Tag Archives: John Steiner

“MANHANDLING,” or IMPROVISATIONS ON THE FAMILIAR (January 31, 1944)

Time matters. Pulse matters.  And in music, a tempo even slightly slower or slightly faster makes a substantial difference in how a familiar piece of music comes across to us. Through decades of performance, we are used to hearing Carmichael’s STAR DUST — or STARDUST, if you prefer — as a dreamy, haunting ballad, although it didn’t begin its recorded life that way in 1927. But improvisers take chances. . . .it is as if your favorite sixtyish uncle dyed his white hair bright blue just to see what it would look like, and it looked fine.

Two bold takers-of-chances were the Chicago pianist Oro “Tut” Soper and drummer Baby Dodds, who recorded several duets for the Steiner-Davis label (the creation of John Steiner, revered jazz scholar and collector, and Hugh Davis) in early 1944, at the home of pianist Jack Gardner.

A wonderfully detailed survey, by Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, and Tom Kelly, of that label and the stories behind the recordings can be found here, and the two photographs in this posting come from that site.  But most important is the musical evidence: Tut Soper showing his radical exuberance and playfulness, by taking this ballad — and ballad it was, by 1944 — and treating it much as Earl Hines did LOVE ME TONIGHT, a melody to be explored, a song to be swung:

Here’s some fascinating commentary on this side and its fellows, from the site noted above.  (Was violinist Elmer Fearn “Mr. Fearn” of OKeh Records?  It isn’t a common name.)

Pianist Tut Soper was born Oro M. Soper on April 9, 1910. In the early 1920s, Soper made a record on OKeh with a group of kids, all 13 and under, called The Five Baby Shieks. Besides Soper on piano, they included Art Elefson on drums, Howard Snyder on sax, and Elmer Fearn on violin. By the late 1920s he was a regular in Chicago clubs, despite being underaged, and performing with Bunny Berigan, Wingy Mannone, Boyd Brown, and Floyd Town. After years of playing in bands, in the late 1930s Soper went solo, introduced vocals to his repertoire, and played in such clubs as the legendary Three Deuces (222 North State).

By the war years, Soper could be found in the Randolph Street nightclub district. He was playing around the corner from Randolph Street at the Capitol Lounge on State when his S D recordings were made. Steiner and Davis teamed Soper up with Dodds in pianist Jack Gardner’s apartment for the session. Gardner owned a particularly fine piano, which is why the session was held in his place, at 102 East Bellevue, a basement apartment located in the same complex as John Steiner’s. Jazz fans tend to revel in improvisation, and Down Beat columnist George Hoefer loved the idea at how “impromptu” the recording was, as Soper and Dodds had never met before, and had to feel each other out in the recording process.

Down Beat reviewer John Lucas—who tended to give favorable reviews to his collector colleagues’ product—cited these releases as “some of the finest jazz piano waxed in many years.” He raved about each one of the songs, and concluded, “The rip-rattling drum accompaniment provided by the one and only Baby Dodds simply could not be touched by anyone else. If Soper is super, Dodds is at once devastating, dynamic, and droll!”

In a lengthy review published in the October 1944 issue of The Jazz Record, George Avakian gave effusive praise to S D 5000 and 5001. “Picture Earl Hines in the full flower of his wildest period, playing as though it were his last chance to explode through with vital ideas of earth-shaking consequence. This is Tut Soper; an exciting, intensely live pianist whose work doesn’t merely “send” you the way many agitated instrumentalists can—it reaches out, grabs you by the throat, and shakes and chokes hell out of you” (p. 3). Avakian contrasted Soper’s genuineness and avoidance of clichés with the mannerisms of “the present-day frantic clique,” into which he went so far as to lump “such hopeless musicians as Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and a whole string of trumpet players, electric guitar virtuosos, and Hazel Scotts” (p. 3). Out of the four, Avakian declared that “[t]he originals—Oronics and It’s a Ramble—are my pet sides, displaying Tut’s talents in two tempos and two moods, both nonetheless full of his overall excitement. The first is sheer panic, but good; the Ramble is reflective and rather interestingly developed from the melodic view. The others are Soper franticizations of Thou Swell and Star Dust, and the tunes improve under his manhandling.” (p. 3.) Of Dodds’ contributions, Avakian complained (p. 11) that the drummer “loses much of his subtlety” on Oronics, but praised him for his rapport with Soper elswhere on the session.

John Chilton described Soper as one of the leading pianists in Chicago, and credited him with working with Bud Freeman, Wild Bill Davison, Boyce Brown, Bud Jacobson, and Eddie Wiggins, among others. In the early 1950s, Soper worked in California with Muggsy Spanier and Marty Marsala. He toured with Eddie Condon in 1960.

Soper in his later years worked mostly as an insurance salesman for the Chicago Motor Club. He died in March 1987. His obit described him as a former jazz pianist, who had played for 50 years in “some of Chicago’s most famous jazz clubs and with the bands of Gene Krupa and Bud Freeman.”

Soper sources: M/Sgt. George Avakian, “Records—Old and New,” The Jazz Record, October 1944, pp. 3, 11; George Hoefer Jr., “The Hot Box,” Down Beat, 15 June 1944; [John Lucas] “Diggin’ The Discs,” Down Beat, 15 July 1944, p. 8; Catherine Jacobson, “Oro ‘Tut’ Soper,” Jazz Vol. 1, No. 10 (December 1943): 8-9; “Oro Soper” [Obit], Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1987; Tom Lord, The Jazz Discography, Volume 21 (West Vancouver, B.C.: Lord’s Music, 1999): S1057.

STAR DUST — shaken and stirred, manhandled and franticized — remains undamaged, and we are grateful to Tut and Baby for their emotional fervor and technique.

May your happiness increase!

