Tag Archives: John Von Ohlen

MARTY GROSZ’S FIGPICKERS at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 18, 2011)

Martin Oliver Grosz, or Marty to his intimates, is a scholar of many arcane subjects — not just music.  He buttonholed me once at Chautauqua to speak about Ben Jonson’s play THE ALCHEMIST.  Since my areas of concentration in graduate school were more recent, I told Marty I hadn’t read the play.  He was undeterred, and told me happily that a memorable line in Jonson had one character angrily offering “a Spanish fig” as his response to an idea he disliked deeply.  A “Spanish fig,” Marty then went on to explain, was a hand gesture — the thumb thrust through the fingers of a closed fist: some non-verbal Esperanto for “Up yours.”

I introduce this to suggest that Marty’s newest band title has less to do with fruit or the men and women who harvest it for us than with his own private comedy, although I could be wrong.  Surely MARTY GROSZ AND HIS “UP YOURS!” BOYS would have looked poorly on the marquee, although Jazz at Chautauqua has no marquee.

But to the music, recorded on September 18, 2011, at Jazz at Chautauqua, music that has no hidden imputations: it’s just lovely inventive jazz.  Surrounding Marty, the Players were Duke Heitger, trumpet; Dan Block and Scott Robinson, reeds (Marty’s “Hot Winds”); Bob Havens, trombone; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; John Von Ohlen, drums.

In this brief set, Marty chose not to sing but showed off his talents as a shape-changing arranger / recomposer / bandleader.  One thing he particularly likes is to offer material in new stylistic guises — moving songs slightly out of their expected stylistic niches (as he’d done in his BIXIANA set, which I’ve also posted).  And aside from ROSE OF THE RIO GRANDE, I think these songs and arrangements are new for Marty — at least I don’t recall hearing them frequently.  Marty is such a splendid arranger: his charts offer soloists space amidst nifty ensemble passages that show off varied voicings, the lead being passed around.  It’s the very opposite of one chorus in — solos — a jammed ensemble out, the formula for many bands.  And against these shifting backgrounds, the soloists shine so brightly!

Harold Arlen’s musical insistence on cheering up, GET HAPPY:

A familiar mournful Twenties blues (with a vengeful cast) kicked forward two decades — ALL THE WRONGS YOU’VE DONE TO ME — given a sweetly pastoral cast:

SHOUT ‘EM AUNT TILLIE (does that have a comma) coming from Ellington at the end of the Twenties.  May I say that they don’t write tune titles like that anymore?  I understand why Aunt Till was shouting, I do:

And the closer, Harry Warren’s ROSE OF THE RIO GRANDE:

It’s fitting that Marty should reference THE ALCHEMIST.  He is one.

FOUR LETTERS FOR BIX AND LESTER: ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, ANDY SCHUMM, RANDY SANDKE, DAN LEVINSON, JOHN VON OHLEN (Jazz at Chautauqua, September 17, 2011)

Not every successful jazz group has to have an orthodox shape or instrumentation: in fact, the absence of a crucial or expected instrument often galvanizes the other players into something rich and rare, as was the case on September 17, 2011, at Jazz at Chautauqua.

I don’t know if anyone started out playing with Bix or Lester in mind, but the results summon up those two quiet geniuses most beautifully.  And when we remember that Lester learned so much about lyricism — in addition to his own singular impulses — from listening to Bix and Tram records with Eddie Barefield — the connection isn’t far-fetched.

Here we have Rossano Sportiello on piano and quiet aesthetic leadership; Randy Sandke on soaring trumpet; Andy Schumm on hot introspective cornet; Dan Levinson on sweet clarinet and tenor sax; John Von Ohlen on subtly propulsive drums.

