That’s a very important question, I think. Sincerity leads to shared joy; duplicity to heartbreak. Popular song of the great period revels in the second (think of Bing singing WERE YOU SINCERE?) but we know the delight of being told the loving truth.
Helen Ward, aglow.
We all have recordings that touch us, for a variety of reasons. I have too many “desert island discs” to consider the possibility to transporting them all, even metaphysically, somewhere else. But this post celebrates one of them. The song is the clever and touching DID YOU MEAN IT? from 1936. The title had been used nine years earlier and there is a contemporary version, but this song may be most familiar in a recording pairing Ella Fitzgerald with Benny Goodman, a joint venture that happened only once.
But with all respect to Ella and Benny, this is the version that touches me deeply: I have been playing it over and over.
On this venerable disc — part of a copy of a radio broadcast from March 1937 — Helen Ward’s voice comes through with the most earnest candor. You can believe that she believes what she is singing: no tricks, no gimmicks. She is sincere through and through, and she has the most wondrous band of musicians having the time of their lives around her.
The recording has a good deal of surface noice but one can ignore that easily. It’s what was called an “airshot,” in this case, a recording made of a live performance “off the air.” We don’t know the source and the date is not certain, but whoever had the disc prized it and played it often.
We can hear it now, eighty-five years later, through the brilliant diligence of the jazz violin scholar Anthony Barnett, who has devoted decades to the reverent study of well-known figures Stuff Smith and Eddie South, less well-known ones Johnny Frigo, Ginger Smock, Harry Lookofsky, Dick Wetmore, Henry Crowder, Juice Wilson, and dozens of others. His CDs are models of presentation of the rarest (and most entertaining) material; his books are serious but never ponderous studies in which the people chronicled are instantly alive in evidence and good stories. Learn more here.
Now, to the music.
The band is Helen Ward, vocal; Teddy Wilson, piano; Stuff Smith, violin; Jonah Jones, trumpet; Ben Webster, tenor saxophone; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; John Kirby, string bass; Cozy Cole, drums.
After a declamatory introduction by Jonah, three choruses: one by Helen (obbligati by Stuff and Teddy), one split between Teddy (thank you, Kirby) and Ben at his best pre-1940 rhapsodic, the last for Helen, even more earnest and tender, if such a thing could be imagined, with Jonah making derisive noises behind her as the room temperature rises and she — without changing very much at all — becomes trumpet-like in the best Connie Boswell manner. Please notice the way the band stops, to hold its breath, perhaps, at 2:42. Was this an arrangement based on Helen’s having performed it with the Goodman band, even though Ella made the Victor record?
The applause that closes this performance sounds artificial, but mine is genuine.
This was broadcast on the radio in March 1937. Listen and ponder: do we have it so much better? I wonder.
Thank you, Helen and colleagues. Thank you, Mort Dixon and Jesse Greer.
I’m sure your insurance plan has Doctors WIllie “the Lion” Smith, Frank Newton, Buster Bailey, Pete Brown, Jimmy McLin, John Kirby, and O’Neil Spencer as participating providers. Their theraputic model was based in a text written on July 14, 1937, by Doctors Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin. Here’s the mission statement of this medical group. (First the label; the music is below this photograph.)
Sammy Cahn doesn’t mention this song in his autobiography, but I wonder if it was his whimsical response to some self-help book popular at the time, perhaps Napoleon Hill’s THINK AND GROW RICH, surely one of the most enticing book titles ever. But Cahn’s lyrics are good homespun advice; Chaplin’s melody is simple and thus memorable, and the singing of O’Neil Spencer, and the solos — this is, for me, an irreplaceable recording. See if it doesn’t stick with you, also:
A little four-chorus masterpiece, full of individualistic voices and great ensemble unity. It’s not as well-known, but it’s surely the equal of the more-heralded Billie Holiday and Fats Waller recordings of the time. And it contains truths. “Take personal inventory” is advice that never ages. Sing it, play it, live by it.
Some jazz enthusiasts hold these half-truths to be completely evident:
a) No one buys CDs anymore, and if someone does (contradicting the first assumption) he probably has a crank phone on the wall of his basement room, next to the black-and-white television set found on the street;
b) No one pays for music anymore, since everything is accessible online.
Brace yourself. What follows is a recommendation that you — gasp — buy a CD to hear divine music not available any other way.
“Let yourself go!”
The CD contains 36 musical performances by a medium-sized big band, broadcast in early 1937. The band was led by violinist superhero Stuff Smith, and combined parts of his own Onyx Club Boys with members of the Cab Calloway and Chick Webb orchestras: Ben Webster, Jonah Jones, Sandy Williams, Garvin Bushell, Walter Thomas, Clyde Hart, Bobby Bennett, John Kirby (perhaps Milt Hinton), Cozy Cole.
AND a pearly young Miss Ella Fitzgerald.
Here’s a sample: Ella before the Cole Porter Songbook, in a composition she didn’t record in her early prime — with solos by Ben:
Such a de-lovely rarity, found — along with 36 other previously unheard performances from 1937 on the CD depicted in the image — issued on AB Fable CD 024. The music and the documentation will also explain why Ella refers to “Lucidin” in the lyrics. Source material courtesy of Jonah Jones, Edgar Sampson, and Anthony Barnett: read about — and purchase — this dazzling offering http://abar.net/index.htm.
And if you would like nearly six more minutes of swing ecstasy to be convinced that AB Fable is worth investigating, I invite you to listen and read more here.
P.S. Why am I writing a blogpost about a CD released in 2010? Simple: not enough people know about it, and it is one of my favorites on my wall of CDs. And whenever I have conversations with people and I reveal that I am deeply involved in jazz, before they start to look wildly around the room for someone else — anyone! — to talk to, they say, “I really like Ella Fitzgerald,” before they run off. I wish one-tenth of the people who “really like Ella” would buy this CD!
Several eBay rambles turned up a hoard of beautiful unseen portraits — from the archives of the photographic giant Brown Brothers (who, I believe, divested themselves of the print archives a number of years ago). They remind me of a time when musicians, now obscure, were known to a large audience and had their remarkable faces in print.
Here are some of the treasures: the bidding was intense, so I did not acquire any of these, but the images are here for you to admire for free. The seller, evansarchive, has only one jazz photograph for sale as I write this, but the other photographs — film and stage actors — are equally fascinating.
Let us start with a particularly rare image — an unusual shot of the John Kirby Sextet on a very small bandstand, with glimpses of Kirby, Charlie Shavers, and Russell Procope (alas, no Buster Bailey) but a remarkable photograph of the short-lived drummer / vocalist O’Neil Spencer:
And here’s another under-celebrated hero, baritone saxophonist Jack Washington, definitely in action in the Count Basie band, with Vic Dickenson and another trombonist, possibly Bennie Morton, to his right. Vic is ignoring the photographer, but Jack — I think — is a little suspicious of the flash camera so near to his face:
and the real prize (which eluded me), a portrait of Frank Newton on a job:
I suspect this is a spring or summertime gig, given the lightweight suits — at some point Newton put his hand in his right jacket pocket and the flap is half-undone. I can’t identify the pianist, and the club is not familiar to me (which makes me think of Boston rather than New York City) but Ernie Caceres is immediately identifiable — with clarinet rather than baritone saxophone — and the skeptical-looking trombonist (gig fatigue or suspicion of a flashbulb explosion) might be Wilbur DeParis. But I’d love to know where and when: perhaps this is a hall rather than a jazz club?
Here’s composer, arranger, alto saxophonist Edgar Sampson in a photograph by Otto Hess:
Another Otto Hess photograph: Albert Nicholas and Zutty Singleton. Does the wall covering suggest Jimmy Ryan’s?
Stuff Smith in action (the photographer crouched behind the drum kit and the flashbulb rendered the underside of the cymbal bright white:
Bobby Hackett at Carnegie Hall, Eddie Condon behind him:
and just in case anyone needed confirmation:
Now, a few masterful percussionists. Jimmie Crawford:
and someone identified as Bauduc, but clearly not. Who’s it?
and some well-dressed luminaries who can certainly be identified, as well as the occasion — World Transcription session, 1944 — Wilbur DeParis, Bob Casey, and Pee Wee Russell:
From another source, Sidney Catlett in full flight. I can hear this photograph:
As I said, once upon a time these people were stars in larger orbits. Rather than mourn the shrinking of interest and knowledge, I celebrate the glorious circumstances that made these photographs “news.”
Rahsaan’s sweetly respectful SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME:
His energized, theatrical SERENADE TO A CUCKOO from 1972:
and on the same theme, Rahsaan at the zoo:
And here’s Dan . . . . recalling Rahsaan Roland Kirk in a conversation at his NYC apartment, beginning with their first connection through the music of John Kirby, to Harry Carney’s enthusiastic recommendation . . . to Rahsaan’s intelligence, passion, pride, and curiosity. Whatever he did, Dan says, “it always made musical sense.” Triumphs at Newport in New York and on the street in New Orleans, a “beautifully warm person” and a powerful hugger. I’ve learned to follow Dan wherever he leads, so this interview ends with a sweet detour into mid-Forties jazz: Charlie Shavers, Herbie Haymer, Nat Cole, and Buddy Rich. . . . and his one memory of seeing Nat Cole live.
