Tag Archives: John Simmons

JAMES P. JOHNSON’S “BLUE MIZZ,” PLUS VIC DICKENSON

I’ve loved the 1943-44 recordings by the Blue Note Jazzmen since I first heard them in the early Seventies.  Here’s James P. Johnson’s pensive yet dramatic composition, BLUE MIZZ, from 1944 — with the personnel listed on the label.  I’ve kept this link even though the disc has serious skips:

Thanks to friend and swing star Michael Gamble, here’s a link that doesn’t skip:

And here’s a holy relic just spotted a few minutes ago on eBay.  The seller (link      here) is asking slightly more than eighty-five dollars for the disc, which is not within my budget at the moment (is it too boastful to say that I have two Vic autographs, one that he signed for me?) . . . but I thought you would like to see the combination of sound, object, and the touch of a hero’s hand:

Bless the artists who made these sounds, and let us not forget a single one.

May your happiness increase!

A postscript: I created this posting about ninety minutes ago: someone bought the record described above, which makes me feel quite good . . . Vic devotees are reading JAZZ LIVES!  Also — the race IS to the swift.  Twenty-four hours later, I realized that the disc might have been bought by someone who’s never read this blog — but the illusion of my connecting the cosmic dots is one I will hang on to a little longer.

EASY LIVING: DAN MORGENSTERN RECALLS BILLIE HOLIDAY (Dec. 10, 2019)

Much of what I read about Billie Holiday strikes me as morbidly unhealthy: the fascination with her drug addiction, her abusive men.  I can’t pretend that those aspects of her life did not exist, but I was thrilled to ask Dan Morgenstern, now ninety, to recall the Lady — and to have him share warm, personal stories.

First, a musical interlude:

Now, here’s Dan, at his Upper West Side apartment: the subject, Lady Day as she was in real life, with anecdotes about Martha Raye, Tommy Flanagan, Lester Young, Zutty Singleton as well:

and the second part — more about Billie, with anecdotes about George Wein, Lester Young, Budd Johnson, Paul Quinichette, Chuck Israels, John Simmons, and Benny Goodman:

Thank you, Dan!  And there are more beautiful stories to come.

May your happiness increase!

FATS HAS A CONE. SIDNEY EATS ON THE BUS. WE HAVE SEVERAL MYSTERIES.

In the mood for a snack?

Two photographic treasures.  The first, presented by Hugo Dusk, shows Fats Waller holding — not eating — an ice-cream cone.  Hugo explains, “On the boardwalk in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where Fats Waller was appearing at the Old Orchard Pier 6th September 1941.”

It’s clearly a posed shot.  The ice cream is untouched and not melting, perilously close to Fats’ sweater.  The young lady behind the counter looks as if her smile is genuine, although we note her demurely folded hands. Was it not possible or desirable to show her handing “a Negro” anything?  I should also note that this was a summer resort.  The weather forecast for September 2017 at Old Orchard Beach has temperatures reaching 80, so the season was not over.  Because of that, but we have Fats in less formal garb — but the creases on his shirt sleeves suggest that there is a temporarily discarded suit jacket just out of range.

To return for just a moment to the treacherous chronicle of race politics in 1941, this photograph was possible because Fats Waller was a star.  True, a counter separates the two participants: they are not putting two straws into a malted, but stardom, at least for a newspaper photograph, allowed a man of color certain privileges.  There is no FOR COLORED ONLY sign here, and we are led to assume, for a moment, that people of all races could come to Old Orchard Beach and enjoy themselves.  I hope it was true.  But I wonder that what looks like the main street of this resort was The White Way.

And the appropriate soundtrack, free from race hatreds:

The second photograph, still for sale on eBay for $375, comes from the collection of Cleveland, Ohio, photographer Nat Singerman.  Here is the link.  It is a candid shot of three members of Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, standing outside their (unheated) tour bus: string bassist Arvell Shaw, clarinetist Barney Bigard, and drummer Sidney Catlett. Sidney was with the band 1947-1949, so we know the time frame, although my assigning the location to Cleveland is only a guess.