I associate MARGIE with Bix Beiderbecke in 1928, with Duke in 1935, and with a wonderful rarity — a collector’s tape of Jack Teagarden soloing over that very same Bix recording.  It’s an old-fashioned song that doesn’t get old, and this performance has some of the rattling good humor of the Ruby Braff – Mel Powell – Paul Quinichette – Bobby Donaldson trio recordings for Vanguard:

THESE FOOLISH THINGS, to me, always summons up Lester Young — and Rossano’s piano playing evokes Ellis Larkins and Nat Cole without copying them.  Dan’s tenor solo shows that he might be thinking about the President as well:

SUNDAY hadn’t come yet, but this cheerful Jule Styne 1927 hit always evokes memories of the happy past — and the Jean Goldkette Victor.  (“Wanna see you next Sunday!  Ah-ha!  Ah-ha!” or words to that effect).  Some stride and a swinging wire brush solo do no one any harm:

Most jazz sets close with something quick, dramatic, loud.  If the audience isn’t standing and cheering, what went wrong?  But not this evocative group of brave explorers.  Rossano started off at a lovely slow tempo — seeming to creep sideways into a slow, slow blues — so reminiscent of the Lester / Nat Cole BACK TO THE LAND.  But we’ll just call it a BLUES:

Remarkable and unhackneyed.

FOUR BY FIVE: THE ABQ at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011

One of the best small groups I know is the ABQ — the Alden-Barrett Quintet — originally Howard Alden, guitar; Dan Barrett, trombone and cornet; Chuck Wilson, alto and clarinet; Frank Tate, string bass; Jackie Williams, drums.  Like the Ruby Braff – George Barnes Quartet and the various permutations of Soprano Summit, they had energy and delicacy, force, precision, and sweetness.  And they also swung like mad.

One of the pleasures of Jazz at Chautauqua through the seven years I’ve been attending is the reunions of the ABQ — usually with four of the original members onstage, romping through charts that they created or were done for the group by Buck Clayton (someone whose hundredth birthday just took place on the calendar).

At the September 2011 Chautauqua, Chuck Wilson couldn’t be there, but his place was taken — nobly — by the ever-ready Dan Block.  Here are four wonderful performances from their set:

Basie always merits first place: here’s Earle Warren’s 9:20 SPECIAL:

Buck Clayton’s BLACK SHEEP BLUES (perhaps referring to the necktie that used to be one of Dan Barrett’s sartorial trademarks, with an ebony fellow in the midst of the flock):

Something for Louis!  ORIENTAL STRUT, by Johnny St. Cyr.  Not to be pedantic, but I hear very little “Asian” in this composition: I think Johnny had been to the movies and seen some film with Rudolph Valentino in the desert:

And a mini-evocation of the 1940 Ellington band in COTTON TAIL:

The group doesn’t get many occasions to get together, which is a pity.  Come to the 2012 Chautauqua and — while you’re waiting — look for their CDs on Arbors and Concord Records.

Fifty-Second Street lives when the ABQ is playing.

VERY MELLOW, VERY GROOVY: RANDY SANDKE, DAN BARRETT, JOHN SHERIDAN, ANDY STEIN, JON BURR, JOHN VON OHLEN at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 17, 2011)

In the words of the Sage, Bulee “Slim” Gaillard, “Very mellow, very groovy.”  Here’s a session from the very gratifying musical improvisations at Jazz at Chautauqua, featuring Randy Sandke, trumpet; Dan Barrett, trombone and vocal; Andy Stein, violin; John Sheridan, piano; Jon Burr, string bass; John Von Ohlen, drums — on three leisurely performances of familiar songs made new by their graceful mastery.

First, the classic “drunkard’s request” that is really a fine song at any tempo, MY MELANCHOLY BABY, with two very cheerful vocal choruses from the Pride of Costa Mesa, California, Daniel Barrett:

Then, one of the oldest and most durable of Irving Berlin’s waltzes, ALWAYS:

And a tune that Randy called for its verve, even though its title is hard to take seriously these days, THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE:

Thank you, gentlemen, for stretching out so nobly for our pleasure!

JAMES DAPOGNY AND FRIENDS at JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 16, 2011)

This hot chamber jazz session took place at Jazz at Chautauqua on September 16, 2011, and the estimable participants are James Dapogny, piano; Dan Levinson, clarinet and tenor sax; Andy Stein, violin; Frank Tate, string bass; John Von Ohlen, drums. 