Here, to make JAZZ LIVES your one-stop blogging superstore, is the 1945 LAGUNA LEAP:
A few night ago, I was witness to a glorious expression of personalities and an explosion of sounds. The “Cafe Bohemia Jazz Quartet,” which appears regularly on Thursdays at Cafe Bohemia, 15 Barrow Street, Greenwich Village, New York, was that night led by Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet (as usual), with Scott Robinson, magic man, playing tenor saxophone, taragoto, and a new find from his basement, an “adorable” little Eb cornet. With them were Joe Cohn, guitar, and Murray Wall, string bass.
The evening’s music was characteristically rewarding and varied: a first set of SONG OF THE WANDERER, SUGAR, INDIANA, ROCKIN’ CHAIR, THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME, I FOUND A NEW BABY, and CREOLE LOVE CALL. In the Bohemia audience, appropriately, were members of the Pilsner Jazz Band, who had just appeared at the Kennedy Center (more about that below) and were enthusiastically responding to the band. I don’t recall if Jon-Erik asked them what they’d like to hear (the act of a brave person) but someone suggested ROYAL GARDEN BLUES and that began the second set.
A word about ROYAL GARDEN BLUES — which has a lovely pedigree, because the song (with lyrics) by Clarence and Spencer Williams, possibly just by Spencer, refers to the place King Oliver played, later the Lincoln Gardens. It’s a century old, if we take as its starting point the unissued recordings pioneering bandleader George Morrison made of the tune.
We all have our favorite versions, from Bix to the Goodman Sextet to Tatum to Louis, and as I write this, another’s being created. But since it was taken up from the Forties onward by “trad” groups — define them as you will — it’s one of the three songs played nearly to a crisp (the others are MUSKRAT RAMBLE and STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE). Too many formulaic renditions in my history have caused me slight flutters of ennui when someone suggests it. But not with this quartet. After a gentle ensemble start (I missed a bit due to camera rebellion) this performance escalates into a wonderfully friendly joust between Jon-Erik and Scott. Quite uplifting, with every tub securely on its own botom, seriously cheering
I felt like cheering then, and I do now. See what happens when you leave your house to confront the music face to face? More about the notion of leaving-your-house, at least temporarily, here.
Beauty awaits us, if we just look for it.
And just because this title was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of this post, here’s an evocative jazz artifact:
Postscript: here’s the Pilsner Jazz Band at the Kennedy Center, Jan. 27, 2020:
When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:
“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about. In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”
I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views. I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening. But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.
Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music. Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.
With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives. Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s). I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t. And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.
However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.
As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.
I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked. Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence. My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there. Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment. “I love this band. I first heard them in 1978!”
As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives. (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)
Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them. If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult. You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.
What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal. It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum. One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.” I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her. Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba? Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.” I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?
In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize. Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on. And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.
I, too, know jazz parochialism. When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz. Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else. Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on. It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating. I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.
I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe. And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.” Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin. But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.
My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything. And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.” Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”
We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment. For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . . And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue. But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “? Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?
Our preferences are strong. But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers. “Honey, we have A through L for lunch. What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No! No! No! Want R!”
There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES. Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience. (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.) I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both. A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!
But it also should be music made by Famous Names. You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully. But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law. “I don’t know who that is. How could (s)he be any good?”
Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?
Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test? I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.” Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.
These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.
What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy. Let us love the music and let us also hear it.
And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:
A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise. Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts. But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.
If Una Mae Carlisle is known at all today, it is as a jazz footnote and “friend-of”: protege (perhaps mistress) of Fats Waller; singer on the lone and lovely record date that Lester Young’s band did in 1941; composer of WALKIN’ BY THE RIVER, someone recording with Danny Polo, John Kirby, Big Nick Nicholas, Buster Bailey, Ray Nance, Budd Johnson, Walter Thomas. Sadly, her life was very short, made even shorter by illness. I propose that she deserves admiration for her own art, not just for her associations with greater stars.
Una Mae had all the qualities that would have made her a success, and she did get some of the attention she deserved. She had a big embracing voice; she could croon and swing; she was a splendid pianist — more than a Waller clone.
Here are two samples of her genial, casual art, in 1940 and 1941. First, the song she composed (its title suggested by John Steinbeck). The wonderful small group is Benny Carter, trumpet; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Slam Stewart, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums. Una Mae plays piano. Were Ed Berger here with us, he could tell us how Benny came to be in that studio — perhaps a rehearsal for his own Bluebird big-band date a few days later:
Here is one side from the famous session with Lester Young, Shad Collins, Clyde Hart, John Collins, Nick Fenton, Harold “Doc” West in 1941:
I come from that generation of listeners who discovered the sides with Lester through a lp compendium called SWING! — on Victor, with notes by Dan Morgenstern. I think I was not alone in listening around Una Mae, regarded at best as someone interfering with our ability to hear Lester, purring behind her. But if we could have shaken ourselves out of our Prez-worship for three minutes, we would have found much pleasure in Una Mae’s singing for its own sake, not in comparison to Billie. As I do now.
This small reconsideration of Carlisle’s talents springs from a nocturnal prowl through eBay, then on to YouTube, then Google, then here — a familiar path, although the stops are not always in that order.
First, an autographed postcard, 1940-2, when she was recording for Bluebird:
I then visited YouTube to find — to my delight — two brief but very entertaining film clips (from the 1948 BOARDING HOUSE BLUES) where her magnetism comes through:
I savor her ebullience — while trying to ignore the thinness of the song (which, in fairness, might be more sophisticated than GOT A PENNY, BENNY, which Nat Cole was singing a few years earlier) — and her expert piano work, with its small homages to Fats and Tatum.
I write the next sentence with mixed emotions: it cannot have hurt her fame in this period that she was slender and light-skinned. Had she lived, she might have achieved some of the acclaim given other singer-entertainers, although I wonder if her easy accessibility would have hampered her with the jazz purists of the Fifties, while making her a pop star of sorts. Certainly her last recordings (1950) show her being targeted for a large popular audience, which is to say the songs are awful and beyond.
The other song from BOARDING HOUSE BLUES is equally thin, built on RHYTHM changes — but it is not the THROW IT OUT YOUR MIND that Louis and the All-Stars performed in WHEN THE BOYS MEET THE GIRLS (1965):
Looking for more information on Una Mae, I found that others had — admiringly and sadly — done deep research here and elsewhere. Because the internet encourages such digressions, I now know more about mastoiditis than I would have otherwise. It shortened her life. The disease is now rare.
I present all this as a collage in tribute to someone who should not be forgotten. And I think of Una Mae as one of the talented people who died just short of great fame. I can imagine her, as I can imagine Hot Lips Page, on the television variety shows of my childhood, appearing in the nightclubs I was too young to go to.
Although the lyrics are those of a formulaic love song, the mood is apt for her epitaph. May she live on in our hearts:
Let us revisit 2010 for a brief tour of the Bill Savory Collection, with commentary by two of our heroic benefactors, Loren Schoenberg and Doug Pomeroy.
And from another angle, this 2016 article tells the tale.
Starting in 2016, through iTunes, listeners have been able to purchase and savor four volumes of downloaded music: featuring Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, John Kirby, Jack Teagarden, Joe Marsala, Leo Watson, Teddy Wilson, Glenn Miller, Bobby Hackett, Ella Fitzgerald, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, Ernie Caceres, Vernon Brown, George Wettling, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Shavers, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, Charlie Teagarden, Milt Hinton, Albert Ammons, Chick Webb, Joe Sullivan, Joe Bushkin, Ben Webster . . . and — for some of us — the great treasure of live Count Basie with Lester Young and Herschel Evans. I’ve written a preview of Volume Four here. It’s been the soundtrack for the past few days.
I and other collectors have heard rumors — whispered four-bar breaks — that in our lifetimes Mosaic Records would arrange to issue more of the Savory material on compact discs, and that blissful fantasy has taken shape.
In February 2018, a six-disc set will be released: $99 plus shipping. As always, it will be a limited edition of 5000 copies. It will have gorgeous photographs and the extensive annotation Mosaic is known for: most of the prose coming from Loren Schoenberg, but with some writers sitting-in: David Fletcher, Anthony Barnett among them.
Here you can read more. And here is my definition of auditory bliss.
The four volumes of iTunes downloads offered 76 tracks. The Mosaic box will contain 108 tracks: the new music will be by Mildred Bailey, Stuff Smith, Joe Sullivan, and Count Basie — 39 tracks by Basie alone. (That’s eighteen new Basie tracks, four of them from the legendary Randall’s Island swing festival.) Two of the Sullivan solo piano improvisations are astounding creative rambles: one is ten minutes long, the other seven. Incidentally, many performances are longer than the three-minute-and-some-seconds limit of the 78 records of the time; most of them are in far superior sound.
I didn’t take any college courses in Marketing, and I don’t make my living in retail, but this post is an open advertisement for the set, and for Mosaic Records in general. (I’ve purchased my Savory box set — full price, should you need to know.) Since the iTunes downloads started to appear, I’ve read vituperative blurts from some collectors who “hate Apple” and others who want to know when the music will appear on CD. Now, fellows (I am gender-specific here for obvious reasons), now’s the time to convert words into action.
If others of you are under economic pressures, which are — as we know — so real, pardon my words and go to the “auditory bliss” section of this post and enjoy what’s there. If the kids need braces or the car a new battery, all bets are off. Those who fulminate on Facebook because the set offers no performances by X Orchestra or Y should know that not all the heirs and estates of the musicians Savory recorded have agreed to permit music to be issued.
