Tag Archives: Joe Sullivan

WON’T YOU PLEASE ARRANGE IT? (July 10, 2019)

We love Ray Skjelbred, who loves Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and Joe Sullivan.  Here, he starts THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT — dedicated to Ginger, her hair a mass of shampoo-suds — as a rubato exploration, then shifts into dreamy dance music:

And here’s the original scene from SWING TIME, which makes me wish that the fantasies of 1936 were plausible: that our lovers could serenade us so tenderly through the bathroom door.  I don’t know where the RKO studio orchestra would fit themselves, but no matter.

Thanks to Ray for evoking such a sweet moment, and to Rae Ann Berry for the video.  And here‘s Ray’s November 2016 solo rendition of this song (he told me it was the first time he’d performed it) along with several other gems.

May your happiness increase!

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JAMES. JIM. PROF.

James Dapogny died yesterday.  He was 78 and had been keeping cancer at bay for nine years until he could do it no longer.

Because the absence of people I love is deeply painful, I have embraced the notion that the dead don’t go away, that their temporal selves leave us but they merely move into other neighborhoods.  With Jim’s death, I cannot keep that illusion afloat.  There is a void much larger than his human form that will never be filled.  No parade of clicked-on Facebook sad emojis can express this.  And this sorrow isn’t unique to me: ask anyone who knew him, who learned from him, who savored his creativity and his company.

Prof. and still-active cellist Mike Karoub to Prof’s left. Photograph by Laura Beth Wyman, 2014.

An expansive, restlessly diligent and curious person, he had several names.  When I first met him (at Jazz at Chautauqua, 2004) I timidly called him “Mr. Dapogny,” and because I was shy, my voice was low and he referred to me — just once — as “soft-voiced Professor Steinman” while we were both leafing through Thirties sheet music.  Later, I bought all his records and CDs, where he was “James,” but I summoned up the courage to call him “Jim” to his face and — referring to him in the third person, I took on the affectionate coinage that Laura Beth Wyman, whom he called “my best student in thirty years,” and his dear friend, had created: “Prof.”

I will hand off to Prof.’s friend Kim Cusack for his memories:

Jim was puckish, never morose, so my first musical example is a jam-session rouser.  Keep your ears on the pianist, who explodes into a solo at 4:14:

Although he was characterized as a stride pianist and he loved the music of Fats Waller and Alex Hill, he dismissed that categorization, and told me that his mentors were Stacy, Sullivan, and Morton.  In the fashion of those three great individualists, his playing was full of spiky surprises — arresting commentaries that could woo and distract in the ensemble or when he accompanied a soloist.  I think he found stride conventions constricting, possibly monotonous, so I hear him as a Pee Wee Russell of the piano: going his own completely recognizable ways while uplifting all around him, creating bright-sounding treble lines but also providing solidly original harmonic support and rhythmic propulsion.  He was never predictable but always heroically satisfying.

But LADY BE GOOD, because it was impromptu (rain and wind made reading charts impossible) was not what Prof. liked best.  He delighted in “paper,” that is, arrangements — but they were charts with plenty of breathing room for the splendid soloists he hired and nurtured.  Here’s his powerfully blue version of the Ellington-Stewart MOBILE BAY, also from Evergreen 2014:

and another 2014 romper — this time, because the weather was better, the band could use Prof.’s charts:

Here is Prof. and a band in 2012 — note his dry whimsical introduction:

and a piano solo on one of the most familiar jazz ballads, uniquely Dapogny:

Jim (I have shifted to the non-academic because it feels warmer) was also terribly funny, in person and in print.  David Sager says he had “a sly and delicious wit,” which all of us experienced.  He was a wordsmith, a jester, a stand-up comedian, a sharp-edged deflater, a Michigan S.J. Perelman.  A deadpan improvising comedian, he didn’t mug and pander on the stand, preferring to let the heartfelt music speak.

He and I exchanged emails from 2011 to October 2018: a coda from one of his:

P.S. I don’t know if you ever read the columns of humorist Dave Barry, but I did because Wayne Jones used to send me bundles of them. The ones I liked best were those entitled “Ask Mr. Language Person,” in which Barry answered usage questions ostensibly sent in by readers. One asked about rules for the use of quotation marks in small-business signs. Barry answered that quotation marks
were to be used on words chosen at random. Then he gave three examples.
Try Our “Pies”
Try “Our” Pies
“Try” Our Pies
To me this is absolutely hilarious. It still makes me laugh.