DOIN’ THE RACCOON dates from the late Twenties, and is one of those spirited songs chronicling the floor-length raccoon coats that were the height of college fashion.  I would ordinarily hear in my mind’s ear (or mental jukebox) the Eddie South version . . . but this happy twenty-first century effusion now stands alongside it:

Frank Signorelli and Matty Malneck’s pretty LITTLE BUTTERCUP (later titled I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME) was first recorded by Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, then by Billie Holida, Buck Clayton, and Lester Young — a beautiful rhythm ballad with a sweet yearning at its center:

And the theme song for all discussions, I MAY BE WRONG, which was also the song chosen for the Apollo Theatre productions:

Thanks to the gentlemen of the ensemble for creating and evoking music that will outlive the discourse that swirls around it.

WHEN BECKY MET HARRY (Jazz at Chautauqua, Sept. 17, 2011)

“Becky” we know as our own Rebecca Kilgore, deeply moving but ever so natural — in pearly form for this Saturday morning set at Jazz at Chautauqua, surrounded by gentlemen with similar names: John Sheridan, piano; Jon Burr, string bass; John Von Ohlen, drums.

But the “Harry” in the title was neither Billy Crystal nor Harry Allen.  It was “Harry Warren,” born Salvatore Antonio Guaragna in 1893, author of more hit songs (musically valuable ones, as well) than almost any of his peers.  Here are five, each one its own little concerto — full of emotion and humor.

With its rarely-heard verse, here’s YOU’RE GETTING TO BE A HABIT WITH ME:

The classically pretty YOU’RE MY EVERYTHING:

NO LOVE, NO NOTHIN’ comes from a film musical, THE GANG’S ALL HERE, with Benny Goodman and Alice Faye.  It’s a classic wartime song, but it makes the vignette of fidelity-under-duress seem new:

I associate SERENADE IN BLUE with Glenn Miller and many other singers, but none bring to it the depth of casual feeling that Becky does here.  And listen very closely to what she does with the two versions of the phrase “whistling in the dark”:

Both Dick Powell and Art Tatum put their stamp on WITH PLENTY OF MONEY AND YOU, and Ms. Kilgore romps away with it here:

Thanks to our Rebecca for creating something so touching, so light-hearted, yet so deep.  I would send any singer to her work to admire, to study.  And let’s not omit the floating, on-target provided by the three gentlemen surrounding her: their melodies, their gracious accompaniment, their rhythmic embrace.  Together, they made for a memorable half-hour — sweet stylings without artifice.

Rebecca Kilgore’s gotten to be a habit with us, one we have no intention of breaking.

LOVE IN SWINGTIME (JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011)

Jazz isn’t binary by nature, but occasionally it seems to fit Groucho Marx’s whimsical definition of the two kinds of Broadway plays: Sad or High-Kicking.  What was played at Jazz at Chautauqua on September 15, 2011 (the informal Thursday night sessions) went beyond those categories, but they will do for now.  Here are two splendid examples.

LOVE, of course, is personified by Harry Allen, tenor sax; Rossano Sportiello, piano, supported by Glenn Holmes, bass; Bill Ransom, drums — whispering through the Rodgers and Hart MY ROMANCE:

SWINGTIME came out to play with Randy Sandke and Duke Heitger, trumpets; Scott Robinson, Dan Block, and Andy Stein, reeds; John Sheridan, piano; Jon Burr, bass; John Von Ohlen, drums — having a good time with STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY:

Something for everyone!

A GREAT NOTION: JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 15-18, 2011)

I just got an invitation in the mail . . . your presence requested . . . .

Top hat, white tie, and tails aren’t needed — but it’s the official invitation to the 14th Jazz at Chautauqua, held from Thursday, September 15 – Sunday, September 18, 2011, at the sweetly atmospheric Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua, New York.

The music will take place from 7-11 PM on Thursday; 2:30-4:30 and 5:30-midnight on Friday, from 10 AM-2 PM and 5:30-midnight on Saturday, and 9 AM – 1 PM on Sunday.  The musicians?