The poses are unrehearsed: Arvell is buttoning or unbuttoning his topcoat; Barney leans back with an inscrutable expression beneath his beautiful hat; Sidney is caught in mid-sentence and mid-gesture, possibly speaking to Nat or to someone on the bus.  The eBay seller annotates his prize, “Unusual photograph of jazz greats . . . signed in white ink over the image by Bigard and Shaw. 10 x 8 inches. Tape remnants along the left edge, else fine.  From the collection of Nat Singerman, a professional photographer and co-owner of Character Arts Photo Studio in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1940’s and 1950’s. During this period he met and befriended many jazz legends who performed at clubs in and around Cleveland and Chicago. He took many photographs of performances as well as numerous candid shots taken backstage. He also hosted jam sessions and dinners at his studio where other images from the archive were shot.”

However, there might be some controversy over the photographer. In September 2013, The New York Times ran color shots of Billie Holiday and identified the photographer as Nat Singerman, earning these responses on a jazz blog:

These are indeed, wonderful photographs. Unfortunately, the photographer has been misidentified. They were taken by Nat’s brother, Harvey Singerman, and my own grandmother, Elaine Pinzone, both of whom worked at Character Arts Studio in Cleveland, Ohio. Arrangements are currently being made with The New York Times to correct the mistake.

and the next day, Ms. Garner continued:

I would very much appreciate you removing his name while we negotiate with The Times to correct this travesty.

Ms. Garner continued — on her own blog — to vehemently state that Nat took none of the photos and had stolen credit from Harvey and Elaine (the latter, 1914-1976, if the Social Security records are correct).

I can’t delve deeper into that: however, from the signatures on the photograph, it’s clear that Nat brought the developed photograph to wherever Arvell and Barney were playing, and asked them to autograph it to him.  I suspect that the musicians would not have said, “Hey, Nat!  Where are Harvey and Elaine?”

But back to my chosen subject.

It would be very easy to draw from this photograph a moral about those same race relations: if you were African-American but not a star in Fats Waller’s league, there might be few places that would serve you dinner.  I imagine Sidney being turned away from a restaurant — even in Cleveland, Ohio — because of his skin color.  Or that he could buy food from the kitchen but couldn’t eat it there. But other interpretations must be considered.

After Sidney’s death, a number of musicians (Louis and the bassist John Simmons come to mind) spoke of how he was often late — having too good a time — so that might explain why he is the only one in the photograph who appears to not have eaten.  Too, the All-Stars covered many miles between gigs on that bus, so the road manager, “Frenchy,” might have said, “You have ten minutes to get some food, and if you’re not back, the _______ bus is leaving without you.”

A mystery too large to solve, especially at this distance in time.  I hope the dinner in Sidney’s covered dish was memorable, just as I hope that Fats got to enjoy his ice cream before it melted.

In honor of those hopes, the appropriate soundtrack here (could it be otherwise?) is the blues from the Armstrong All-Stars’ concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, featuring Sidney and called STEAK FACE.  (Of course, for those in the know, that sobriquet refers to “General,” Louis’ Boston terrier, not Sid.) You’ll hear Sidney, Barney, Arvell, Louis, Dick Cary, and Jack Teagarden:

Thanks to David Fletcher, who, whether he knows it or not, has encouraged me to dig into such questions with the energy of a terrier puppy destroying a couch.

May your happiness increase!

SLEEP, FROM FRED WARING ON (HOWARD ALDEN, DAN BARRETT, HARRY ALLEN, FRANK TATE, RICKY MALICHI at CLEVELAND: September 11, 2015)

sleeping-woman

Shhhh, don’t wake the Beauty.

Waring’s Pennsylvanians in 1928, in 3 /4 time:

a 1937 version by Tommy Dorsey, with Bud Freeman and Dave Tough in an arrangement that “borrows” from STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY and CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

Benny Carter and his Orchestra in 1940, with guest star Coleman Hawkins, as well as Eddie Heywood, Keg Purnell, and Joe Thomas:

I saw Carter and the Swing Masters perform this arrangement at a Newport in New York concert at Carnegie Hall, with Joe Thomas (slightly overwhelmed by the rapid pace), Teddy Wilson, Milt Hinton, and Jo Jones — the latter turning the brief drum solo into a longer exhibition.  Memorably.

Sidney Catlett, Ben Webster, Marlowe Morris, John Simmons in 1944.  A monument to Swing:

and the present — September 11, 2015, at the Allegheny Jazz Party (d/b/a the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party) by Howard Alden, guitar; Dan Barrett, trombone; Harry Allen, tenor saxophone; Frank Tate, string bass; Ricky Malichi, drums:

May your happiness increase!