DAN MORGENSTERN’S CHICAGO DAYS (July 8, 2017)

Readers of JAZZ LIVES know the esteem that we who love this music hold Dan Morgenstern in, and I continue to be pleased and honored that he permits me to ask him questions in front of my camera.  We had another little session on July 8, 2017, and I asked Dan to tell us all about his days in Chicago.  Here are three interview segments, full of good stories.

First, stories about DOWN BEAT, Don DeMicheal, Robert Kaiser, Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Harriet Choice, John Coltrane, Joe Segal, Dexter Gordon, Art Hodes, Gene Lees, and others:

and more, about Art Hodes, Jimmy McPartland, Pee Wee Russell, Norman Murphy, Marty Grosz, George Grosz, Wayne Jones, AACM, Muhal Richard Abrams, Jim McNeely, Harriet Choice, John Steiner, Edith Wilson, the Brecker Brothers:

and, finally, tales of Rush Street, Tiny Davis, the blues, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Harlem:

The warmth of Dan’s being comes through in every word.  And who else on the planet has had first-hand encounters with (let us say) both Edith Wilson and the AACM?  I have several more segments from this afternoon to share with you, and Dan and I have a return encounter planned for more.

And because a posting about Dan has to have some relevant music, here is the JUST JAZZ program he produced with Robert Kaiser, featuring Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Lou Forestieri, Frankyln Skeete, and Don DeMicheal:

May your happiness increase!

LEE WILEY AND FRIENDS: “DADDY, YOU’VE BEEN A MOTHER TO ME”

The video that follows is visually unrewarding, but aurally I hope it will make up for the eight minutes of blackness.  What follows is both rare and odd: a performance of a forgotten sentimental 1920 pop song by Fred Fisher —

MOTHER one

Most of us know Fisher as the composer of DARDANELLA, PEG O’MY HEART, CHICAGO, and a few others, but this maudlin ballad (Mother is in Heaven, admiring the fine job Daddy has done of taking her place and raising the singer) must have stuck in someone’s mind, for at an informal session at Bill Priestley’s house on August 29, 1959 (recorded by John Steiner) this song emerged — in two versions — performed by an unusual collection of musicians: Lee Wiley, vocal; Frank Chace, clarinet; Art Hodes, piano; an uncredited Bud Wilson, trombone; Clancy Hayes, drums.  (Hayes was usually singing and playing guitar or banjo; drumming was not his forte.)  I have some small doubts that it is indeed Hodes at the piano, for the accompaniment lacks any of his trademarks.  Did Squirrel Ashcraft take over the piano chair and begin this song, reminding everyone of how memorable this ancient ballad was?

Here is the performance:

and here is the sheet music for those of you who wish to serenade and accompany at home:

MOTHER two

and

MOTHER three

and

MOTHER four

and

MOTHER five

Now, a postscript about the provenance of this music.  My dear (late) friend John L. Fell sent this cassette around 1988, but I thought I’d lost the tape.  And when I’d mention to a few people that I had a copy of a John Steiner tape where Lee sang and Frank Chace accompanied her, they would grow animated.  Then I’d say, “One of the songs is ‘DADDY, YOU’VE BEEN A MOTHER TO ME,'” and their response would usually be skepticism, widened eyes, and hilarity — because in the circles I travel in, to “be a mother” often has meanings that aren’t quite maternal.

When yesterday afternoon I had the right combination: a functioning cassette deck, my video camera, and a reasonably quiet room, I decided to make this video . . . and share it with you.  Lee’s fans will appreciate another example of her beautiful tone; Frank’s admirers will note his rather subdued and lovely accompaniment.  I wonder how they came to this song, and whether there were jokes made about its title before they tried it out.  It’s all mysterious, but I hope you find the music repays close listening and amateurish film-making.

May your happiness increase!

A COMFORTABLE PASTORAL: JOHNNY WIGGS and RAYMOND BURKE on CD

The recordings that cornetist Johnny Wiggs, clarinetist Raymond Burke, guitarist / singer Dr. Edmond Souchon, and string bassist / singer Sherwood Mangiapane made in two sessions in New Orleans (in 1952 and 1955) have been both glorious and elusive.  Issued on two ten-inch microgroove recordings on the even more elusive Paramount and Steiner-Davis labels, they were wonderful yet invisible.  I first heard some of this music on a cassette copy made for me by the late Bob Hilbert, and I knew much more existed but had never heard it.  A year ago, I saw one of the records on eBay at a low price and (atypically) was able to buy it without eroding my savings. I thought the front was very impressive.

WIGGS-BURKE 10

But the reverse was a real surprise (the eBay seller either didn’t turn the record over or wasn’t interested): it was autographed by Doctor Souchon to Pinky Vidacovitch:

WIGGS-BURKE 10 back

But this is a post about music, not about record collecting, so I hope my digression is pertinent here. I should say that the sessions were originally envisioned by collector / archivist / scholar John Steiner as trios — clarinet, guitar, bass — echoing the recordings of George Lewis that William Russell had made earlier.  Russell agreed to record the Burke-Souchon-Mangiapane trio, but — happily for us — Johnny Wiggs came by with his horn and the group became a quartet.  The two vinyl issues collected sixteen performances.

I — and no doubt others — have been waiting, hoping for this music to be effectively issued on compact disc. And it happened!  The American Music label has issued a two-disc set of the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR. Not only does it offer the original sixteen tracks but a good many alternate takes, performances that didn’t make the original issues, and three tracks from 1957 that bring together Burke, Wiggs, Souchon, Art Hodes, and Freddie Moore. On one or two tracks, Raymond plays the harmonica (not a high point in recorded music, but we needed to know about it, and a tin flute.  Wise notes by the deeply-involved Butch Thompson and some rare photographs make the set complete.  The recorded sound is fine and the discs are well-programmed, so each disc sounds like a small rewarding session on its own.

