene Kramer.  When Frank heard it, he remembered that he and Marty played it many times, their verdict being that Pee Wee’s solo “scraped the clouds.” 

But he saved his most enthusiastic words for two extremely disparate recordings: Coltrane’s YOU LEAVE ME BREATHLESS and Jerry Colonna’s comic version of EBB TIDE.  Since Frank’s death, I’ve heard both, and was much more impressed by the Coltrane.  Colonna’s version of that pop song has the singer nearly drowned by sound-effects waves — surely an acquired taste.   

Frank had seen my hero Sidney Catlett in concert once (a wartime presentation by Deems Taylor); he had played alongside Bobby Hackett once in an informal session, probably at Priestley’s.  But there were almost no contemporary musicians he admired, and fewer he could see himself playing or recording with: Marty Grosz certainly, Dick Hyman, possibly.  He was sure he was able to play a whole session and that he didn’t need to practice.  Terry Martin and Bob Koester have first-hand experience with Frank’s reluctance to record.  In fairness, few of the recordings he did make usually do not find him in the most congenial settings: he felt comfortable alongside Ewell and Marty and some of his younger Chicago friends, but such congeniality was rare. 

Frank deserved better, but it is difficult to make him into another jazz-victim-of-oppression, as his stubbornness often got in the way of musical opportunities.  I offer these letters and recollections as tribute to a great musician and enigmatic figure.     

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