However, if there were to be the groundswell of support that this set deserves, some people who are currently saying NO to issuing music might change their tune to a more expansive YES. And I believe fervently that Mosaic Records deserves our support. In an age where people sitting in front of their monitors, expecting everything for free, some enterprises cost money. (I come from that generation where not everything was easily accessible, so I appreciate this largesse from my heart.)
So consider this post encouragement to purchase the long-awaited six-disc set. Feast your eyes on the track listing and soon you will be able to feast your ears.
COLEMAN HAWKINS: 1. Body And Soul (X) (5:51) / 2. Basin Street Blues (X) (5:50) / 3. Lazy Butterfly (X) (1:03)
ELLA FITZGERALD: 4. A-Tisket, A-Tasket (II) (2:22) / 5. (I’ve Been) Saving Myself For You (II) (2:50) /
FATS WALLER: 6. Yacht Club Swing (theme and intro) / Hold My Hand (RR) (3:39) / 7. I Haven’t Changed A Thing (RR) (3:56) / 8. (Medley): Summer Souvenirs / Who Blew Out The Flame? (RR) (5:38) / 9. (Medley): You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby / Sixty Seconds Got Together (RR) (3:44) / 10. I’ve Got A Pocketful Of Dreams (RR) (2:26) / 11. When I Go A-Dreaming (RR) (2:50) / 12. Alligator Crawl (RR) (1:38) / 13. The Spider and the Fly (RR) (2:40) /
LIONEL HAMPTON JAM SESSION: 14. Dinah (7:01) / 15. Star Dust (2:58) / 16. Chinatown, My Chinatown (2:25) / 17. Blues (9:52) / 18. Rosetta (4:06) /
CARL KRESS & DICK McDONOUGH: 19. Heat Wave (EE) (2:20)
EMILIO CACERES TRIO: 20. China Boy (S) (2:26)
ALBERT AMMONS: 1. Boogie Woogie Stomp (A) (3:03)
ROY ELDRIDGE: 2. Body And Soul (II) (4:23)
ROY ELDRIDGE / CHICK WEBB: 3. Liza (II) (2:03)
FATS WALLER: 4. Honeysuckle Rose (QQ) (6:31) / 5. China Boy (QQ) (5:57) / 6. I’m Comin’ Virginia (QQ) (4:35) / 7. Blues (QQ) (5:24) / 8. I Got Rhythm (QQ) (2:05) /
JOHN KIRBY: 9. From A Flat To C (CC) (2:39) / 10. Blues Petite (DD) (3:43) / 11. Front And Center (AA) (2:50) / 12. Effervescent Blues (Z) (2:43) / 13. Minnie The Moocher’s Wedding Day (DD) (2:23) / 14. Echoes of Harlem (Z) (3:36) / 15. Boogie Woogie (BB) (2:56) / 16. Milumbu (Z) (3:23) /17. Rehearsin’ For A Nervous Breakdown (CC) (3:27) /18. Honeysuckle Rose (Y) (1:07)
BENNY CARTER: 19. More Than You Know (T) (4:26) / 20. Honeysuckle Rose (T) (1:21) /
JOE SULLIVAN AND HIS CAFE SOCIETY ORCH.: 21. China Boy (MM) (1:28)
JOE MARSALA: 1. Jazz Me Blues (FF) (5:26) / 2. California, Here I Come (FF) (6:53) / 3. When Did You Leave Heaven? (FF) (7:21) / 4. The Sheik Of Araby (FF) (4:42) /
BOBBY HACKETT: 5. Body And Soul (U) (2:12) / 6. Embraceable You (V) (2:48) / 7. Muskrat Ramble (V) (2:09) /
JACK TEAGARDEN: 8. Honeysuckle Rose (PP) (5:04) / 9. Jeepers Creepers (PP) (6:10) /
MILDRED BAILEY: 10. My Melancholy Baby (B) (3:41) / 11. Truckin’ (B) (2:41) / 12. Rockin’ Chair (theme) / More Than You Know (C) (4:14) / 13. The Day I Let You Get Away (C) (2:08) /
STUFF SMITH: 14. Crescendo In Drums (KK) (3:57) / 15. I’se A’ Muggin (JJ) (2:28) /
“We improvise our way through life,” wrote the seventh-century philosopher Sammut of Malta. And perhaps that’s why jazz is such an enthralling wellspring of inspiration: even on a record that we know by heart, we get to hear musicians maneuver themselves into impossible corners and slither out. Houdinis of Swing and Stomp.
These two Decca sides are seriously neglected, even though they feature three of the strongest players in the John Kirby Sextet: drummer / vocalist O’Neil Spencer (1909-1944, tuberculosis) and two musicians who coincidentally ended their days as members of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars: pianist Billy Kyle and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Even before Spencer gained some fame with Kirby, he had lifted up many recordings by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and was a valued session player for the Variety and Decca labels, recording with everyone from Jimmie Noone and Willie “the Lion” Smith to Maxine Sullivan, Bob Howard, and a host of forgettable blues singers. These sides come from the only session Spencer was able to be given leader credit, and I think they are remarkable. Often I think of the Kirby band as expert but polished, with some powerful exceptions: these sides are much looser and to me extremely gratifying.
BABY, WON’T YOU PLEASE COM HOME? is usually played as a slow drag or medium opportunity to ask the musical question. Here, the imagined speaker must have been terribly eager or impatient, for the tempo is unlike any other. What a good singer Spencer was, and how nimbly Buster maneuvers those turns at top speed before the splendid drum solo:
LORNA DOONE SHORTBREAD (had someone brought a box of cookies into the studio?) features Buster’s singular tone, swing, and phrase-shapes; Kyle’s sparkling accompaniment and solo, and that rarity, a full chorus for Spencer, who is his own person but sounding much like a hot hybrid of Catlett and Webb:
I like, for a moment, to imagine an alternate Thirties-universe, where O’Neil Spencer was a regular leader of small-group sessions for Decca, singing and rocking the band. I wouldn’t mind another thirty or forty sides with him out front, instead of (for one example) having to lug Milt Herth through a song.
And something extra: AFTERNOON IN AFRICA by the trio, easy and lyrical, showing that clarinet / piano / drums did not have to imitate Goodman, Wilson, and Krupa:
These three players embody great freedom, courage, and joy: I celebrate them not only as musicians but as models, showing us how to do it.
When Dan Morgenstern and I had concluded our first series of video interviews, he reminded me that we hadn’t spoken of Charlie Shavers, and I was also eager to do this when we met for a second time. Charlie was an extraordinary trumpeter, arranger, and singer — someone not celebrated in this century as he deserves.
Why stardom seems to come naturally to one artist and not another is mysterious, but I hope that Dan’s wise, affectionate, and first-hand recollections will help people rediscover Mister Shavers:
“Smother me!” Charlie with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and Louis Bellson:
This is why sound film was invented, so that we could see and hear Charlie and Sidney Catlett have a delightful conversation — also John Kirby, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, and Russell Procope (or is it Charlie Holmes?) in 1947:
and late in life with Ben Webster, playing some “dirty blues”:
and the quartet that Dan referred to:
Previous interview segments with Dan can be found here. And there are more to come.
Yesterday, May 3, would have been Bing Crosby’s birthday. He doesn’t need to be defended, re-assessed, or re-evaluated, but it’s always a pleasure to remember his singing: his passionate ease, his swing, his beautiful dramatic sense. I first fell in love with his voice in my childhood and it continues to thrill me. Here are two (really, three) examples of how wonderfully he sang in the Thirties — and the lovely songs he was given, the first by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, the second by Al Dubin and Harry Warren.
Here is a clip from the film. Bing’s acting is broad, reminiscent of his Mack Sennett days, but it could also be the way he was directed: listen to the voice:
and the issued recording, its subtleties showing that he knew how to improvise:
Here’s I’VE GOT TO SING A TORCH SONG, where Bing’s passionate delivery might make you forget the simple scalar quality of the melody line:
The question of “influence” is always slippery, unless A has written a letter that she is listening to the newest record by B and is impressed by it. Those two songs were in the air, on sheet music, on the radio — this was popular music — so although I feel that Bing had a powerful influence on instrumentalists, I can’t prove it. However, I offer these two instrumental versions — each a beautiful creation — to suggest that perhaps the most famous jazz players were listening deeply to Bing. (We know Louis did.) It gives me an excuse to share, without ideology, glorious rhapsodies.
That’s Hawk with a small group from the Fletcher Henderson band (Red Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Hilton Jefferson, Horace Henderson, Bernard Addison, John Kirby, Walter Johnson); here he is as star soloist with the full orchestra, with brother Horace on piano, who may have done the arrangement:
Gorgeous music. Sweet, hot, White, Black — who cares? Just gorgeous.
I had met the excellent drummer Josh Collazoonly once — at Dixieland Monterey in 2012, where he played splendidly with Carl Sonny Leyland and Marty Eggers. The evidence is here. After that, I heard him on record and saw him on video with Dave Stuckey, Jonathan Stout, Michael Gamble and possibly another half-dozen swinging groups. So I knew he could play, and that sentence is an understatement.