BURKE-WIGGS CD

The songs are (asterisks denoting a title with more than one version) PUT ON YOUR OLD GREY BONNET / ALL NIGHT LONG* / AT SUNDOWN / BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES* / MEMORIES / RAY’S TUNE* / CONGO SQUARE / BUCKTOWN BOUNCE / I CAN’T USE IT / IN THE SHADE OF THE OLD APPLE TREE / HOW COME YOU DO ME LIKE YOU DO?* / MAMA’S BABY BOY* (a/k/a DO WHAT ORY SAY) / ALL THE WRONGS YOU’VE DONE TO ME / MILENBERG JOYS / POSTMAN’S LAMENT* / BLACK SNAKE BLUES / SMILES / SINGIN’ THE BLUES / SPANISH TINGE* / HARMONICA BLUES / WALKIN’ THE DOG / TULIP STOMP (a/k/a WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP) / DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL / GOING HOME / CHINATOWN / JUST A LITTLE WHILE TO STAY HERE / BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME? / JOHNNY’S BOUNCE / BUCK TOWN / HEEBIE JEEBIES / MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR / SISTER KATE / TIN CAN ALLEY / UNKNOWN TUNE / CITY OF A MILLION DREAMS.

Here  is Jazzology Music (the GHB Jazz Foundation): the primary site where the discs can be bought — and if you notice the Index, bottom right of the page, with a careful scrolling motion you can hear the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR play PUT ON YOUR OLD GREY BONNET.  If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

I don’t usually become hyperbolic and tell my readers that this is “the one disc they must buy,” “the one festival they must go to,” etc., because there is so much enticing and enduring music both being reissued and being made live even as I write this.  Yet I think that the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR has given me an extraordinary amount of the pleasure in the months that I have had and played it . . . and played it.  And I certainly think that the musicians who think of themselves as “traditionalists” and beyond should be listening intently to this music for its lightness, its depth of feeling, and its expertise. Let me explain.

Although I don’t identify myself as purely a New Orleans jazz aficionad0 (in my mind, the Armstrong Town Hall Concert, Jones-Smith Inc., the 1938 Basie band, the Goodman Trio, the 1940-1 Ellington band, the Keynotes, the Vanguards . . . all have their assured places in my affections) but I do love collective improvisation as a musical way of life.  In fact, some of my favorite moments in hearing / video-recording live jazz in 2013 are provided by those groups that understand their existence as BANDS — improvising, creating backgrounds, playing riffs, working as ensembles — whether they model themselves on Bunk’s Last Testament band or much more “modern” in their approach.

Wiggs, Burke, Souchon, and Mangiapane very occasionally present themselves as a single-soloist-with-rhythm; more often, we hear four sweetly idiosyncratic voices going their own ways while fulfilling their roles as members of a band.  So “there’s always something going on” to interest a close listener.

Souchon and Mangiapane create a firm, fluid, old-time but swinging acoustic rhythm: the way guitar and bass used to be played before the late Thirties (guitar) and Forties (string bass).  They don’t push or drag; they provide the most delightful swing counterpoint.  As well, Souchon (especially) is an instantly compelling, saucy singer — with a wink or a twinkle for the listener. I doubt that a few of his naughty vocals (hardly so by 2013 standards) are his own invention, but the metaphors of the songs are hilarious in the fashion of mid-Twenties blues.  Since I carry a backpack for work and play, I empathize with his earnest reading of POSTMAN’S LAMENT, whose refrain is “Lord, take this pack off my back.”

The great voices on this disc are paradoxically the sounds that come through Burke’s clarinet and Wiggs’ cornet — sounds I found endearing as soon as I heard them, years back.  Wiggs heard Joe Oliver in the flesh in the very early Twenties and was impressed by the King for the rest of his life — thus he has some of Oliver’s terse power.  But he also heard Bix, and I think the latter’s lyricism won out: Wiggs (although not as harmonically ambitious as Bobby Hackett) captured something of Bix’s brief epigrammatic ways: a Wiggs phrase is like a great, sometimes sad, utterance: it hangs in the air the way a Joe Thomas phrase did, and we are musing over its meaning while he is eight bars away.  In his own fashion, Wiggs is a great sad poet: his melancholy is always lightened by his joy in the rolling rhythms beneath him, but his sound is autumnal, dark red and gold.

Burke, for his part, can at first sound like an elliptical version of the great New Orleans clarinetists — I am thinking specifically of Ed Hall, of Bujie Centobie — but he has his own phrasing and his own, always surprising sound.  And, just in passing, I must say that the most famous group with this instrumentation was the Bechet-Spanier Big Four of 1940, but the Wiggs-Burke quartet is far more easy, less pugilistic. Friends playing for their own enjoyment, weaving melodies for the sake of song, not musicians out to show who’s boss of the session.

My friend Joe Shepherd made available two videos of Johnny, Raymond, Danny Barker, Graham Stewart, Bob Green, and Freddie Moore and he shot at the 1972 Manassas Jazz Festival.  Time hasn’t treated the visual image well, but the music is eternal:

OLD STACK O’LEE BLUES:

TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL:

Why my title?  The music on the WIGGS-BURKE BIG FOUR discs suggests a kind of informal play among friends that very rarely takes place in a recording studio — more often in a living room or on a porch when only the musicians and their friends are there.  Certainly this would be a perfect set of CDs for a backyard party . . . sweet melodies in swing.

May your happiness increase!

FROM THE HEART, FOR THE HEART: RAY SKJELBRED’S “FIRST THURSDAY BAND” (Dec. 1, 2011)

Feeling low?  Got a parking ticket?  Can’t shake that nasty cold?  Worried about the bills?  Did you burn the toast?

It’s going to be all right.  In fact, it’s already all right. 

Make yourself to home and listen to this music.  Or — if you’re swiffing around, turn up the volume and feel the deep swinging joy this band creates.

They’re Ray Skjelbred’s First Thursday Band, caught live at the New Orleans Restaurant in Seattle, Washington, on December 1, 2011.  They are Ray Skjelbred, piano / leader; Steve Wright, cornet, clarinet, alto and soprano saxes; Dave Brown, string bass; Mike Daugherty, drums.