My relationship with Jim grew and deepened.  When I first met him, I was intimidated by his comic rapier, and when I got to know him a little better, I asked him to put it down, which he did without fuss.  The more I encountered him, the more I admired him.  And finally I — like everyone else who knew him — loved him.

I took him on as one of my not-so-secret spiritual fathers, even though he was only a dozen years my senior.  The blend of humor and toughness (he could have shown up in a 1935 Warner Brothers picture, although not as the gangster lead) reminded me of my own father, so he was dear to me.  I originally wrote, “I hope I didn’t embarrass him too much with my direct affection,” but on second thought I hope I did embarrass him: that way I would know he had received the message I was sending.

He was extremely kind, superbly generous.  I had asked him to write a letter for me in support of a sabbatical I was hoping for, and I dare not read that letter now because I would not be able to write through tears.  And every so often he would praise something I’d written, which would make me feel like a peculiarly graceful colossus of words and insights.  (Of course, now and again, he corrected my wayward grammar, which made me wince and then rush to fix the lapse.)

Although he knew his own worth, he was infuriatingly modest.  I, and then Laura, shot videos of him in performance at Jazz at Chautauqua, the Evergreen Jazz Festival, and the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party.  The last email response I got from Jim — late October 2018 — concerned a trio video I had sent him to see if  he would agree to my posting it.  (Sometimes when I sent him videos, the answer was silence, which I could never tell whether it was “God, no!” or “I am too busy doing other things more important than considering my own performances.)  His response, the names redacted in true CIA fashion, was, “OK with me, but this doesn’t scream out for preservation except by being documentation that I once weaseled my way into the company of H- and R-.”

He was always busy transcribing charts for PORK, researching new old music, and more.  But I think his secret passion was in what we call, for want of a more gracious term, mentoring.  Ask any musician who played or sang with him: Jon-Erik Kellso to Dawn Giblin to Mike Karoub to Erin Morris to the members of his bands.  Like Ellington, he saw very clearly what strengths we had, and worked tirelessly to bolster us — offering the most gentle helping hand to make people more glorious versions of their natural selves.

One of my great pleasures, was my being able to visit him and Laura and Erin for a few days in 2016.  Yes, Jim was a scholar of all things musical — not just Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson’s operas — and his range was broad.  When I visited Ann Arbor, the plan was that I would stay in a quietly nondescript motel, and work on my blog over breakfast (instant oatmeal from paper envelopes, and coffee) and then Jim and I, sometimes Laura along as well, would eat deliriously good ethnic food in some restaurant that only Jim knew — Indian, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese — and the conversation would become expertly culinary as well, because he could cook, away from the piano.  He was truly insightful but ready to applaud others’ insights.

I dreamed of visiting him again, but missed my chance, just as I missed the opportunity to help bring Jim’s band once again to the Evergreen Jazz Festival in Colorado.

It would please me immensely if others who knew Prof., or James, or Jim, would add their voices to this post.  I will close with one of the great beautiful moments captured by video.  I am particularly proud of this 2015 performance because of the lovely music and that it was recorded by my friend Laura Beth Wyman.  Jim’s own FIREFLY:

The moral that James Dapogny’s life and art and generous friendship offers us is very simple.  We are fireflies.  At our best, we are brilliant: we trace paths along the summer night sky.  But we are fragile.  What can we do but live our lives so that when we depart, we are irrevocably missed?  As he is.

I will eschew my usual closing — consider it here but unsaid — to send love and sorrow to Jim’s wife, Gail, to his family, to his friends, to all the people he touched.

Adieu, James.  Farewell, Prof.  We love you, Jim.

IN RECORD TIME: A VISIT, ALL TOO-BRIEF, TO THE VINTAGE MUSIC COMPANY OF MINNEAPOLIS

I had the good fortune to visit my long-time dear friends Lisa DuRose and Susan Peters at their St. Paul, Minnesota home this summer.  I’d like to think of myself as a passable guest, so once I knew we would have plenty of time to talk and laugh and muse, I kept my requests manageable: interesting things to eat (pride of place went to Cheng Heng, a wonderful Cambodian restaurant (448 University Avenue), visits to thrift shops, a delightful bookstore, Midway Used and Rare Books (1579 University Avenue W.).