ONE BLACK BEAUTY, TWO RIBBONS, AND A RIFF

This post is intentionally a little mysterious, since I am not at liberty to reveal certain details in public.  A dear and trusted friend has asked me to help offer certain treasured items for sale — something I do not often do on JAZZ LIVES, but since the friend and I have a decades-long relationship, I am happy to do it.

To begin: a 1920’s 5 1/2 x 15 Ludwig Black Beauty Snare Drum
Pat. 1924 on snare throw
Engraved Leaf Design with “Ludwig Chicago” on shell
“Super Ludwig” engraved on bottom rim
All snare tension adjustment screws, all lug screws in place
Condition includes small dimple, one snare damaged:

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and

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and

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and

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and 2 Original RCA 77DX Microphones in excellent condition, includes yoke stand mount:

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and

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and

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and some music to help you consider purchases.  Without drums and microphones, this record would never have existed:

Interested serious buyers may contact me at swingyoucats@gmail.com — I’m Michael Steinman — and I will pass along those inquiries to the owner of these beauties.

May your happiness increase!

BING, PRES, BIRD, 1946, 2014

This afternoon, I went on another thrift-shop quest: I search for several rewards, but predictably one is jazz records.  I am most keenly interested in 78s, although vinyl, CDs, home recordings, and cassettes have all surfaced recently.

In Petaluma, California, I drove to one of my favorite places, Alphabet Soup Thrift Store on Western Avenue. Once I had assumed the proper posture (hands and knees, for the 78s were in a box on the floor) I saw this:

APRIL 2014 and before 119

Just finding ten-inch 78 albums is a treat. As an omen, it was hopeful in itself, although Bing albums are common: he sold millions of discs — this collection is copyright 1946.

I love Mr. Crosby, although I gravitate towards his earlier work, when his gaze was more romantic, less severe. For a moment I mused upon the photograph of the man on the cover, clearly warning me not to trespass on his lands. At best, serious; at worst, unfriendly.

With what I can only describe as guarded optimism, I opened the album, knowing from experience that I might not find the records advertised on the cover within.  (In my thrift-shop experience, the records and the album only match when the music is classical, Viennese waltzes, or the songs of Dorothy Shay, the Park Avenue Hillbilly — for reasons I have never understood.)

This is what greeted me, a holy relic:

APRIL 2014 and before 120Thanks to John Hammond and Milt Gabler, that’s a serious thing!

I can’t prove it, but I would bet a good deal that Jimmie Blanton heard and admired that side: where Walter Page comes through beautifully. The other side is the celestial ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS. (Yes, a later pressing, but why fuss?)

I would have been happy if the remaining records had been Allan Jones or perhaps Helen Traubel.  This disc was a treasure.  But I proceeded deeper into the album, to find this disc, especially cosmic (for me) because I had revisited the recordings of this band, including Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Taft Jordan, Edgar Battle, on a recent extended car trip:

APRIL 2014 and before 121I wasn’t moaning in the thrift store, because I knew the other patrons might find it odd, and I would have to stand up to properly explain that these discs were the jazz equivalent of first editions by prized writers. But JAZZ LIVES readers will understand my state of bliss.

Two other Commodores (!) appeared — the whole of the 1944 Kansas City Six date with Bill Coleman, Lester Young, Dicky Wells, Joe Bushkin, John Simmons, Jo Jones: JO-JO, THREE LITTLE WORDS, FOUR O’CLOCK DRAG, I GOT RHYTHM.

The final record in the album was cracked — but surely playable:

APRIL 2014 and before 122

The other side is BLUE ‘N’ BOOGIE, Dexter Gordon credited.

My discoveries weren’t at an end.  On the inside cover of this 1946 Crosby album, the owner of the discs had kept a tally. It is hard to read but you’ll note that (s)he loved Lester Young:

APRIL 2014 and before 123

I don’t know the facts, and I shy away from melodrama: jazz-mad Patty or Bill secretly demolishing Mom and Dad’s square Crosby platters to have an album for Pres, Bird, Diz, and Babs. But this list is written with pride of ownership and pride of having a burgeoning Lester Young collection. I don’t think that with an album of only six pockets that one would have to write such a list to recall the contents: this tally says LOOK WHAT BEAUTY I HAVE HERE.

That four of the discs on the list survived speaks to the owner’s care, and to the care of the person who delivered this package to Alphabet Soup. I always feel sad when I uncover such a beloved collection, because I worry that the owner has made the transition, but perhaps Grandma or Grandpa simply has the complete Lester on an iPhone?