And — in the spirit of the season — do you hear what I hear?  I hear a real jazz band.  “What’s that?” I hear someone in the back saying.  Well, that’s an improvising group where all the members love the music and work together towards the same purpose, supporting one another in a gritty joyousness appropriate to the song, picking up each others’ cues, playing witty follow-the-leader so that one hears simultaneously a quartet and four strong-minded individualists taking their own path to get to their own versions of Jazz Paradise.

I also hear echoes of Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Fud Livingston, Guy Kelly, Doc Poston, Earl Hines, Frank Melrose, Wellman Braud, Milton J. Hinton, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty (a relation, perhaps?), George Wettling — all embodied on December 1, 2011, by living creators who have absorbed the tradition and made it their own.  Who cares if people fight cyber-skirnishes in the blogosphere about whether “J**z” is alive or dead?  Call this by whatever polite name you like: it is most certainly alive.

The first song and performance that caught my attention was LOVE ME TONIGHT, which is associated in my mind with Earl Hines and Bing Crosby — one hell of a pair!  It is a lovely song: with lyrics, one of the most insinuating seduction lyrics I know (perhaps more wooing than A HUNDRED YEARS FROM TODAY): a carpe diem pointed towards the bedroom.  But here it’s a bit more lowwdown, suggesting that Chicago jazz was a powerful aphrodisiac as well:

And here’s a lowdown Commodore JADA:

Something unusual from Mister Piano Man — a little solo tribute to someone quite forgotten, Cassino Simpson.  All most of us know of him is that he worked with Tiny Parham and did his own Chicago gigs, before succumbing to mental instability.  After he unsuccessfully tried to kill Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon, he was institutionalized and I believe he spent the rest of his life there.  The noble John Steiner took recording equipment to Simpson and recorded him playing piano in 1942: the results, very hard to find even fifty years ago, appeared on a Paramont 10″ lp, which I’ve heard but never seen.  Mister Skjelbred gives us a window into the blues — the Cassino Simpson way:

And something pretty, soulful, as well as funky: Ellington’s BLACK BEAUTY:

Here’s a truly mournful TRAV’LIN ALL ALONE (Ethel Waters – Jimmie Noone – Kenny Davern tempo, not Billie’s ironic bounce):

And a rather obscure tune from 1936 — I associate it only with Henry “Red” Allen, but that’s sufficient pedigree for anyone — NOTHING’S BLUE BUY THE SKY:

Something else from Red (circa 1933), his affirmation that everything is really OK — THE RIVER’S TAKIN’ CARE OF ME:

And the song that could stand as the band’s secondary title, summing up their attitude towards their work and their art, LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY (think of Bill Robinson, Fats Waller, and Jeni LeGon in STORMY WEATHER).  Ray sings the delectable lyrics softly, but you might consider memorizing them — you could do far worse for a mantra to get you through every day:

What exquisite music — delicate and raunchy at the same time!

P.S.  I don’t want to be especially preachy, but I would like all the youthful musicians in the house to watch and listen closely to these clips — for the deep unspoken unity of the quartet, the shifting sound-textures, and numberless virtues.  Mister Skjelbred doesn’t cover the keyboard with runs and arpeggios (unless he wants to); his left hand is integral to his playing; he could be a whole orchestra but doesn’t trample on anyone.  Mister Wright knows everything there is to know about “tonation and phrasing”: not a note is out of place and each one has its own purpose, its own sound.  And, children, there were ways of playing the alto saxophone that Charles Parker did not render obsolete.  Mister Daugherty does so much with so few cymbals — bless him! — he knows what his snare drum and bass drum are for; he swings those wire brushes, and he is always listening.  And Mister Brown, whether plucking or bowing, gets a deep resonant yet flexible sound out of his bass.  Want to know what kind of amplifier he uses?  It’s called LOVE.  And although he can play the guitar beautifully, he doesn’t turn his string bass into one.  There!  I have spoken.  Learn it to the younguns!

BLUES FOR BOYCE

Boyce Brown (1910-1959) is a tantalizing, elusive figure.  Although he played hot jazz with the great Chicagoans, he was not one of them — hard-living and hard-drinking.  The picture above shows him in 1956, surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell, Ernie Caceres, Eddie Condon, and George Wettling, at his final recording session.

Scott Yanow calls Boyce “eccentric,” “outlandish,” “an erratic individual,” although those characterizations sound ungenerous.  I think of the famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s THE FAMILY REUNION, “In a world of fugitives, it is those that turn away that appear to run away.”

In the case of Boyce Brown, it is difficult to know if he chose to turn away from the world of musicians and gigs for the world of the spirit, or if the earthly world scorned him.  All we know are the facts of his short life.  He became a professional musician at 17 and recorded with some of the greatest Hot players — but his path was an unusual one outside the clubs and recording studios.

Boyce loved marijuana and what it could do, but it didn’t contribute to his death.  He didn’t die of tuberculosis or freeze on a Harlem doorstep, but prejudice and sorrow seem to have shortened his life.  He is certainly underrated and not well-known or well-remembered.  I agree with Jim Denham (of SHIRAZ SOCIALIST) who thinks that Boyce should be both remembered and celebrated.  And although I’ve never met Jeff Crompton (of HELLO THERE, UNIVERSE) I and other jazz fans are indebted to him for his generosities.  (You can find the blogs written by Jim and Jeff on my blogroll.)

What facts I have collected seem at first an assortment of weird personality traits, but viewed lovingly, they are the markings of a rare bird.