I made one Special Request.

I’d heard of a magical place where 78 RPM records and machines to play them flourished, so I asked Lisa and Susan to take me here:

I was worried that I would go down into the depths and never surface, so I asked them to pick me up in an hour, which was an atypical kind of restraint on my part.  Lisa and Susan were curious about this museum of sounds and shapes that they’d never entered, so they came in with me.

Scott, the owner, stopped what he was doing and greeted us.  I have an odd sense of comedy, so I said that I was a jazz blogger from New York, a collector of records, and that I had brought two friends who lived locally, that Lisa was my probation officer and Susan was my psychotherapist.  Perhaps because of Scott’s clientele, he only allowed his eyes to widen a bit, but did not boggle at this news.  I started to laugh, gave him my card and a Louis button, and we were off and running into hilarious instant friendship.  Here — just so you know I am not describing some time-machine dream — is the store’s Facebook page.

Here is a six-minute film portrait of Scott in his element, blissfully honest, doing what he was meant to do:

And here is a very short film of Scott, playing a cylinder on an Edison “Gem” machine:

Scott and I fell into conversation about Joe Sullivan.  That in itself should tell you a great deal — in this century, how many people can talk with depth about Joe?  I tore myself away — he is hilarious, erudite, and entertaining — to look at records.  Of course there was a Louis section, an Ellington section, but (as you can see from above) there was a Bob Pope section and one devoted to Don Redman, one to Clarence Williams.

I no longer do well with extreme sensory stimulus, and I was grateful that I could find a mere eight records: Joe Sullivan on Sunset (!) and Conqueror (the 1939 Cafe Society Orchestra);  Henry “Red” Allen on Banner;  the UHCA issue of JAZZ ME BLUES with Tesch and BARREL HOUSE STOMP with the Cellar Boys; a sunburst Decca of Louis’ ON A COCOANUT ISLAND; a beautiful Variety of Chauncey Morehouse and Swing Six (no “his”) of ON THE ALAMO.  In the name of realism, I will also point out that the days of finding N- Paramounts at the Salvation Army for a nickel apiece are long gone.  With tax, these records cost slightly less than eighty dollars, and I went away feeling gloriously gratified.

Two other record-collecting sidelights.  Scott knows a great many kinds of music well and deeply, so the shop offers opera, “roots music,” and many other things that I didn’t have time to explore.  If I remember correctly, he has three-quarters of a million records, both on the ground floor and in a well-organized basement. And more machines on which to play them than several large houses could accommodate.

And while I was there, the phone rang and Scott had an extraordinarily courteous gentle conversation with a man of a certain vintage who wanted to bring his beloved and for-sure valuable collection of late-Forties black label Bing Crosby Deccas for Scott to buy.  I was touched by the kind seriousness with which Scott handled the man on the phone, never condescending to him or being scornful, while telling him the truth, that it would not be worth his while to bring the Crosbys down in hopes of a splendid payoff.

I admire Scott’s enterprise greatly — where on earth are you going to see a 78 record shop with its own Red Norvo section?  Yes, I know a few other stores exist, and I’ve had self-indulgent fun in the 78 section of Amoeba Music — I think the one on Haight Street, but Scott’s store is a paradise of rare music and rare artifacts.  You won’t find Oliver’s THAT SWEET SOMETHING DEAR there, but if you visit and go out empty-handed, and you love this music, I marvel at you, and not necessarily in an admiring way.

He is a man of stubborn devotion to his own ideal, and that is a beautiful thing.  I will go even deeper and say that if everyone who loves older music — and the way in which it was heard — bought a seven-dollar record from Scott, or, better, a working vintage phonograph, the world we know would be improved.  I wish that he and his passionate vision prosper and continue.

May your happiness increase!

LOVE NOTES FROM RAY SKJELBRED (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 27, 2016)

First, Ray makes friends with the piano, then says quietly, “Well, I’m not going anywhere, so I’ll play something I like,” or words to that effect.

He does and we do.