What I didn’t know is that he is also a witty composer and bandleader — whose new CD, CANDY JACKET JAZZ BAND, I recommend to you with great pleasure. And in the name of whimsy, Josh made sure that the CD release date was 4/4.
And thisis how the CJJB sounds — which, to me, is superb. Some facts: it’s a small band with beautifully played arrangements that make each track much more than ensemble-solos-ensemble. The band is full of excellent soloists, but they come together as a unit without seeming stiff or constricted by an excess of manuscript paper. Few bands today use all the instruments so well and wisely: a horn background to a piano solo, for instance. Hooray!
The players are Josh, drums and compositions; Albert Alva, tenor saxophone and arrangements; Nate Ketner, alto and clarinet; Bryan Shaw, trumpet; Dave Weinstein, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano, Seth Ford-Young, string bass; guests (on two tracks) Jonathan Stout, guitar; Corey Gemme, cornet.
To my ears, this band is particularly welcome because it does the lovely balancing act of cherishing the traditions (more about that shortly) while maintaining its own identity. The latter part — a swinging originality, splendid for dancers and listeners — blossoms because the compositions are not based on easy-to-recognize chord sequences, and there are no transcriptions from hallowed discs. The soloists have profoundly individual voices — and are given ample freedom to have their say — and the rhythm section rocks. The first time I listened to the CD, I enjoyed it for its own sake: you would have seen me grinning in an exuberant way. On another hearing, I put on my Jazz Critic hat (the one with the ears) and noted with pleasure some echoes: here, an Ellington small group; here, an HRS session; there, Woody Herman’s Woodchoppers and the Basie Octet; over here, a 1946 Keynote Records date; and now and again, a late-Forties Teddy Wilson group. You get the idea. Buoyant creation, full of flavor.
The cover art — by artist / clarinetist Ryan Calloway — reminds me so much of David Stone Martin’s best work that it deserves its own salute:
I asked Josh to tell me more about the band and the repertoire, and he did: you can hear his intelligent wit come through:
The term “Candy Jacket” was birthed during a conversation with my cousin at a family get together a few years ago. He was telling me that he saw a segment on the news about the first marijuana-friendly movie theater being opened in Colorado. Jokingly, he went on to say that he was going to open a candy shop next door and sell “Candy Jackets” so that people could sneak stuff in. All in all, it was really just a silly conversation but the term stuck inside my head. I then got to thinking about how much I love all the jive talk of the early jazz era. Why couldn’t I just make up my own? That being said, I like to think of the term as a way to describe someone who (A) is a jazz/swing lover, (B) is fun to be around, and (C) doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Again, very silly but I like it!
The main drive of putting this group together was to create original, classic sounding jazz and swing. The music of the 1930’s and 1940’s is my musical passion. After recreating it for so long in various bands, I just had a burning desire to make something new with respect to the musical framework of that time period that we all love.
Regarding the songs…
“Don’t Trip!” – While I was sitting at the piano coming up with the melody to this song, my son (4 years old) had set up a bunch of his toys around and behind the piano bench. He then proceeded to put on a pair of my shoes and navigate the elaborate toy landscape like a giant walking through a city. I found myself giving him the side-eye every so often and thinking “Don’t Trip…”. Thankfully, he didn’t but guess who did? HA!
“Vonnie” – This is obviously written for my wife, Vonnie, for whom I love so much. When Albert Alva and I finished the arrangement for the tune, he turned to me and said “You’ve captured the essence of Vonnie – sweet and sassy!”
“Here’s the Deal” – Another song written for my son. With him being 4 years old, my wife and I find ourselves making little deals with him every so often in exchange for good behavior. After awhile, the phrase “Here’s the deal” became so common between us that he even began using it. I really tried to capture his mischievous side with this song starting with the clarinet representing my son and the drums being myself and us going back and forth in conversation.
“March of the Candy Jackets” is the first song I wrote for this album years ago. It was just the melody which is quite quirky and only has two chords in the form. I showed it to Albert Alva many times and each time we ended up passing over it for something with more of a traditional form and melody. As we began the arranging process on the other tunes, this song kept coming back to me. Finally I realized that I wanted it to be a blues song but not just a basic blues that just keeps going round and round. I wanted the solo forms to unfold just like the melody was designed.
“From Bop to Swing” is a take on the Ira Gitler book title, “Swing to Bop,” as well as the live recording with the same name by Charlie Christian and Dizzy Gillespie. Back in the day, swing musicians evolving into bop musicians was a naturally standard progression. Nowadays, I find that most young jazz musicians that love playing swing music have reversed this progression since bop and modern jazz has become the starting point in most schools. I do love bebop music and love all the recordings during the transitional period of the 40’s where the rhythm sections would be playing in a swing style while the horns began branching out melodically with trickier heads. It still had that rhythmic bounce that the dancers could move their feet to. Jonathan Stout is a devout Charlie Christian disciple and I thought this would be a perfect song to feature him on along with Nate Ketner.
“Monday Blues” was literally written on a Monday morning after a long night out playing. I do love the interplay between Albert Alva and Dan Weinstein trading solos.
“Stompin’ with Pomp” – While writing this song, I only had the dancers in mind. I wanted to create the feeling of excitement that you get while dancing to a band live. The song “Ridin’ High” by Benny Goodman is my end all of swing era dance music and I just love the energy that his band had.
“Relume the Riff” – This track track features Corey Gemme and Nate Ketner keeping it cool throughout. I really wanted to get this song on the album last minute so I banged out the arrangement the morning of the session.
“Amborella” was written for our friend and trumpet player, Barry Trop, who passed away last year. He was always a fun guy to be around as well as play alongside. I heard of his passing while working on another song at the piano. The melody just poured out of me. Later, while watching a documentary on prehistoric earth, the flower, Amborella, was talked about. This flower is one of the oldest plant species on our earth. I immediately thought of Barry and how he would indeed live on a long time through our memories of him.
“Giggle in the Wiggle” is a bare bones swinger that I used as a vehicle to feature everyone on the album.
“Albert’s Fine Cutlery” – My nickname for Albert Alva is the “knife” because he is very sharp witted in his humor. He always catches you off guard. I wanted to capture that with the melody of the song.
This CD is a consistent pleasure. To have it for your very own, there’s Bandcamp (CD / download high quality formats) — here — CD Baby (CD or download) — here— iTunes (download only) — here. The CJJB site is hereand their Facebook page here. Now, having navigated the Forest of Hyperlinks, I hope you go and enjoy this fine music.
We have so much to thank Fats Waller for. He could be the subject of a thousand posts, and the joy he spreads won’t ever diminish. But, like Louis Armstrong, who he was and what he did were perceived immediately as marketable commodities. In the early Thirties, with the coin-operated automatic phonograph a new and exciting phenomenon, Waller’s popularity was immense. But he was under contract to Victor Records, so the other labels looked for their own “Fats” to compete for public attention.
Thus, piano-playing entertainers who could put over a song in a jocular way were valuable. Swinging pop songs of the day — songs often from films — was the thing. The very talented women Lil Hardin Armstrong and Cleo Brown recorded for Decca, as did Bob Howard. Willie the Lion Smith did his own recordings for that label. Tempo King, Stew Pletcher, Adrian Rollini, and Louis “King” Garcia recorded for Bluebird; Taft Jordan for Melotone, Stuff Smith for Vocalion. Henry “Red” Allen, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey existed in their own aesthetic worlds, but it’s clear they ran parallel to the Waller phenomenon, with a substantial bow to Louis.
Photograph courtesy of ON THIS DAY IN JAZZ AGE MUSIC, with thanks to Confetta-Ann Rasmussen.
Our subject for today, though, is Putney Dandridge, who made a series of recordings in 1935-36 for Brunswick Records. He is well-known to only a few, I believe, and so I am doing something atypical for JAZZ LIVES and reprinting the detailed Wikipedia entry — more detailed than the Blessed John Chilton’s paragraph:
Louis “Putney” Dandridge (January 13, 1902 – February 15, 1946) was an African American bandleader, jazz pianist and vocalist.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Dandridge began performing in 1918 as a pianist in the a revue entitled the Drake and Walker Show. In 1930, he worked for a time as accompanist for tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, including appearances in the important black musical Brown Buddies. In February 1931, Dandridge appeared in the cast of the musical revue Heatin’ Up Harlem, starring Adelaide Hall at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. After touring in Illinois and the Great Lakes region, Dandridge settled in Cleveland, Ohio, forming his own band, which included guitarist Lonnie Johnson. This period lasted until 1934, when he attempted to perform as a solo act. He took his show to New York City, beginning a series of long residences at the Hickory House on 52nd Street and other local clubs. From 1935 to 1936, he recorded numerous sides under his own name, many of which highlighted some major jazz talents of the period, including Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson, Henry “Red” Allen, Buster Bailey, John Kirby, Chu Berry, Cozy Cole and more. Appearing to vanish from the music scene in the late thirties, it is speculated that Dandridge may have been forced to retire due to ill health. Dandridge died in Wall Township, New Jersey at the age of 44.