Duke Heitger, Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Reinhart, Randy Sandke, Andy Schumm, trumpet / cornet; Dan Barrett, Bob Havens, trombone; Harry Allen, Scott Robinson, Dan Block, Dan Levinson, Chuck Wilson, reeds; Andy Stein, violin; Marty Grosz, Howard Alden, guitar; Jim Dapogny, Keith Ingham, John Sheridan, Rossano Sportiello, piano; Jon Burr, Frank Tate, Glenn Holmes, bass; Arnie Kinsella, John Von Ohlen, Pete Siers, Bill Ransom, drums; Rebecca Kilgore, Lynn Stein, Marty Grosz, vocals; the Alden-Barrett Quintet; Faux Frenchmen.

A photographic exhibit by Duncan P. Scheidt, too.

I won’t detail the prices and the packages here, but no one I know has ever gone away from Jazz at Chautauqua saying that there was an insufficiency of music, of people with common interests, of compact discs, of things to eat and drink.  It is a wonderful cornucopia in every way . . . and those spouses and partners who have enough jazz to suit them can walk among the lovely paths and admire the houses, the hydrangeas, Lake Chautauqua, and more.

Don’t be left out!  Visit the hotel’s website, http://athenaeum-hotel.com.,  telephone 1.800.821.1881 or fax 716.357.4175, or email athenaeum@ciweb.org.

AND — in boldface!

The magnificently talented Dan Barrett will be Musical Director of the new Chautauqua Jazz Workshop, to take place Sunday through Thursday, prior to the Chautauqua Jazz Party itself.  Dan will head a staff of eight instructors (including Scott Robinson; Rossano Sportiello; Rebecca Kilgore, et al), hosted and sponsored by the Athenaeum Hotel.  And the students will be part of the informal Thursday music — inspiring prospects!  For details, interested parties should contact: Mr. Bruce Stanton, General Manager of the Athenaeum: bstanton@ciweb.org

“WELL, THIS’LL BE FUN”: MEMORIES OF JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA, 2004

I have a special place in my heart for Jazz at Chautauqua: it was the first jazz party I’d ever attended, an uplifting experience in every way.

The 2011 Jazz at Chautauqua is taking place this year — September 15-18.  Details to follow.

This is the piece I wrote after my first experience of Jazz at Chautauqua.  Joe Boughton is no longer with us, but the elation remains the same.

Well, This’ll Be Fun

On a Thursday evening in September 2004, two jazz musicians decided on Eubie Blake’s “You’re Lucky To Me” to begin their performance, set an affable, conversational tempo, and started – moving from embellished melody to more adventurous improvisations before coming back down to earth.  They stood at one end of a small rectangular mint-green hotel dining room elaborately decorated with nineteenth-century chandeliers and moldings.  The tall young trumpet player, apparently a college fullback, wore jeans and an untucked striped dress shirt; the pianist resembled a senior account executive for a firm that knew nothing of casual Fridays.  As the applause slowly diminished, Duke Heitger, trumpet held loosely at his side, looked slyly at John Sheridan, the other half of his orchestra, grinned, and said, “Well, this’ll be fun.”  They had just played the opening notes of the seventh annual Jazz at Chautauqua, a four-day jazz party held at the Athenaeum, the upstate New York site of the Chautauqua Institution – now a hotel unused for nine months of the year (no heating system).  Appropriately, the site reflected something of the Chautauqua ideal of entertaining self-enrichment, now given over to a weekend’s immersion in the music once our common colloquial language.

The imaginary map of American culture might seem a homogenous cultural landscape of Outkast, Diet Coke, press-on nails, and Paris Hilton.  But there are millions of smaller, secret cultural nations pulsing all at once: people subversively playing Brahms at home, wearing hemp clothing, and making sure that what commercialism has consigned to the past is kept alive.  One of those underground institutions is the jazz party – an idea quietly subsisting for forty years, now one of the only venues for this music.