Did Bing and the Andrews Sisters give way to Pres, Bird, and Dizzy?  I can’t say in this case. If you wish to write the narrative of seismic artistic shifts, I can’t prevent you from issuing essays on Modernism. Or academic exegeses of High and Low Art.

But this assemblage — take it as if it were one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes — suggests to me that there was a moment in the bumpy history of “popular music” where Eddie Durham, the Andrews Sisters, “cowboy music,” Three Bips and a Bop, Cole Porter, Bird, Diz, Clyde Hart, all coexisted in relative serenity.

Will those days when music roamed wide-open spaces return? Can we dream of creativity without fences established by the artists, their publicists, the critics, and business people?

I don’t know, and the arguments this might provoke have a limited charm.  So if you pardon me, I’m off (across the room) to play my New Old 78s, much loved then and much treasured now.  And those seventy-year old relics sound very good now, I assure you. Walter Page and Willie Bryant come through superbly, as do Lester, Jo, and Dexter. And listening to 78s is very good aerobic exercise for me: I have to get out of my chair every three minutes. Lester is watching over my health, or perhaps it is Bill Coleman or Milt Gabler?

Blessings on you, oh Unnamed Lover of Jazz!

This post is for three young tenor players — in alphabetical order — Jon Doyle, Ben Flood, and Stan Zenkov. They know why!

And for those readers who wonder, “What do those records sound like?” I encourage them to search “Kansas City Six” and “A Viper’s Moan” on YouTube, as well as Bird and Dizzy.  Reassuringly audible.

May your happiness increase!

HEROIC FIGURES IN THE SHADOWS

A friend recently asked me about a valued musician, now gone, who never seemed to get the honors he deserved. “Why doesn’t anyone pay attention to X?”  I recalled that X was always working in groups led by A Star, a powerful personality.  I have no idea if X wanted to lead a group and couldn’t, but he never said in public that he felt the opportunity had been denied him.

It made me think again about “being a leader” in jazz.  We celebrate the musicians whose names appear on the record labels and the marquees, in boldface in discographies.  Theirs are the sounds we know, and they do deserve our attention and our love. Think of a universe without Count Basie — the sky suddenly grows dark at the mere statement of such a void.

But the Stars rely on the often semi-anonymous players who keep the great ship’s rhythmic engines humming.  Consider Ed Lewis, Joe Muranyi, Fred Guy, Leo McConville, Bobby Tucker, Wendell Marshall, George Stafford, Tommy Thunen, Curley Russell, Dave Bowman — players who didn’t chafe to be center stage.  There is a special cozy corner of Paradise for those who didn’t have the urge to solo, but who created backgrounds and section sounds that delight us, that made the Stars sound so fine.

Although he was a famous leader and a notable Personality, I think of Eddie Condon in this respect, as someone who cared more about how the band sounded than whether he soloed. Dave Tough, Freddie Green, also.

Musicians will tell you that “being a leader” brings what we call “fame,” but this public place can be a nuisance.  Visibility brings recognition: no longer are you third alto in the reed section, one of the Wisconsin Skyrockets, you are THE Skyrocket, and people know your name and recognize you.

But that recognition also means that fans want to talk with you when you are on your way to the bathroom.  People who “just love your music” grab your upper arm.  Some have their own ideas about songs you should be playing, in what tempos, and who you should Sound Like.  Play the clarinet, and you are told about an admirer’s favorite Benny Goodman record.  Sing, and you hear all about Billie Holiday (“Tsk, tsk.  Those drugs.”) or perhaps Diana Krall.

If you are leading a group in a club, the club-owner heads directly for you when something goes wrong.  You have to get the gigs.  You have to handle the money.

You have to deal with the personalities in the band (A, late again; B, grimy again; C, in despair; D, texting when not playing; E, a model in all things but eager to point out the flaws of A, B, C, and D.)

You have to talk on the microphone.  You must encourage the crowd to put money in the tip basket or buy CDs.  You deal with requests, with people who drink too much and talk too loudly.

Often, when your musicians are upset, frustrated, or angry, they blame you, or they simply mutter. “Sixty bucks?  Is that all?”  “My shepherd’s pie is cold.”  I hate that song.  Do we have to play it?”

To paraphrase Judy Syfers, “My God, who would want to lead a band?”