Here he is, appearing as “the Stage Manager,” in the 1932 film HARLEM IS HEAVEN, starring Bill Robinson and James Baskette. Putney appears about ten minutes into the film, and you can see him speaking, chewing gum, scatting, at the piano:
Now, I am not making a case for Dandridge as Waller’s equal. He was a serviceable swing / cocktail pianist at best, and he plays on five of the first six sides of the series. But something spectacular can come from a liability, and the result of Putney’s piano playing — say that quickly if you dare — was that Teddy Wilson was called in for the remaining sessions. As a singer, he was an enthusiastic amateur with a wide uncontrolled vibrato, a limited range, and a scat-singing tendency that was, I think, anachronistic even for 1935. But in the great vaudeville tradition, he knew the songs, he put them over with verve, and even when his vocals are most difficult to listen to, one focuses on the gem-like accompaniment.
I have no record of John Hammond’s involving himself in these sessions. I believe the Brunswick supervisor for these dates was Harry Gray. Perhaps Wilson acted as contractor and went to the Rhythm Club the night before a date and said, “Are you free at noon tomorrow? It’s fifty dollars?” and selected the best musicians he could from the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, Willie Bryant, Chick Webb, Stuff Smith, Goodman, Ellington, Henderson, Calloway, Redman.
It intrigues me that often the splendid playing on these discs is done by musicians who were less in the public eye, thus giving us opportunities to hear people who played beautifully and were not given the opportunities that the stars were. The players include Roy Eldridge, Henry “Red” Allen, Doc Cheatham, Shirley Clay, Richard Clarke, Bobby Stark, Wallace Jones, Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, Johnny Russell, Tommy Mace, Teddy McRae, Charles Frazier, Joe Marsala, Carmen Mastren, Arnold Adams, Nappy Lamare, Clarence Holiday, Lawrence Lucie, Dave Barbour, John Trueheart, Eddie Condon, Allan Reuss, John Kirby, Grachan Moncur, Mack Walker, Wilson Myers, Ernest Hill, Artie Bernstein, Bill Beason, Walter Johnson, Cozy Cole, Slick Jones, Sidney Catlett. When Wilson was out of town with the Goodman orchestra, Clyde Hart, Ram Ramirez, or James Sherman took his place. I’d suggest that students of Thirties rhythmic practice have a two-semester intensive study seminar in front of them in these discs. Without fanfare, these were racially mixed sessions.
Here’s a sample — goofy, exuberant, and delightfully swinging. Don’t take your eyes off the screen, for the great jazz scholar Franz Hoffmann has inserted a (silent) clip of Putney performing in 1933 from the film SCANDAL, and he looks exactly as he sounds:
I wrote before that Dandridge is little-known, and that might be true, but his SKELETON IN THE CLOSET was part of the soundtrack for a video game, BIOSHOCK 2, so it pleases me to imagine some Youngblood listening to the complete Putney through his earbuds on his way to school. Stranger things have happened.
The Dandridge anthology I knew in the Seventies was three records on the Rarities label; there are two CDs on the Chronological Classics series, and (the best — sound by John R.T. Davies) is a two-CD set on the Timeless label, issued in 1995. YouTube — or “Orchard Enterprises” — has made all 44 sides available here. I don’t recommend listening to all of them in a row, because Putney’s vocal approach might pall — but they are priceless reminders of a time when great songs and great musicians were in the air in a way that would be unusual today. Here’s the YouTube collection. (Please, I can’t vouch for its correctness, and if it doesn’t play in your country I can’t fix it . . . but consider the price of admission).
A nice bio of trumpeter / vocalist Taft Jordan is available here, which is also the source for the photograph.
In February 1935, “Taft Jordan And The Mob” — Taft, trumpet; Ward Silloway, trombone; Johnny Mince, clarinet; Elmer “Tone” Williams [not “Skippy” Williams as listed in Tom Lord — thanks to Mark Cantor], tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Bobby Johnson, guitar; John Kirby, string bass; Eddie Dougherty, drums — recorded four memorable sides that have never gotten the attention they deserve. (Incidentally, the beautiful record labels are illustrations only: the music can be found in the videos below.)
The idea was John Hammond’s, and one that we are grateful for. The usual story is that Hammond worked hard to get the music he loved on record, to make opportunities for racially mixed bands. He succeeded beautifully: most readers know this part of the story as preface to the 1933-42 Billie Holiday sides.
But other parts of the story deserve attention. There is, for one thing, the success of the coin-operated phonograph (later, the “jukebox”) that could offer people recorded music in restaurants, bars, and elsewhere for what seems to us like a bargain: a nickel would get you three minutes of new music. But a 1935 nickel was much more than the ninety-nine cents per song that iTunes charges. (A contemporary advertisement shows Easter dresses for $1.95, and a skilled worker for the W.P.A. might earn $79 a month.)
And, at the time, commercially produced records were — as it says on the label — “not licensed for radio broadcast.” I think that coin-operated phonographs served the audience’s desire for novelty (“Let’s hear that new record of ______ by Erin Morris and her Ponies!”) — songs from new movies, new songs popularized by much loved bands and singers . . . and for five cents, one could have a side played for a gathering of listeners and/or dancers. The record labels pictured above are now called “dime-store,” because one could buy these records inexpensively at, say, Woolworth’s.
Radio and recordings created a need for new material, so many songs, not all memorable, were published, with a clear financial relationship between composers / lyricists, publishing companies, artists, recording supervisors, and record companies. (A small example: IF THE MOON TURNS GREEN was written by Bernard Hanighen, Billie Holiday’s friend, also a recording director at Brunswick Records. He would have been happy — aesthetically and financially — to have his song recorded.)
Taft’s four sides run parallel to other small groups led by Fats Waller, Henry Red Allen, Bob Howard, Putney Dandridge, Stuff Smith, Adrian Rollini, Tempo King, Cleo Brown, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Frank Froeba, Bernard Addison, Louis “King”Garcia, Stew Pletcher, and others. I’ve heard writers say these sessions were “cranked out for the jukebox trade,” but these records are lovely, imperishable. That there were only four sides says more about an audience’s awareness of Taft as a star than about their quality. Some listeners might have known him from the Savoy Ballroom and radio, but not many. When the records were later reissued in the UK (the red-and-gold Vocalion issues) Teddy Wilson had become famous enough so that his name would sell discs.
The artists made little or nothing for these sessions: they were paid “scale,” although they were pleased to make the extra money. The math is fascinating, a quiet recital of economic disparity, even at the remove of eight decades. Let us say a band of eight musicians made four sides for $50 a musician. The records were pressed, distributed, and ended up in the phonographs. One could hear a side once — no limit on the number of hearers, theoretically — for a nickel. The machine could take in twenty nickels in an hour. In 1935, the profit went to the record companies and the owners of the phonographs. Later (too late, perhaps) musicians and composers received royalties, but that is another story.
Yes, mechanical reproduction of art guarantees “exposure,” but one cannot eat exposure. I am aware of this from both sides as an interloper with a video camera who can only recompense musicians in insubstantial ways.
I offer these notions, some of them quite sad or infuriating, as preface to wonderful music, and also to point out that an unstable, often exploitative relationship between the artists, “the marketplace,” technology, and lasting art is not a twenty-first century issue.
What good songs these “disposable” pop tunes are — thanks to Rothberg, Coots, Alex Hill (yes!), and Hanighen. And the players, professionals all, were used to sight-reading and creating instant arrangements — with split choruses, riffs, backgrounds. To take one example, LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE, still recognizable, is a series of thirty-two and sixteen bar solos with rhythm (and what a rhythm section!) with a jammed ensemble ending. How fine it sounds now. One could spend an afternoon listening to the glowing epigrams Wilson dispenses, the variety of timbres the horns offer, solo and in ensemble.
In my collecting history, these four sides were part of a Columbia Chick Webb lp compilation — glorious gap-fillers, but also logical because of Taft’s role in the band. Mince and Silloway were with Tommy Dorsey; Skippy Williams, Bobby Johnson, and John Kirby with Webb also; Eddie Dougherty a busy free-lancer. Wilson had not yet joined the Goodman orchestra as a member of the Trio and Quartet, but had recorded with BG in ad-hoc studio groups.
What we have here — each side is less than three minutes long — is both superior dance music and small-band swing of the highest order, pleasing to all audiences.
In my time-travel fantasy, I would like to be a silent onlooker at one of these sessions, but I doubt the musicians romanticized such work. It was another way to pay the rent, perhaps (for the lucky sideman) to get some recognition for future leader’s gigs . . . or perhaps, after creating four quiet masterpieces, the guys went out for a drink or some ribs, a nap before the night’s work. If I’d asked Taft about these sides in 1972 /3 and later — I didn’t see him at close range — I wonder what would he have said.
LOUISIANA FAIRY TALE:
DEVIL IN THE MOON:
IF THE MOON TURNS GREEN:
All four of these songs were also recorded “with vocal chorus” by Taft, a charming Louis-influenced singer (consider his work with the Washboard Rhythm Kings and Webb) but none of the vocals was issued. Mysterious. I know there is an alternate take of NIGHT WIND issued on a Jerry Valburn collectors’ compilation, but it’s instrumental.
Does anyone know more about Eddie Dougherty than is published in John Chilton’s WHO’S WHO IN JAZZ? I have learned that he recorded between 1933 and 1952 or a little later, that he lived in Brooklyn, and, according to Johnny Williams via Mike Burgevin, that he pronounced his last name as if spelled Dockerty. But no more.
The music remains. And I, for one, am truly grateful for that.
Taft as a member of the Ellington orchestra. Photograph by Charlie Mihn, courtesy of Chuck Slate.