Boyce was someone who “saw” musical notes as colors.  He nearly died at birth; the midwife saved him by reshaping his unformed skull.  His parents encouraged him to take up the saxophone in hopes that it would strengthen his weak chest.  When he played, he had a habit of stretching his neck out like a bird — causing him to be rejected at an audition for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

Eddie Condon said Boyce was “a slow reader,” Condon-speak for partial blindness.  Boyce lived with his mother, wrote poetry, listened to Delius.  Condon’s SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ contains Boyce’s whimsical poem about ROYAL-T (slang for the best marijuana), hilarious and tenderly decorated by Boyce himself — a Hot illuminated manuscript.

He named his alto saxophone Agnes, and thought deeply about her personality and moods; if a recording disappointed him, he blamed himself for not being in harmony with his instrument.  All of this might seem freakish on first perusal, but other musicians have spoken of their synesthesia (Marian McPartland, whom no one considers an eccentric, told Whitney Balliett that the key of D was daffodil yellow), and Ben Webster, hardly an introvert, called his saxophone Betsy or Ol’ Betsy.

But before we get caught up in the debris of habit and personal history, let us — as Al Smith used to say — look at the record.  Or listen.  Two, in fact, from 1939: CHINA BOY and JAZZ ME BLUES:

Boyce sounds like himself.  Those rolling, tumbling figures are the playing of a man on a mission, someone with a message for us in the eight or sixteen bars allotted him.

The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing his volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker.  I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat.  More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis and Frank Teschemacher.  Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”

(Boyce’s descendants in this century might be Michael McQuaid and John “Butch” Smith — players who know that the alto saxophone needs a great deal of punch to keep it from sounding like a polite older relative.)

Here is a link to Jeff Crompton’s excellent, generous survey of Boyce’s life — where he shares with us a rare disc, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, where Boyce and Wild Bill Davison are the front line:

http://jeffcrompton.blogspot.com/2010/05/brother-matthew.html

The Boyce Brown discography is brief — his recordings could fit on three compact discs — but it is choice.  His better-known associates surely valued the reticent altoist.

I apologize for the onslaught of data, but in trying to explain something about Boyce Brown, the details of his recording sessions are valuable when we have so little else.  As far as I can tell, no one interviewed him during his playing career, and the press coverage he received at the end of his life emphasized (however gently) his uniqueness: the lady preacher with an alto saxophone.

Boyce was first recorded as a member of a working band, Paul Mares And His Friars Society Orchestra (a John Hammond idea?) : Paul Mares (tp) Santo Pecora (tb) Omer Simeon (cl) Boyce Brown (as) Jess Stacy (p) Marvin Saxbe (g) Pat Pattison (b) George Wettling (d).  One session, the results unissued in the 78 era, took place on January 7, 1935.  (The music came out on Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society # 6, twenty years or so after Boyce’s death.)  The same four songs were re-recorded on January 26, and were issued on two OKeh 78s that I imagine were quite hard to find even in 1935: NAGASAKI, REINCARNATION, MAPLE LEAF RAG, THE LAND OF DREAMS (the last based on BASIN STREET BLUES).  These four (and a MAPLE LEAF RAG from the first date) have been issued on the 2-CD Retrieval set of the complete New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  Theoretically all eight titles have been issued on “Chicago 1935,” a CD on the Gannet label, but I’ve never seen it.  REINCARNATION, possibly a composition of Boyce’s, was named for one of his spiritual beliefs — unusual but not unknown in 1935 Chicago.

On March 11, 1935, Boyce returned to the studios with Charles LaVere And His Chicagoans : Johnny Mendell, Marty Marsala (tp) Jabbo Smith (tp,vcl) Preston Jackson (tb) Joe Marsala (cl,ts-1) Boyce Brown (as) Bud Taylor (ts-2) Charles LaVere (p,vcl) Joe Young (g) Leonard Bibbs (b) Zutty Singleton (d) The Chicagoans (vcl) for BOOGABOO BLUES and UBANGI MAN, neither title issued on 78. On April 5, the LaVere band tried again, without Jabbo Smith;  Joe Masek (ts) Israel Crosby (b) replaced Bud Taylor, Leonard Bibbs.  They recorded I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU, SMILES, ALL TOO WELL, and BOOGABOO BLUES.  Again the sides were not released on 78, but several lp issues exist — one of the strangest issues a later dub (a copy given to me by Ralph O’Callaghan) — a 16 rpm 7″ record labeled “Black Diamond.”  On the other side was a 1933 Reuben Reeves session.

Four years later, on October 11, 1939, Boyce was recorded again, and these sides had wider distribution; he was a member of Jimmy MacPartland’s band: Jimmy McPartland (cnt) Bud Jacobson (cl) Boyce (as) Floyd Bean (p) Dick McPartland (g) Jim Lannigan (b) Hank Isaacs (d).  These sides have been made possible by the Friend of Jazz George Avakian and Edwin “Squirrel” Ashcraft and George Avakian, and they appeared in the Decca CHICAGO JAZZ album:JAZZ ME BLUES, CHINA BOY, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, and SUGAR.

Hank O’Neal tells me that Boyce joined in on the private sessions at Squirrel Ashcraft’s house in the late Thirties, and that one track from these sessions was issued on a 1965 collection called MORE INFORMAL SESSIONS AT SQUIRREL’s, a recording worth searching for.  Hank also recalls that Squirrel, thirty years later, characterized Boyce as gifted but troubled.

Boyce’s most hard-to-find session (also in Chicago, February 12, 1940) was as a member of THE COLLECTOR’S ITEM CATS, which featured the then also little-known Wild Bill Davison, cornet; Boyce; Mel Henke (a pianist who gained later fame on the West Coast); Walter Ross on bass; Joe Kahn on drums.  Two sides, I SURRENDER DEAR and ON A BLUES KICK, came out on Collector’s Item 102: a 78 issue — shared with us by Jeff Crompton.

Boyce also worked in the “ideal” band co-led by cornetist Pete Daily and pianist-composer Frank Melrose.  A good deal of their privately recorded music has been released on the Delmark CD BLUESIANA.  (The thought of Boyce and Kansas City Frank on gigs — creative individuals who did not fit the stereotypical idea of the hard-drinking Chicago jazz musician — is intriguing, and it makes me regret, not for the first time, that few fans at that time carried stenographer’s notebooks to interview these men.)