So let’s cheer for the Invaluable Near-Anonymities, the wonderful professionals in the String section of Charlie Parker with Strings, the baritone wizard Charlie Bubeck, who anchored the Ozzie Nelson band — reed players talked of him reverently, but he never led a date; the fellows strumming behind Django and Stephane.  They may have looked deeply into “the music business” and said, “I’d rather drive a cab than lead a band.”

A brief, wholly improvised list:

Zilner Randolph, Les Robinson, Buzzy Drootin, Mary Osborne, Nick Fatool, Ed Cuffee, Bill Triglia, Danny Bank, Dick Vance, Max Farley, Frank Orchard, Bob Casey, Red Ballard, Mickey McMickle, Jimmy Maxwell, Cliff Leeman, George Berg, Al Klink, Lee Blair, Leon Comegys, John Simmons, Les Spann, Allan Reuss, Don Frye, Kansas Fields, Louis Metcalf.

And a thousand more.  And certainly their living counterparts.  (I’ve limited my list to the Departed because I thought that no one I know would like to see their name on a list of the Brilliant Shadowy Underrated.  You and I know the people who make jazz go . . . !)

These people don’t win polls.  They don’t have to stand still for autograph hunters.  But where would we be without them?

May your happiness increase! 

“AS LONG AS I HAVE YOU”: JAZZ VALENTINES, CONTINUED

Readers of JAZZ LIVES will have noticed that it is that rare thing — a Romantic Jazz Blog.  This morning, while I was sitting alongside the Beloved, having breakfast, discussing a bit of mundane difficulty which was causing discomfort even though I knew it wouldn’t be permanent, I said to her, “Well, I’ll get by — as long as I have you.” Thank you, Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert, for giving us another way to express these sentiments — that the worst things in life are made more easy by the presence of a Beloved, that love helps us to endure. “Getting by” often seems like the minimum, “just getting by,” but this song gives it substance and dignity.

I'LL GET BY

I know that isn’t the original sheet music (which has only a floral design) and I think that the Beloved leaves Irene Dunne in the dust, although I am no Spencer Tracy . . . but the vision of a couple finding comfort in each other’s presence is a sustaining ideal.

As is the song itself.  There are many other versions, among them by Bing and Ruth Etting, but these two by Lady Day do it for me.  (She was often annoyed by John Hammond’s pushing “old songs” on her — this one from 1928 — but his instincts were fine here.) The first version begins with the much-belittled Buster Bailey (if he was so unimaginative, why did all the major bands fight for him?), then moves into a rapturous Johnny Hodges chorus, and then Miss Holiday, curling around the melody with the help of Buck Clayton and that rhythm section (Artie Bernstein, Allan Reuss, Cozy Cole):

Seven years later, with an even more emphatic Sidney Catlett driving things along, and Billie finding new curlicues with which to be soulfully expressive: 

1944: with Eddie Heywood, Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Lem Davis, Teddy Walters, John Simmons, Sidney Catlett.

I’ll get by.  You will, too.

May your happiness increase!

SIDNEY CATLETT, EARLY AND LATE

Big Sid to you.

SIDNEY CATLETT with WIRE BRUSHES

“Good deal!”

The eBay seller  says that the photograph came from the Burt Goldblatt collection.  Goldblatt (1924-2006), whom we all know from album covers and famous photographs, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts — so I am guessing that this photograph of Sidney (late in his short life) might have been taken in a Boston club — Sidney worked in that city in 1950, after leaving the Louis Armstrong All-Stars due to heart disease.    

Perhaps this could be the soundtrack to this photograph:

Or this:

Every little breeze — if it’s a rhythmic one — whispers “Sidney!”

This one’s for Romy, MB, KD, and Brother Hal . . .

May your happiness increase.

EMMETT BERRY’S BUESCHER TRUMPET, 1952

This Buescher trumpet, the advertisement tells us, is the model Emmett Berry plays with Johnny Hodges.  For tremendous power and range, which Mr. Berry would have had on any horn.