As a postscript, here are four contemporaneous versions of DEVIL IN THE MOON — in honor of the Blessed Alex Hill. I think they are all beautiful, so this is not to make insidious comparisons.
Mills Blue Rhythm Band (with an incendiary Buster Bailey interlude that the expert dancers must have loved):
James P. Johnson, Marty Marsala, Danny Barker, 1946, by Charles Peterson
When the Student is more dramatically visible than the Teacher, even the most influential mentor and guide might become obscure. James Price Johnson, pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, has become less prominent to most people, even those who consider themselves well-versed in jazz piano. He was a mentor and teacher — directly and indirectly — of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Tatum. “No James P., no them,” to paraphrase Dizzy Gillespie. But even with memorable compositions and thirty years of recording, he has been recognized less than he deserves.
Fats Waller eclipsed his teacher in the public eye because Waller was a dazzling multi-faceted entertainer and personality, visible in movies, audible on the radio. Fats had a recording contract with the most prominent record company, Victor, and the support of that label — he created hit records for them — in regular sessions from 1934 to 1943. Tatum, Basie, and Ellington — although they paid James P. homage in words and music — all appeared to come fully grown from their own private universes. Basie and Ellington were perceived not only as pianists but as orchestra leaders who created schools of jazz composition and performance; Tatum, in his last years, had remarkable support from Norman Granz — thus he left us a series of memorable recordings.
Many of the players I’ve noted above were extroverts (leaving aside the reticent Basie) and showmanship come naturally to them. Although the idea of James P., disappointed that his longer “serious” works did not receive recognition, retiring to his Queens home, has been proven wrong by Johnson scholar Scott Brown (whose revised study of James P. will be out in 2017) he did not get the same opportunities as did his colleagues. James P. did make records, he had club residencies at Cafe Society and the Pied Piper, was heard at an Eddie Condon Town Hall concert and was a regular feature on Rudi Blesh’s THIS IS JAZZ . . . but I can look at a discography of his recordings and think, “Why isn’t there more?” Physical illness accounts for some of the intermittent nature of his career: he had his first stroke in 1940 and was ill for the last years of his life.
There will never be enough. But what we have is brilliant. And the reason for this post is the appearance in my mailbox of the six-disc Mosaic set which collects most of James P.’s impressive recordings between 1921 and 1943. (Mosaic has also issued James P.’s session with Eddie Condon on the recent Condon box, and older issues offered his irreplaceable work for Blue Note — solo and band — in 1943 / 44, and the 1938 HRS sides as well.)
Scott Brown, who wrote the wise yet terse notes for this set, starts off by pointing to the wide variety of recordings Johnson led or participated in this period. And even without looking at the discography, I can call to mind sessions where Johnson leads a band (with, among others, Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Johnny Williams, Sidney Catlett — or another all-star group with Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Lionel Hampton on drums, Artie Bernstein, Ed Hall, and Higginbotham); accompanies the finest blues singers, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox, is part of jivey Clarence Williams dates — including two takes of the patriotic 1941 rouser UNCLE SAMMY, HERE I AM — works beautifully with Bessie Smith, is part of a 1929 group with Jabbo Smith, Garvin Bushell on bassoon, Fats Waller on piano); is a sideman alongside Mezz Mezzrow, Frank Newton, Pete Brown, John Kirby, swings out on double-entendre material with Teddy Bunn and Spencer Williams. There’s a 1931 band date that shows the powerful influence of Cab Calloway . . . and more. For the delightful roll call of musicians and sides (some never before heard) check the Mosaic site here.
(On that page, you can hear his delicate, haunting solo BLUEBERRY RHYME, his duet with Bessie Smith on her raucous HE’S GOT ME GOING, the imperishable IF DREAMS COME TRUE, his frolicsome RIFFS, and the wonderful band side WHO?)
I fell in love with James P.’s sound, his irresistible rhythms, his wonderful inventiveness when I first heard IF DREAMS COME TRUE on a Columbia lp circa 1967. And then I tried to get all of his recordings that I could — which in the pre-internet, pre-eBay era, was not easy: a Bessie Smith accompaniment here, a Decca session with Eddie Dougherty, the Blue Notes, the Stinson / Asch sides, and so on. This Mosaic set is a delightful compilation even for someone who, like me, knows some of this music by heart because of forty-plus years of listening to it. The analogy I think of is that of an art student who discovers a beloved artist (Rembrandt or Kahlo, Kandinsky or Monet) but can only view a few images on museum postcards or as images on an iPhone — then, the world opens up when the student is able to travel to THE museum where the idol’s works are visible, tangible, life-sized, arranged in chronology or thematically . . . it makes one’s head spin. And it’s not six compact discs of uptempo stride piano: the aural variety is delicious, James P.’s imagination always refreshing.
The riches here are immense. All six takes of Ida Cox’s ONE HOUR MAMA. From that same session, there is a pearl beyond price: forty-two seconds of Charlie Christian, then Hot Lips Page, backed by James P., working on a passage in the arrangement. (By the way, there are some Charlie Christian accompaniments in that 1939 session that I had never heard before, and I’d done my best to track down all of the Ida Cox takes. Guitar fanciers please note.) The transfers are as good as we are going to hear in this century, and the photographs (several new to me) are delights.
Hearing these recordings in context always brings new insights to the surface. My own epiphany of this first listening-immersion is a small one: the subject is HOW COULD I BE BLUE? (a record I fell in love with decades ago, and it still delights me). It’s a duo-performance for James P. and Clarence Williams, with scripted vaudeville dialogue that has James P. as the 1930 version of Shorty George, the fellow who makes love to your wife while you are at work, and the received wisdom has been that James P. is uncomfortable with the dialogue he’s asked to deliver, which has him both the accomplished adulterer and the man who pretends he is doing nothing at all. Hearing this track again today, and then James P. as the trickster in I FOUND A NEW BABY, which has a different kind of vaudeville routine, it struck me that James P. was doing his part splendidly on the first side, his hesitations and who-me? innocence part of his character. He had been involved with theatrical productions for much of the preceding decade, and I am sure he knew more than a little about acting. You’ll have to hear it for yourself.
This, of course, leaves aside the glory of his piano playing. I don’t think hierarchical comparisons are all that useful (X is better than Y, and let’s forget about Z) but James P.’s melodic improvising, whether glistening or restrained, never seems a series of learned motives. Nothing is predictable; his dancing rhythms (he is the master of rhythmic play between right and left hands) and his melodic inventiveness always result in the best syncopated dance music. His sensitivity is unparalleled. For one example of many, I would direct listeners to the 1931 sides by Rosa Henderson, especially DOGGONE BLUES: where he begins the side jauntily, frolicking as wonderfully as any solo pianist could — not racing the tempo or raising his volume — then moderates his volume and muffles his gleaming sound to provide the most wistful counter-voice to Henderson’s recital of her sorrows. Another jaunty interlude gives way to the most tender accompaniment. I would play this for any contemporary pianist and be certain of their admiration.
I am impressed with this set not simply for the riches it contains, but for the possibility it offers us to reconsider one of my beloved jazz heroes. Of course I would like people to flock to purchase it (in keeping with Mosaic policy, it is a limited edition, and once it’s gone, you might find a copy on eBay for double price) but more than that, I would like listeners to do some energetic reconstruction of the rather constricted canon of jazz piano history, which usually presents “stride piano” as a necessary yet brief stop in the forward motion of the genre or the idiom — as it moves from Joplin to Morton to Hines to Wilson to Tatum to “modernity.” Stride piano is almost always presented as a type of modernized ragtime, a brief virtuosic aberration with a finite duration and effect. I would like wise listeners to hear James P. Johnson as a pianistic master, his influence reaching far beyond what is usually assumed.
I was happy to see James P. on a postage stamp, but it wasn’t and isn’t enough, as the Mosaic set proves over and over again. I would like James P. Johnson to be recognized as “the dean of jazz pianists”:
Listen closely to this new Mosaic box setsix compact discs worth of proof that the genius of James P. Johnson lives on vividly.
Yes, you read that correctly. Here’s an eBay marvel, quite remarkable, showing Benny Carter in a promotional picture playing clarinet — which he did infrequently but with great style — and the picture is wittily inscribed:
The seller notes,
Photograph is inscribed and signed: “Best wishes to ‘Punk and Spunk’ which may be junk but surely no bunk with a hunk of sincerity, Benny Carter”
Photograph captioned: ” BENNY CARTER And His Orchestra”.
I’ve acquired a photo album, with over 100 photos, which comes from the Down Beat Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. These photographs are from the Swing Era. They are all original photographs. There are photographs of such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Cootie Williams, Erskine Hawkins, Count Basie, Andy Kirk, and Cab Calloway. Some of these photographs are signed and inscribed. I’ve included images of three additional items which will not be included in the sale, but help to illustrate the location, upcoming events of the time, and a couple of the illustrious musicians who played there. The photograph on the bottom right is of Erskine Hawkins and Ida James in the Down Beat Ballroom in front of some of the very photographs which are currently for sale or will be offered for sale in the days and weeks to follow. The other photograph is an amazing one of Louis Armstrong (Satchmo) playing in the Down Beat Ballroom. If you look above Louis’ head and above the word Ballroom, you’ll see a musical bar with the word Down in it. I’ve also included the back of an orange Nookie Ration Card, which was used as a calendar of upcoming events. As most of the signed photographs were inscribed to Spunk and Punk, I must assume that these were the names by which the proprietors of the club were known.