The late Bob Thiele spent some time in Chicago (where he recorded a band with clarinetist Bud Jacobson and Frank Melrose, something to bless Thiele for).  An unissued 1945 session for Bud Jacobson and His Hot Club Orchestra includes Bill Stapleton (cnt) Jacobson (cl,ts) Boyce (as) Mel Grant (p) Dick McPartland (g) Pat Pattison (b) Lew Finnerty (d), playing MUSKRAT RAMBLE, WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING, INDIANA, and HOT CLUB BLUES.  Does anyone know who or where the Signature masters are held, and have any of my readers ever heard this music?

Also in 1945, the jazz scholar / collector / recordist John Steiner held a series of concerts at the Uptown Playhouse Theater in Chicago.  His Jimmy Noone Memorial Concert (in August) featured Darnell Howard (clarinet), Boyce, Baby Dodds (drums), Gideon Honoré (piano), Jack Goss (guitar), Tut Soper (second piano), and Pat Pattison (bass).   On another occasion, Steiner sponsored a “jamboree” resulting in forty-five minutes of recordings of Lee Collins, Boyce, Darnell Howard, Volly DeFaut, pianists Gideon Honoré, Tut Soper, Jack Gardner, Mel Henke, and Chet Roble, among others.  and drummer Jim Barnes were among the contributors.  But in April 1946, a fire destroyed the Playhouse, and Steiner lost 150 unissued sides by Jack Gardner and groups, 20 sides by groups led by Boyce, a few by Frank Melrose, and location recordings by Honoré, Zinky Cohn, Punch Miller, Bobby Hackett, Joe Sullivan, Jimmy Yancey.  (A sorrowing moment of silence is appropriate here.)  This information comes from the fascinating website devoted to S D (Steiner-Davis) Records: http://www.hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/sd.html.

Boyce’s last session was a decade later.  His absence from the recording studios might have been in part the result of changing fashions in music; what had been sought-after Hot Jazz was soon pushed aside with the popularity of bop, but I imagine that Boyce became more reclusive.  All this is supposition, but he seems to have been unfitted with the survival skills jazz musicians require: call up a club owner, create an opportunity to record.  One thinks of the nearly-blind Art Tatum and the completely blind George Shearing and Jeff Healey, but they might have been recognized as stronger personalities with more audaciously commanding technique than Boyce’s subtle ways.

Boyce seems always to have been contemplating the eternal rather than the quotidian, and he was baptized a Catholic in 1952.  The LIFE magazine story notes that a club owner “objected to” Boyce’s habit of for blessing himself before beginning to play.  I can only imagine that scene, and JAZZ LIVES readers might write the dialogue — the club owner astounded and irate, Boyce gently explaining that this was what he did before he played.  I have written of other musicians (Frank Newton as my prime example) who loved the music without reservation but recoiled from the business of music, and Boyce seems to be one of that tender breed.  Putting his beliefs into action, Boyce entered the Servite monastery as a friar in 1953 — devoting himself to chastity, poverty, and the contemplation of spiritual ideals and sorrows.

When Boyce went into a New York recording studio on April 2-3, 1956, he was no longer “Boyce Brown” but “Brother Matthew,” a monk, someone who wanted his royalties from the sale of the recording to go to missions in Africa.  The session was the idea of a record company executive, and certainly it had journalistic potential as good copy in that era of “comeback” stories, reuniting a monk who still could play Hot with his internationally famous colleagues.  Boyce was showcased with the Eddie Condon band of the time, and a LIFE photograph shows him gingerly accepting a drink from Wild Bill Davison, peering tentatively into the glass — whether from blindness or caution, one cannot say.

Since Condon was under contract to Columbia Records (thanks again to Avakian) he may not have played guitar on the sessions — guitar credit goes to Paul Smith, Eddie’s brother-in-law, but Condon “conducted,” which is what he did so well.  This group was Wild Bill Davison (cnt) Cutty Cutshall (tb) Pee Wee Russell (cl) Boyce (as) Ernie Caceres (bar) Gene Schroeder (p) Bob Casey (b) George Wettling (d) Eddie Condon (cond), and they recorded OUT OF NOWHERE, I NEVER KNEW, SOMEDAY SWEETHEART, THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR THE SUNRISE, MY BLUE HEAVEN, LINGER AWHILE, BLUES FOR BOYCE, SISTER KATE, SWEET GEORGIA BROWN.

Those who collect Fifties television kinescopes may have seen Boyce on the Garry Moore Show (Moore loved hot jazz) or I’VE GOT A SECRET.  I can’t envision Brother Matthew being comfortable on show as a genial oddity — the jazz-musician-monk — but perhaps he did it because it would bring good publicity and contributions to the Order.

This link contains the LIFE story (pages 173-6) on that final session: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SE8EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA173&lpg=PA173&dq=Boyce+brown+alto+sax&source=bl&ots=_QEpuuHPor&sig=TbeyWW0CUzC6-OjG8fS09vtg03k&hl=en&ei=eP9ATvOOHM-whAfYxP2xCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFsQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=Boyce%20brown%20alto%20sax&f=false.

Note: the link above opens most easily if one is willing to copy it whole and paste it into a new browser; then you will be able to peruse 1953 weekly pictorial journalism, including ads for durable house paint and Blue Cross hospital insurance.

After the session, Boyce went back into the monastery to devote himself to things of the spirit; pictures show him playing music with the other monks and making sandwiches in the kitchen.  He remained there until his death three years later.  Jim Denham believes that the Servites wouldn’t give Boyce final confirmation as a priest and he died of a heart attack shortly after that bitter disappointment in the monastery outside Granville, Wisconsin.