Emmett Berry came from the tradition of individualistic players — with an intense near-ferocity no matter what the context . . . with Fletcher or Horace Henderson, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Cozy Cole, Edmond Hall, Bennie Morton, Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells, Buddy Tate, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Walter Thomas, Ben Webster, Budd Johnson, Oscar Pettiford, Harry Carney, Johnny Guarneri, Illinois Jacquet, Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood, Vic Dickenson, John Kirby, Gerald Wilson, Betty Roche, Helen Humes, Johnny Thompson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Al Sears,Al Hibbler, Lem Davis, Dodo Marmarosa, Slim Gaillard, John Simmons, Zutty Singleton, Sidney Catlett, Sammy Price, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Eddie Bert, Lucky Thompson, Bennie Green, Lawrence Brown, Sidney Bechet, Ruby Braff, Art Farmer, Claude Hopkins, Pee Wee Russell, Bob Brookmeyer, Andy Gibson, Paul Gonsalves, Cannonball Adderley, Shorty Baker, Chu Berry, Earl Hines, Joe Williams.  On Keynote he was the third trumpet player with Joe Thomas and Roy Eldridge.  He was in the trumpet section for a Miles Davis and Gil Evans session.

Between 1937 and 1967, he seems to have been active on gigs and in the recording studio, even if some of that work had him playing second trumpet to Buck Clayton or as part of the brass section behind a singer.  But this record of activity says to me that various people (Harry Lim, John Hammond, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Buddy Tate) valued him as a powerful, reliable, creative player — someone who could swing, improvise, blend with a section, sight-read music the first time he saw it.

Buck Clayton’s story of Berry whacking Jimmy Witherspoon in the head with his trumpet when Spoon had been particularly out of line suggests that Berry was not someone to be trifled with, and his phrasing does suggest an expert boxer and dangerous counterpuncher.

But no one seems to have interviewed him during his playing career, and I have it in my memory (true?) that he suffered some sort of late-life mental collapse and retired from music.  (What does anyone know of him in the years from 1967 to 1993?)

His sound– so vehement — remains in my ears.  On the early Clef sessions with Hodges, on THE SOUND OF JAZZ, backing Rushing on Vanguard — unmistakable.

Here’s “a little good blues” with Earle Warren, Sir Charles Thompson, Gene Ramey, and Oliver Jackson, from 1961:

Berry doesn’t take enough space, and his vehemence is hinted at rather than fully released, but his sound and physical presence are fully evident.

He’s someone I miss.

May your happiness increase.

GLIMPSES OF MEL POWELL

The pianist and composer Mel Powell (1923-88) was admired by so many of his colleagues in jazz: Benny Carter, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Buell Neidlinger, Ruby Braff, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett . . . Before his eighteenth birthday, he had composed and arranged for the Goodman band and held his own in what might have been the best (alas, unrecorded) rhythm section imaginable: Mel, Charlie Christian, John Simmons, and Sidney Catlett).  A child prodigy, Powell was playing professionally at Nick’s, then went on to study composition with Paul Hindemith.  And his obituary in the New York Times — correctly, I think — terms him an “atonal composer.”

For the moment, I will not explore the question of why Powell “turned away” from jazz (the phrase isn’t mine) except to suggest that his imagination, from the start, was more spacious than the music he heard.  Perhaps he feared what might happen to that imagination on a steady diet of easy chord changes in 4 / 4.

This post is meant only to remind or re-introduce jazz listeners to one of the most remarkable improvisers at the piano that the music has known.

Hearing Powell, one knows, in two bars, that a quirky, searching soul — a down-home Zen master — is at the keys.  Powell’s touch is enviable; he never falters or seems mechanical at the quickest tempo.  But what remains in my ear is more than technical mastery: it is Powell’s ability to sound translucent and dense at the same time.  In some ways, his solos shimmer and tease: the first impression says, “Oh, I’m just striding away, embellishing the melody.  I love Teddy and Fats, and here’s a slimmed-down Tatum run at a fifteen-degree angle.  Nothing up my sleeve.”  But then the rest of the tapestry comes into view, and we hear new harmonies, voicings that both delight and surprise.

Here are three YouTube presentations that will repay close attention:

The first is nearly painful in the suspension of disbelief it requires — Did someone in a film studio say, “It’ll be hilarious to give Benny Goodman bad heavy makeup and a fraudulent accent and cast him as a classical musician who knows nothing of jazz — then we can have him ‘get hip’ at the end”?  But this clip offers a young Mel — in Technicolor — among his peers, jamming on STEALIN’ APPLES from the 1948 film A SONG IS BORN, with BG, Lionel Hampton — and an “audience” of Louis, Tommy Dorsey, Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo:

The only visual here is a still photograph of an even younger Mel — the soundtrack being two of his 1945 solos recorded in France: POUR MISS BLACK and DON’T BLAME ME:

And finally, a March 1957 Perry Como television show, Benny Goodman, Mel, and Roy Burnes playing Gershwin:

A few glimpses of Mel Powell, who sounds like no one else.