THE ONE I LOVE is not only a memorably catchy Isham Jones tune, but it’s famous in jazz history as the first song Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines improvised on together, at their first meeting at the musicians’ union.  I hear their approving phantasmal selves in Ray’s version:

Like AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN has become victim to people who race through it and make its lovely contours mechanical.  Knowing, as I do, the memorable versions by Bing Crosby (1936) and Louis (1947), who treated it as a rhythm ballad, I’ve come to dread it in performance.  But Ray’s tender version, starting with the verse, is what the song is all about: gently swinging optimism, a view of the world where wonderful surprises are still possible:

Here’s James P. Johnson’s hymn of praise to the gentle loving ways that we all might recall and even enact, OLD FASHIONED LOVE:

Finally, a reminder that even when love affairs implode, the subject is still good for beautiful music: I COVER THE WATERFRONT (“We like it!  We like it!”):

Ray Skjelbred doesn’t cater to his audiences; he doesn’t woo us.  But he continues to delight, to amaze, with his love for the piano, the songs, and the great traditions.

This post is for my faraway and well-remembered friend Donna Courtney.

May your happiness increase!

HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST SWING CONCERT: A TRIBUTE TO JOE SULLIVAN (1937)

Before anyone gets too excited, I do not have acetates or videos of this event to share with you.  All I can offer is the souvenir program, which was on sale a month ago on eBay here for $300.  This item does not seem to have sold, but the seller ended the sale.  If someone were interested, I’d suggest contacting the seller and opening negotiations again.

This program was from a benefit for Joe, ill with tuberculosis, from which he recovered.  I had never seen this paper treasure before; I thought you, too, would be intrigued.  And I’ve inserted some contemporaneous recordings by Joe to keep the display from being silent.  Since I’ve never seen or heard evidence that this concert was broadcast or that airshots or transcription discs exist, this paper chronicle is all we have.  It must have been a lovely evening of music and feeling.

and this, from 1945 (Archie Rosati, clarinet; Ulysses Livingston, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums — on the SUNSET label):

and

and SUMMERTIME, 1941, Commodore:

and

another Decca solo from 1935:

and (Larry and Everett were Crosby brothers; Bing had a large role in this):

and Joe’s Cafe Society Orchestra, with Ed Anderson, Big Joe Turner, Benny Morton, Ed Hall:

and

and the Cafe Society Orchestra with Helen Ward:

and what an assortment of stars and bands!

and LADY BE GOOD from the same band, in a performance I’d bet stretched out longer when live (Danny Polo takes the tenor solo):

and

and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE by the same band, with Ed Anderson building on Louis and Big Joe Turner making it a blues:

and

and

and

and

and

and

Joe recovered and lived on until October 1971, which to me shows the sustaining power of community in times of stress and despair.

May your happiness increase!

MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE: “PIANO JAZZ – CHICAGO STYLE!” featuring RAY SKJELBRED

Like other jazz fans and collectors, I have had many dreams of music I would like to hear, and in my lifetime many of those dreams have come true: the alternate takes of the Jones-Smith, Inc. session; airshots of the Basie band at the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing; the Ellington Fargo concert; the Jerry Newman uptown recordings; more Louis and Big Sid, on and on.

Earl Hines and Ray Skjelbred

The pianist Ray Skjelbred — treasured courageous explorer of beauty — is part of this story of dreams taking lovely shape.  I heard him on recordings perhaps fifteen years ago, and I encountered him in videos perhaps eight years ago, first in those of Rae Ann Berry, then in my own attempts, having met him, to capture him with appropriate skill and reverence.

In whatever medium I found him, I was astonished by the spacious, emotionally dense worlds he invented at the keyboard.  I still am.  And although Ray allowed me to capture individual performances that he approved of, solo and in duet; Ray leading his own Cubs — I am proud of the results, but they are beautiful snapshots for the most part.  In my videos, the sound might be imperfect; the audience might be chatting or moving in and out; Ray would speak, memorably, but briefly.

I came to dream of a Skjelbred film, a recital-explanation that would help us capture his secrets and his deep essence, as much of his history and magic that he cared to reveal.  But it remained a dream until Ray’s friend John Ochs, with Ray, created a profound but never sententious portrait of Ray and the musical atmosphere he both swims in and has enriched for decades.  It exists, and it can be seen.