George Avakian told the late Richard M. Sudhalter in Sudhalter’s LOST CHORDS, “Looking back, I think he’s just as interesting now as I thought he was then.  The things he did, people are doing that kind of thing much more now.  But at that time nobody was: the element of surprise was a big factor. People hearing him for the first time were just flabbergasted.  I know I was. Where did this guy get this odd way of playing?  Where did it come from?  I guess there was a rather mysterious quality in all that.  Part of what makes it so interesting.”

Interesting, but tragic as well.  In a society that prides itself on cherishing the appearance of individualism, it is sad that Boyce Brown — surely an individualist with something beautiful on his mind — became marginalized as freakish, not only because he looked different, but because of his piety.  And although the jazz world prides itself on music and behaviors that go against the grain; it didn’t always do so effectively in this instance.  Thoreau’s different drummer didn’t get the gig.

But perhaps Boyce was fortunate that he had a monastery to retreat to, and spiritual things to which he could devote himself.  I think ruefully that had he been born fifty years later, he might have borne the weight of the popular-psychological tags we now take for granted.  Would we have classified him as a depressive, as differently abled, as someone suffering from social phobia, someone exhibiting Asperger’s, a victim of low self-esteem?  Birdlike and half-blind, he seems to me a creative spirit who turned away from this coarse world of fleshly realities to contemplate larger things, someone who wanted to do good for those who could not help themselves.

This post would not have been possible without the information from and gracious help of Jim Denham, Jeff Crompton, Robert Pruter, Robert L. Campbell, Konrad Nowakowski, Tom Kelly, Hank O’Neal, Hal Smith, David J. Weiner, and Aunt Ida Melrose.  I have remembered (perhaps hazily) information I read long ago in Dave Dexter, Jr.’s THE JAZZ STORY, and a February 1999 profile in THE MISSISSIPPI RAG, whose author I cannot trace.   If any JAZZ LIVES readers have more information or links to people who knew or knew of Boyce, I would be delighted to read their comments or to incorporate them into a future post.  Boyce Brown deserves more than partial oblivion.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! — THE FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND (ON DISC and VIDEO)

Imagine a jam session after hours in Chicago, circa 1934 or so (the date, being imagined, is flexible).  Waiting their turn to play are Pee Wee Russell, Rod Cless, Omer Simeon, Boyce Brown, Guy Kelly, Jess Stacy, Earl Hines, Cassino Simpson, Frank Melrose, Joe Sullivan, Wellman Braud, Truck Parham, Zutty Singleton, George Wettling, and others.

No, the late John Steiner didn’t record such a gathering of saints and heroes. 

But a modern evocation of such a gathering is to be found when one of my new-irreplaceable-favorite jazz groups, the FIRST THURSDAY JAZZ BAND, comes to play. 

They are Ray Skjelbred, leader, piano; Steve Wright, reeds, cornet; Dave Brown, string bass, Mike Daugherty, drums.  Everyone in the quartet has been known to sing a chorus or two.  It’s a thrifty, focused, engaging quartet — listeners get more than their money’s worth!

I’ve shared some YouTube videos of the band, performing at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle, Washington — and more are at the bottom of this blogpost. 

But there’s good news tonight, as a famous radio broadcaster used to say.  The First Thursday Jazz Band has just come out with their debut CD — drop evertyhing and pay attention, please! 

It’s an old-fashioned production: recorded on the job (but with a sweetly attentive audience) in good sound, with a variety of songs and approaches — one of those CDs you can listen to the whole way through and come back to again right away. 

If you know anything about Ray Skjelbred, you know that he rocks — and he loves both classic and unusual material.  And people who admire him can argue (in the nicest of ways) if he is a greater soloist than an accompanist.  Like Stacy, Ray is so fine backing up someone else that occasionally I want to listen to the track again just to hear his bubbling down-home fills and figures. 

Ray’s partner in the rhythm section is the quietly propulsive Dave Brown.  String bassists tend to get less respect than they deserve, but rhythm is Dave’s business.  And business sure is swell.  He has a big plush sound (no amps, thank you kindly) but he doesn’t need one.  And his time is neither stodgy nor over-eager: I think of the Blessed Walter Page when I hear Dave play.

Mike Daugherty (the man with the red drum) is a jovial player with fine time and a whole galaxy of sonic effects from his kit.  He doesn’t opt for the usual tricks, but often just stays on his snare with a rich, padding brush carpet, or moves around his set in a way that feels just right.  No showboating, no look-at-me, not ever.

Steve Wright should get triple or quadruple pay, but I don’t think he’d even entertain the notion of asking for it.  A sweet alto player (a style I miss a great deal) with deep but casual lyricism, a clarinet player who can be Russell-tart or Darnell Howard-smooth, and a neat, unflurried Bixian trumpeter — sweetly to the point.

That’s the band — and these fellows are having a good time purling through the repertoire.  Their quiet pleasure comes through from the first note.

The CD is called simple RAY SKJELBRED and the FIRST THURSDAY BAND, and it’s on the Orangapoid label (number 103).  It has a wonderfully diverse repertoire — Don Redman and Chris Smith, Louis and Red McKenzie, old favorites, oddities, and deep blues.  (JAMES ALLEY BLUES, sung guttily by Bob Jackson, is priceless — immediately identifiable as authentic.) 

The songs are YELLOW DOG BLUES / YEARNING AND BLUE / CAVERNISM / SOLID ROCK / TRY GETTING A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP / DON’T BLAME ME / LOVER COME BACK TO ME / FAR AWAY BLUES / NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU / SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY / LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART / HUSTLIN’ AND BUSTLIN’ FOR BABY / JAMES ALLEY BLUES / CHERRY / PENNIES FROM HEAVEN / SHAKE THAT JELLY ROLL. 