Doing research from my desk chair, I found that the “Down Beat” was in operation in July 1941 and was named for the music magazine of the time (Ella Fitzgerald and her Orchestra were appearing there). I gather that the building that once stood at 1201 North Greenwood no longer exists; I could find no photographs of the ballroom. Oklahoma State University has its main address as 700 North Greenwood, and Greenwood runs through the campus, so I hope that one or more of the Music Department’s classrooms now occupy the space where Punk and Spunk held court:
The Carter photograph is undated, but the “Nookie Ration Card” provoked a short — and possibly ethereal — investigation of historical linguistics. I submit the evidence but offer no conclusions. One: rationing in the United States began in late 1941 and continued through the Second World War. Two: “nookie” was cited as early as 1928 as a word meaning both sexual intercourse and the female sexual anatomy. I would thus love to see more photographic detail about the “Nookie Ration Card.” Did it contain stamps that one could present to receive a rationed — thus highly desirable — product?
While readers consider the implications of this, or don’t, hereis the eBay link.
And here is the lovely sound of Bennett Lester Carter (“The King”) playing clarinet.
DEE BLUES (The “Chocolate Dandies,” 1930 — Bobby Stark, Jimmy Harrison, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Horace Henderson, Benny Jackson, John Kirby:
JOE TURNER BLUES (1940: Big Joe Turner, Bill Coleman, Benny Morton, Benny Carter, Georgie Auld, Sonny White, Ulysses Livingston, Wilson Myers, Yank Porter):
BEALE STREET BLUES (same):
On both tracks, Joe sang his own quite impromptu lyrics, amusing since the records were intended as a tribute to W.C. Handy.
LOVELESS LOVE (take one, Billie Holiday for Turner):
LOVELESS LOVE (take two):
ST. LOUIS BLUES (take one):
ST. LOUIS BLUES (take two):
Here you can find other photographs inscribed to Spunk and Punk or the reverse — Cootie Williams, Savannah Churchill. Here’s Ida Cox, in a rare shot:
and this person:
Thanks to the Swing Detective, Kris Bauwens. And I dedicate this post to Benny Carter’s friend, photographer, and scholar Ed Berger.
Everyone who follows jazz devotedly has theories about why some musicians become Stars and others remain Obscure. It clearly isn’t artistic quality, as one could find out quickly by playing recordings of famous and neglected artists. No, other factors interfere.
In that wonderfully uplifting sub-genre known as Harlem stride piano, the pantheon seems to have room for only one man, Fats Waller. His fame is well-deserved: his genial embellishments, his rhythmic drive, his delicious pianistic surprises. But we also have to consider the effect of Fats as a Personality (many recordings and some film appearances) and a Composer. (In the jazz mythology, he is also remembered as a joyous Dionysiac child who died young — elements that stick in our minds.) Willie “the Lion” Smith seems a collection of delightful eccentricities — melodies, derby hat, cigar, scraps of Yiddish, an elegant braggadocio. In our time, pianists Dick Wellstood, Ralph Sutton, Don Ewell, and their current counterparts have (or had) the advantage of being accessible.
But what of the man who came first (leaving aside Eubie Blake and Luckey Roberts), Fats’ teacher, James P. Johnson? He was not a Personality; the one or two times he sings on record he seems uncomfortable; a quiet man, almost shy, he did not thrust himself forward. It would seem that he didn’t record sufficiently, but the discographies prove otherwise. Wellstood once said in print that James P.’s recordings didn’t always document his greatness — although for those of us who didn’t see and hear James P. at all, that would be a moot point.
Mosaic Records, blessedly, has seen fit to put Wellstood’s casual assertion to the test.
This box set will be available in mid-December; it offers the usual Mosaic largesse spread over six CDs; rare material (eleven sides not previously issued), beautiful photographs; a lengthy essay by Dr. Scott Brown, James P.’s biographer, familiar material in the best sound.
And should some worry about six CDs of stride piano, fear not: we hear James P. accompanying blues and pop singers (including Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Clara Smith, and Ethel Waters) and as a sideman in bands that include Frank Newton, Jabbo Smith, Clarence Williams, Garvin Bushell, Louis Metcalf, Fats Waller, Cootie Williams, Arthur Whetsel, King Oliver, Jimmy Archey, Teddy Bunn, Lonnie Johnson, Roy Smeck, Tommy Ladnier, Sidney DeParis, Mezz Mezzrow, John Kirby, Cozy Cole, Sidney Catlett, Henry “Red” Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Gene Sedric, Al Casey, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Christian, Ed Hall, and others.
Here‘s the discography, for those who (like myself) find listings of music we are going to hear very enticing. And if you haven’t heard James P. recently — someone Thelonious Monk admired — scroll down on this Mosaic page andlisten.
My holiday shopping list is now complete — my gift to myself, I mean.
Many people in the United States celebrate today in honor of Christopher Columbus. (My college does not.) I’m not planning to enter into charged historical dialogue except to say that we now know most of what we learned in elementary school was wrong or intentionally misleading, a pattern that continues onwards in education. But that is a dark subject, which I will forego.
This is one kind of historical representation:
Portrait of a man said to be Christopher Columbus
But I prefer this kind, created by Leon “Chu” Berry and Andy Razaf, music and words, in 1936:
A Roy Eldridge small group, a rejected take from 1936, with Roy (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Chu Berry (ts) Teddy Cole (p) John Collins (g) John Kirby (b) Sidney Catlett (d):
The Fletcher Henderson band’s hit version in the same year, with Dick Vance (tp,arr) Joe Thomas, Roy Eldridge (tp) Fernando Arbello, Ed Cuffee (tb) Buster Bailey (cl,as) Scoops Carey (as) Skippy Williams, Chu Berry (ts) Horace Henderson (p,arr) Bob Lessey (g) John Kirby (b) Sidney Catlett (d):
and the 1937 attempt at a follow-up hit, with Dick Vance (tp,arr) Emmett Berry, Russell Smith (tp) John McConnell, Albert Wynn, Ed Cuffee (tb) Jerry Blake (cl,as,vcl,arr) Hilton Jefferson (cl,as) Skippy Williams, Chu Berry (cl,ts) Fletcher Henderson (p,arr) Lawrence “Larry” Lucie (g) Israel Crosby (b) Pete Suggs (d) Chuck Richards (vcl) Horace Henderson (arr):
A Buck Clayton Jam Session, 1953, with Buck, Joe Newman (tp) Urbie Green, Henderson Chambers (tb) Lem Davis (as) Julian Dash (ts) Charlie Fowlkes (bar) Sir Charles Thompson (p,celeste) Freddie Green (g) Walter Page (b) Jo Jones (d):
(I love that this record has a click in it, early and often. Seems like old times.)
and the classic 1936 version by Fats Waller, with Herman Autrey (tp) Gene Sedric (cl,ts) Al Casey (g) Charlie Turner (b) Yank Porter (d):
and just to cool down, Maxine Sullivan in 1956, with Charlie Shavers (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Jerome Richardson (as) Dick Hyman (p) Wendell Marshall (b) / Milt Hinton (b) Osie Johnson (d):
Professor Razaf tells us, “He used the rhythm as a compass.” That’s something I can celebrate, as I hope you can.
Guitarist / singer / composer / arranger Glenn Crytzer has done something remarkable on his latest CD, UPTOWN JUMP. Rather than simply offer effective copies of known jazz recordings, he has created eighteen convincing evocations of a vanished time and place. So convincing are they, I believe, that if I were to play a track from another room to erudite hearers, they would believe they were hearing an unissued recording from 1943-46.
New York’s finest: Glenn, guitar, arranger, composer, vocals; Mike Davis, trumpet; Dan Levinson, soprano, alto, tenor saxophone; Evan Arntzen, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Jesse Gelber, piano; Andrew Hall, string bass; Kevin Dorn, drums. Recorded this year at Peter Karl Studios (thanks, Peter, for the lively sound!)
Here’s one of Glenn’s originals on the CD, MISSOURI LOVES COMPANY, in performance — video by Voon Chew:
Of course there is explosively fine soloing on the CD — given this cast of characters, I’d expect nothing less. But what particularly impressed me is Glenn’s ability to evoke the subtleties of the period. I hear evocations of a particular time and place: let’s call it a Savoy Records session from 1944, with Emmett Berry, two or three saxophones (Ike Quebec, Eddie Barefield, Foots Thomas); a rocking rhythm section with allegiances to Basie, Pete Johnson, Tiny Grimes, Bass Robinson, Eddie Dougherty, Specs Powell. Then there’s his evocation of the incendiary blues playing that closes JAMMIN’ THE BLUES. And a whimsical post-1943 Fats Waller love song (WHAT DID I DO?) complete with the leader’s wry vocal.
A few more random and delighted listening notes.