From the first pearly notes of Joe Sullivan’s GIN MILL BLUES to Ray’s reminiscences-with-music of Burt Bales, Johnny Wittwer, Earl Hines, Joe Sullivan, Art Hodes, Jess Stacy, stride piano, octaves, tenths, the blues, tremolos, a stomping LITTLE ROCK GETAWAY, anecdotes of Sullivan — among well-trained kindergarten children, or listening to Bob Zurke play GETAWAY, a  brilliantly meandering chorus of ROSETTA which reminds me of someone picking up glittering beach glass at the ocean’s edge, and a riotous BEAU KOO  JACK, and so much more — the film is a treasure.  It is both the chronicle of a questing artist and his interactions with Hines, Sullivan, Stacy, Hodes, and a series of casual lessons from a Master about other Masters.

I admire it tremendously.  Ray’s deadpan puckish humor animates all of his conversation with us, as when he describes a heart attack at the keyboard turning, for seconds, into stride piano . . .his description of a poor traditional band as “six people with shotguns.”  I encourage viewers to savor his after-midnight introduction to I FOUND A NEW BABY and the last minutes of MY LITTLE PRIDE AND JOY.

It isn’t a how-to film that entices the viewer with the kinds of promises historically made on matchbooks, “See, you can play _____ too if only you learn these sixteen gestures,” nor is it a chronological autobiography of gigs and encounters, but a warming combination of sounds, techniques, memories and music created right at the moment.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget Ray’s story of Jess Stacy’s summation of a visit from jazz acolytes, at first  unfamiliar to him, as “Those nice boys.”

The film is emotionally filling without being overwhelming: when I finished watching for the first (of several times) I felt as if I had spent a month with Ray, yet it felt like a seamless easy journey, over too soon.

Recorded in one sitting, at a fine piano, with subtle, telling editing, it is so far beyond my best videos that I am both thrilled it exists and slightly embarrassed by my own earnest amateur sallies.

I am not the only person to appreciate this film: it has been selected by the New York Jazz Film Festival and will receive an award for HISTORY / DOCUMENTARY at the end of August.

I am able to share the film with you — and frankly I would find it inexplicable if hundreds of people did not take advantage of the opportunity — but I do not know for how long this will be possible.  These things are mysterious, but Imight not be able to share this film indefinitely.

So I urge and beseech my viewers to be with Ray Skjelbred, man and artist of independent spirit, for one hour (and twenty-three minutes and fifty-eight seconds) tonight, or, if not tonight, then tomorrow night.

Early on in the film, Ray says, as if to himself, “All music is a narrative of some kind — it starts somewhere and it goes somewhere.”  He could have been describing this very fulfilling film as well.

May your happiness increase!

OUR PRIDE AND JOY: RAY SKJELBRED, SOLO, at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 26-27, 2016)

Those of us who have heard Ray Skjelbred play the piano will not be at all surprised that he is also a poet of words and images, captured at a different keyboard.

Sycamore

One day all the leaves blow away.
I have been worrying
about the wrong things.

Let those words take up residence inside you before moving on, in a southerly direction, to the rest of this post.  You can read more of his poetry at the link above.

Ray has written a sketch of his development as a poet, starting as a boy who “got up early to listen to the birds in the courtyard of our apartment building,” which tells me more than a hundred pages of analytic prose by an outsider would.

A rare and deep fellow.

Most of us encounter Ray when he has settled himself on the piano bench and is ready to fill us with sounds and colors, as he did at the 2016 San Diego Jazz Fest.  Here is my earlier presentation of music he created there on November 26, 2016.

And more.  I will preface these selections by saying only that tenderness is so rare in life, and certainly more so in jazz played for audiences.  Let Ray’s melodic explorations, gentle and whimsical, move into your house.

Joe Sullivan’s MY LITTLE PRIDE AND JOY:

“a tiny shred” of I AIN’T GOT NOBODY, with a beautiful ending that loops around to the opening phrase of the verse:

A version of THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT that has the quiet intent seriousness of a hymn at the start:

Ray told me that he thinks of Joe Sullivan or Ginger Rogers in this scene from SWING TIME — so if you haven’t seen it recently, you might want to steal three minutes from your day and dream into this world of lovely possibilities:

May your happiness increase!