I wish I could send you to your local record shop and be assured that it would be there — several copies! — but I think those days are gone, gone, gone.  However.  Obviously if you meet Ray at a gig (or the other FT chaps) you can buy a copy for the pittance of $15.  But for most of us, the idea of meeting Ray or the FTJB in person has a certain dreamlike quality.  So for $18, Ray himself will mail you a copy.  He promises!  The details go like this.  Ray Skjelbred can be found at 19526 40th PL. NE., Lake Forest Park, Washington 98155.  If you need more information or want to make a quantity order of a hundred copies, feel free to let me know and I will tell Ray immediately.  Here’s what the cover looks like.

Now.  I promised some new YouTube clips (I regret that they aren’t mine, but they are still lovely) recorded at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant on June 2, 2011.

Let’s begin with a ruminative PENNIES FROM HEAVEN that has all sorts of bonuses — Ray plays the verse in fine Crosby fashion, and Steve solos on clarinet and cornet:

Something in memory of Frank Melrose and George Wettling (with Tesch and Bud in the dim background), the WAILING BLUES:

Want to be some place where they huggy and kissy nice?  How about NAGASAKI?

And two highly reason-able songs, with connections to Red McKenzie, Wingy Mannone, Jack Teagarden, Fats Waller — the first being NEVER HAD A REASON TO BELIEVE IN YOU (vocalizing by Mike Daugherty):

And that eternal plaint, WHAT’S THE REASON (I’M NOT PLEASIN’ YOU)?

ROLL ALONG, PRAIRIE MOON might have been just another Thirties cowboy song if Red Allen and J.C. Higginbotham hadn’t been handed it in the Vocalion studios.  “Take another one, Higgy!”  I think also of the version with vocal by Al Bowlly to which Bob Hoskins emoted in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.  Vocal by Mike, doubling by Steve:

And THE SONG IS ENDED:

But that last song title (with apologies to Mr. Berlin) isn’t accurate.  There are more videos from this evening on YouTube, and — that new CD! 

Be the first one in your neighborhood to be walking around with a wide grin — and when someone says, “Why the hell are YOU so happy?” you can say, “Have you heard the new CD by The First Thursday Jazz Band?”  And — if you’re a really charitable spreader-of-the-good-word, you can share your headphones / iPod, or even invite them into your car for a few minutes of The Real Thing.

A SMALL TREASURE

Ten inches square (or in diameter) in fact.

Often of late I have noted jazz treasures for sale on eBay — and posting them here becomes a substitute for attempting to possess them). 

But here is a delightful artifact I found and bought.  It’s a 10″ red vinyl Paramount long-playing record (a John Steiner production) featuring cornetist Johnny Wiggs, clarinetist Raymond Burke, bassist Sherwood Mangiapane, and guitarist / singer Dr. Edmond Souchon.  Recorded in 1955, it is wonderful chamber jazz, with Wiggs’s mixture of Oliver and Bix, somewhere between sad and jaunty, mixing perfectly with the limpid, gutty sound of Burke — resting most comfortably on the rhythmic cushion of acoustic guitar and string bass.  Living-room jazz.  And the repertoire is wonderful — a medley of MEMORIES / SMILES / SINGIN’ THE BLUES; HEEBIE JEEBIES (with a raucous Louis-inspired vocal by Souchon), TULIP STOMP (also known as WHEN YOU WORE A TULIP), MAMA’S BABY BOY, MAKE ME A PALLET ON THE FLOOR, BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES, CONGO (or CONGO SQUARE), and PRETTY BABY (in honor of Tony Jackson). 

You can’t see it, but the record label itself credits everything to “Ray Burke and the New Orleanians”: did Wiggs and Burke flip a coin to decide who would get credited outside and inside? 

That would have been more than enough for me: the seller offered this at a reasonable price, and I was eager to get it.  True, I had the music on a cassette somewhere (courtesy of the late and generous Bob Hilbert) but I wanted the artifact itself.

It came in a soft cardboard envelope with a flap holding the record in, so to remove the disc I had to turn it over . . . and this greeted me, in careful fountain pen:

May 14 / 55

To Pinkey – with apologies for the Bourbon-seared vocal cords!

Cordially –

Edmond Souchon M.D.

I don’t think the seller had seen the back of the sleeve or, if he had, hadn’t made the connection (or hadn’t been trying to raise the price).  Thank you, Sir, for your generous offering — whatever the reason!  Other sellers, more observant or more avaricious, would have advertised this as RARE! and had a minimum bis of $299. 

“Pinkey,” I assume, is clarinetist Pinky Vidacovich . . . and a closer inspection revealed that Souchon had glued a name / address label on the front cover and a small red oval sticker “Souchon” on the record label.  Was it his own copy?  I don’t know, but I treasure the signature and the sentiments as much as the music.

LETTERS FROM FRANK CHACE, 1998-2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Apr 98

Dear Michael,

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

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

     You still think I should be interviewed?

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

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

Cordially, Frank.

P.S.  I’m Mr. Chace only to the IRS.

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

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

 20 April 1998

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers back atcha,

 Frank

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

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

24 Aug 98

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

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

     *The “I” violated your code.

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

 Love, Yakov, master of the ocarina.

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

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

  Dear Michael,

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

 

[undated]

Dear Michael,

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

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

Cheers anyway,

As ever, Frank.

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

2 Feb 1999

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

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

Cheers,

Frank

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

9 March 1999

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and XXX,

Frank

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

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

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

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

28 June 99

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

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

FC

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

 27 Mar 00

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

As ever,

Frank   

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

17 Jan 00

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

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

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

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

     I hear of a complete Django – might buy.

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

     Also ask about the Victory Club.

TaTa,

Frankie

P.S.  I used “nice” 3 X, C-.

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

29 June 00,

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

Hastily,

Frank

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

2 January 01

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

Hang in there,

Frankie

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

02 Nov 02

Dear Michael,

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

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

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

As Ever,

Frank

I will share this photograph in a future posting. 

18 Dec 02

Dear Michael,

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

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

     I really must learn to curb my expressionism.

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

Ever,

Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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