I will, in a few months, have much more to say about the man and his imagination — with help from someone who knew him well.

May your happiness increase.

THE MUSICIAN and THE JOURNALIST: CONSIDERING BIG SID

By chance, the March 2012 issue of the NEW YORK CITY JAZZ RECORD has an intriguing concentration on drummers — or improvising percussionists.  And I was delighted to see two portraits of my hero Sidney Catlett in the opening pages.

The French jazz drummer Pierre Favre, who will turn 75 this April, writes: “Big Sid Catlett . . . was my biggest influence.  He was like a sorcerer.  He was precise and fluent when he played time and when he played the melody his unexpected rim shots shaped it and made it swing.  I was talking to Tony Williams and he told me: ‘Big Sid Catlett was my biggest influence too.'”

Jazz journalist and blogger Clifford Allen hears Sidney in these ways: “There’s dynamism in Catlett’s swing, his brushwork weighty yet particulate, deft and muscular pushed up against the velvety wall of [Ben] Webster’s tenor . . . . Catlett’s pared-down, seemingly effortless swing was a far dry from drummer-showman contemporaries and helped knit together the rhythm section . . . . His work . . . may have paved the way for what would become a penchant for traditional and early bebop sides, since most of the . . . musicians played with one foot in ‘the new thing.’  Very few drummers traversed the eras of ragtime / Dixieland, Swing and bebop, but Catlett is one who was broad-minded and creative enough to do so.”

Sidney Catlett, so substantial, lends himself to a variety of empathic interpretations.  Listen!

O RARE JAMES P. JOHNSON!

The world still hasn’t quite caught up to James Price Johnson, ambitious composer, eminent pianist, generous mentor and teacher. 

How about CHARLESTON or ONE HOUR, MULE WALK  or YAMEKRAW? 

He  lifted up every band he played in, and as a stride progenitor, he lived up to his announcement that he could create “a trick a minute” at the keyboard.  And through his loving paternal care of one Thomas Waller, we have generations of pianists who thank him and sing his praises. 

James P. doesn’t get the attention his works or his playing merit.  But eBay has a few more exhibits for sale and for delighted contemplation.  Printed music, not records — harking back to a time when every household had a piano and someone reasonably competent to make it sing and shout.

Early in his career, James P. (who studied the classical repertoire and took many of his “tricks” from it) had ambitions — always frustrated — to write and perform longer works.  Many have been unearthed and recorded after his death, but EBONY DREAMS (1928) is new to me.  I’d love to hear what a real pianist could do with this music: if I bought it, it would simply reproach me, unplayed, from the piano:

And here’s something more popular and less intimidating — a song from a 1932 musical.  I’ve heard Marty Grosz sing it (as THERE GOES MY HEADACHE) and it’s entertaining although not hugely memorable.  But I’d never seen the sheet music for this show before:

And just to keep this post from being too dry a trip into the world of paper ephemera, here’s something for the ears.  Here’s James P. with Sidney DeParis, Vic Dickenson, Ben Webster, Jimmy Arthur Shirley, John Simmons, and Sidney Catlett, performing AFTER YOU’VE GONE for Blue Note.  Listen to his ringing solo chorus and the fine, spare comping he gives the soloists:

You see I don’t mean my title to be taken lightly!

STRIDE INTO GENEROSITY: EVERY DOLLAR GOES TO THE MUSICIANS

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HIS FATHER’S VOICE

Even if you don’t know Sidney Catlett (1910-1951, possibly the greatest percussionist in jazz) and his living son — a famous basketball player — you owe it to yourself to read this very touching article about son and father finding one another in ways that transcend the ordinary. 

Here are two links to the Washington Post article — and jazz fans will find the name of the author a special bonus.  I’m going to go through my day hearing in my head the sound of Spencer Clark (bass saxophone) in a trio with Erroll Garner and Sidney. 

Imagine what it feels like to hear your father’s voice for the first time when you are in your fifties:

And Sidney’s musical voice still reverberates for the rest of us:

http://bit.ly/eROa0t

http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/40429/what-brought-big-sid-and-little-sid-catlett-together/

WHAT WOULD BIG SID DO?  ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS.

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