UPTOWN JUMP begins with a wild clarinet – drum duet that I would have expected to hear on a V-Disc; NOT FAR TO FARGO has the grit of an Ike Quebec Blue Note side; IT’S ABOUT TIME (which begins with Kevin Dorn ticking off the eroding seconds) would be a perfect dance number for a Soundie, with a hilariously hip vocal by the composer. Mike Davis has been studying his Cootie (he gets an A+) on THE ROAD TO TALLAHASSEE, which has a delightful easy glide. SMOKIN’ THAT WEED is the reefer song — with falsetto vocal chorus effects — that every idiomatic CD or party needs. And Mike’s solo is full of those “modern” chords that were beginning to be part of the vocabulary in wartime. MRAH! shows Glenn’s affection for the possibilities of the John Kirby sound, which I celebrate. THAT ZOMBIE MUSIC depicts the illicit union of Kirby and Spike Jones. COULD THIS BE LOVE? is a winning hybrid — a rhythm ballad with winsome lyrics, voiced as if for a Johnny Guarneri session, with some of that Gillespie “Chinese music” stealing in. THE LENOX would get the dancers rocking at The Track. GOOD NIGHT, GOOD LUCK is that antique cameo: the song to send the audience home with sweet memories.
If it sounds as if I had a wonderful time listening to this CD, you have been reading closely and wisely.
More reliable than time-travel; more trustworthy than visits to an alternate universe.
The nicest way to buy an artist’s CD is to put money in his / her hand at the gig, so here is the link to Glenn’s calendar . . . to catch up with him. But if you’re far away, this makes purchasing or downloading the music easy.
I begin somberly . . . but there are more cheerful rewards to follow.
As the jazz audience changes, I sense that many people who “love jazz” love it most when it is neatly packed in a stylistically restrictive box of their choosing. I hear statements of position, usually in annoyed tones, about banjos, ride cymbals, Charlie Parker, purity, authenticity, and “what jazz is.”
I find this phenomenon oppressive, yet I try to understand it as an expression of taste. One stimulus makes us vibrate; another makes us look for the exit. Many people fall in love with an art form at a particular stage of it and their development and remain faithful to it, resisting change as an enemy.
And the most tenaciously restrictive “jazz fans” I know seem frightened of music that seems to transgress boundaries they have created . They shrink back, appalled, as if you’d served them a pizza with olives, wood screws, mushrooms, and pencils. They say that one group is “too swingy” or “too modern” or they say, “I can’t listen to that old stuff,” as if it were a statement of religious belief. “Our people don’t [insert profanation here] ever.”
But some of this categorization, unfortunately, is dictated by the marketplace: if a group can tell a fairly uninformed concert promoter, “We sound like X [insert name of known and welcomed musical expression],” they might get a booking. “We incorporate everyone from Scott Joplin to Ornette Coleman and beyond,” might scare off people who like little boxes.
Certain musical expressions are sacred to me: Louis. The Basie rhythm section. And their living evocations. But I deeply admire musicians and groups, living in the present, that display the imaginative spirit. These artists understand that creative improvised music playfully tends to peek around corners to see what possibilities exist in the merging of NOW and THEN and WHAT MIGHT BE.
One of the most satisfying of these playful groups is ECHOES OF SWING. Their clever title says that they are animated by wit, and this cheerful playfulness comes out in their music — not in “comedy” but in an amused ingenuity, a lightness of heart. They have been in action since 1997, and when I saw them in person (the only time, alas) in 2007, they were wonderfully enlivening.
This action photograph by Sascha Kletzsch suggests the same thing:
They are Colin T. Dawson, trumpet / vocal; Chris Hopkins, alto sax; Bernd Lhotzky, piano; Oliver Mewes, drums. And they are that rarity in modern times, a working group — which means that they know their routines, and their ensemble work is beautiful, offering the best springboards into exhilarating improvisatory flights. They are also “a working group,” which means that they have gigs. Yes, gigs! Check out their schedule here.
Here is a 2013 post featuring their hot rendition of DIGA DIGA DOO, and an earlier one about their previous CD, MESSAGE FROM MARS, with other videos — as well as my favorite childhood joke about a Martian in New York City here. And while we’re in the video archives, here is a delicious eleven-minute offering from in November 2014:
and here they are on German television with a late-period Ellington blues, BLUE PEPPER:
All this is lengthy prelude to their new CD, aptly titled BLUE PEPPER:
The fifteen songs on the disc are thematically connected by BLUE, but they are happily varied, with associations from Ellington to Brubeck and Nat Cole, composers including Gordon Jenkins, Rodgers, Bechet, Waller, Strayhorn — and a traditional Mexican song and several originals by members of the band: BLUE PEPPER / AZZURRO / BLUE PRELUDE / LA PALOMA AZUL / BLUE & NAUGHTY / BLUE MOON / BLACK STICK BLUES / BLUE RIVER / OUT OF THE BLUE / AOI SAMMYAKU [BLUE MOUNTAIN RANGE] / THE SMURF / BLUE GARDENIA / THE BLUE MEDICINE [RADOVAN’S REMEDY] / WILD CAT BLUES / AZURE.
What one hears immediately from this group is energy — not loud or fast unless the song needs either — a joyous leaping into the music. Although this band is clearly well-rehearsed, there is no feeling of going through the motions. Everything is lively, precise, but it’s clear that as soloists and as an ensemble, they are happily ready to take risks. “Risks” doesn’t mean anarchy in swingtime, but it means a willingness to extend the boundaries: this group is dedicated to something more expansive than recreating already established music.
When I first heard the group (and was instantly smitten) they sounded, often, like a supercharged John Kirby group with Dizzy and Bird sitting in while at intervals the Lion shoved Al Haig off the piano stool. I heard and liked their swinging intricacies, but now they seem even more adventurous. And where some of the most endearing CDs can’t be listened to in one sitting because they offer seventy-five minutes of the same thing, this CD is alive, never boring.
A word about the four musicians. Oliver Mewes loves the light-footed swing of Tough and Catlett, and he is a sly man with a rimshot in just the right place, but he isn’t tied hand and foot by the past. Bernd Lhotzky is a divine solo pianist (he never rushes or drags) with a beautiful lucent orchestral conception, but he is also someone who is invaluable in an ensemble, providing with Oliver an oceanic swing that fifteen pieces could rest on. I never listen to this group and say, “Oh, they would be so much better with a rhythm guitar or a string bassist.”
And the front line is just as eloquent. Colin T. Dawson is a hot trumpet player with a searing edge to his phrases, but he knows where each note should land for the collective elegance of the group — and he’s a sweetly wooing singer in addition. Chris Hopkins (quiet in person) is a blazing marvel on the alto saxophone — inventive and lyrical and unstoppable — in much the same way he plays the piano.
And here is what my wise friend Dave Gelly wrote: It’s hard to believe at first that there are only four instruments here. The arrangements are so ingenious, and the playing so nimble, that it could be at least twice that number. But listen closely and you will discover just a quartet of trumpet, alto saxophone, piano and drums – with absolutely no electronic tricks. The style is sophisticated small-band swing, the material a judicious mixture of originals and swing-era numbers and there is not a hint of whiskery nostalgia in any of it. It’s about time this idiom received some fresh attention and here’s the perfect curtain-raiser.
Having good friends is a delight in themselves. When the friends are generous, that’s more than one can hope for. Here’s evidence: Jeanie Gorman Wilson, who took very good care of the singer Barbara Lea in Barbara’s last years, shared these pieces of paper with me . . . and with the readers of JAZZ LIVES.
What you’ll see below is admittedly a small collection but absolutely irreplaceable: two 1951 missives from trumpeter / composer Frank Newton to the youthful but impressive Miss Barbara Leacock. These aren’t simply rare pieces of paper, but artifacts from a gifted man, his life too short — but testimony to his humanity, his affectionate wisdom.
The envelope, please:
And the contents:
Here’s thanking you for whatever contribution you made toward the wonderful birthday party.
Let me wish you lots of success with your singing. Don’t be discouraged by a lot of your friends’ opinions, neither feel too exalted by their compliments, but try to work as hard as time will allow, out of which will come something of which you are deserving and will be proud of.
Give Larry [Eanet] my regards.
As ever, your well-wishing friend.
Eight months later, when Newton was working as a counselor at KIDDIE KAMP in Sharon, Massachusetts (the postcard’s motto is “Thanks feller, for the swell vacation!”):
And his note, which ends “hurry and write”:
Hello Barbara: — Just to let you know where I am, and what I am doing. I am counsler at this camp for kids and I am having a ball. I shure wish you could drive over here and see the camp it is only 20 some miles from Boston George Wein and the band were up here last week. If you can write me and tell me what’s what is happening to you
hurry and write
Yes, Newton’s handwriting, spelling, and punctuation are much more informal, but I imagine him dashing off this note, leaning against a tree, while children around him demanded his attention.
More information on KIDDIE KAMP can be found here — thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Thanks to Jeanie for allowing us to read some of Newton’s words. He has been gone for nearly sixty years. If his sound isn’t distinctive in your ears, here is a deep, mournful sample: his 1939 THE BLUES MY BABY GAVE TO ME (with Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Brown, James P. Johnson, Al Casey, John Kirby, and Cozy Cole — the session supervised by Hughes Panassie):
Barbara Lea is nearer to us: December 26 was only the second anniversary of her death, but it’s always a privilege to hear her remarkable voice once again. Here she is, with Dick Sudhalter and James Chirillo, performing the uplifting IT’S ALL IN YOUR MIND:
And since we can all dream of hearing Mr. Newton and Miss Leacock together, I offer here (yet unheard) evidence of such a musical meeting. Newton’s actual birthday was January 4, so it is possible that this disc was cut at the birthday party he mentions in his first letter. Someday . . .