If a newcomer assumed that a “jazz party” is nothing more than two or three semi-professional musicians playing background music for a roomful of people, perhaps a singer seated atop a piano, Jazz at Chautauqua would be staggering.  It featured nearly thirty-three hours of nonstop music played to two hundred and fifty people between Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon by twenty-six musicians: Bob Barnard, Heitger, Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Reinhart, and Joe Wilder (trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn); Dan Barrett and Bob Havens (trombone); Harry Allen, Dan Block, Bobby Gordon, Bob Reitmeier, Scott Robinson (reeds); Johnny Frigo (violin); Jim Dapogny, Larry Eanet, Keith Ingham, and John Sheridan (piano); Howard Alden and Marty Grosz (guitar); Vince Giordano, Nicki Parott, and Phil Flanigan (bass); Arnie Kinsella, Eddie Metz, Jr., and John Von Ohlen (drums); Grosz, Rebecca Kilgore, and Parrott (vocals).  These players are unknown to a general audience but are both remarkable and sought after.  Except for Wilder, the musicians were white, (which didn’t bother him: he was delighted to be playing among friends) and many hailed from the tri-state area, with a few startling exceptions:  Barrett and Reitmeier flew from California, Kilgore from Oregon, and the winner for distance, Barnard, from New South Wales.  Most of them were middle-aged (although Parrott and Heitger are not yet forty), looking oddly youthful (I think that joy transforms), but jazz musicians, if fortunate, live long: Frigo is 87, Wilder, 82.

A listener, fortified by food at regular intervals and consistently available drinks (for me, an excess of caffeine for medicinal purposes – a jam session started while I was asleep on Thursday night, and I was anxious that I miss nothing else) may sit in a comfortable chair and listen to eight hours of jazz in short sets, from fifteen minutes for duets to an hour for a larger band.  It was overwhelming, as though someone who had only read about model trains or Morris dancing had wandered into a convention of enthusiasts where everything in the ballroom focused on the chosen subject, non-stop.  But Chautauqua was more than a museum: it offered the art itself in action, unfettered and created on the spot.

All this is due to its creator and director, Joe Boughton, who feels a moral compulsion to preserve the music he first heard in the Boston area in the late 1940s.  Boughton is a solidly packed man who in profile resembles a Roman general, but his more characteristic expression is pleasure when his musicians are playing well and his audience is reverent.  He is the enemy of needless chatter unless it comes from the bandstand, and printed cards decorated each table, reading, “Afford our artists the respect they deserve and be considerate to those at your table and surrounding tables who have come from long distances and paid a lot of money to hear the music and not be annoyed by talking.”  That contains Boughton’s voice – low-key but impatient with nonsense.  He is also a one-man campaign to rescue jazz from the deadening effects of a limited repertoire.  Jazz musicians who are thrown together on the stand choose familiar songs: variations on the blues, on “I Got Rhythm,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” as well as crowd-pleasers “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Satin Doll,” which Boughton calls “Satin Dull.”  At Chautauqua, now-rare melodies filled the air — jazz standards ranging from King Oliver’s “Canal Street Blues,” circa 1923, to the Parker-Gillespie “Groovin’ High” of 1945 and John Lewis’s “Skating In Central Park,” but rare once-popular surprises, including “I’m Sittin’ On Top of the World,” “Smiles,” “Ida,” “Aren’t You Glad You’re You” and “Moon Song.”  Although the songs might seem antique, the approach is not self-consciously historical: the young tenor saxophonist Harry Allen (to cite only one example) who delivers eloquent solos while standing motionless, once leaning against the bar, would fit in well with the bebop legend Clifford Brown or the Harlem stride master James P. Johnson.

Each of the four days was full of highlights, rarely loud or at a high pitch, but emotionally exhilarating all the same, from the first set on Thursday, as the Heitger-Sheridan duet became a trio with the addition of drummer John Von Ohlen (who resembles Ben Franklin in coiffure but Franklin, from eighteenth-century reports, tended to drag at fast tempos – something that Von Ohlen, sharp and attentive, never does) on a Benny Goodman Trio –tempoed “Liza” that blossomed into a quintet in mid-performance with tenor saxophonist Dan Block and bassist Phil Flanigan joining in because they couldn’t wait until it concluded.  Block looks as though he had slipped off from his professorship at an esteemed university, but has (unlike Allen) all the archetypical tenor saxophonist’s violent physical gestures, moving his horn ecstatically as his phrases tumble out, adopting a hymnlike tone on a ballad or floating at a fast tempo in the best Lester Young manner.  Flanigan hoisted this band (and others) on his shoulders with his elastic, supple time and when it came to his solo, no one succumbed to bass ennui, for his choruses had the logic and emotion of Jack Teagarden’s architectural statements.  (Flanigan is married to the eloquent singer Hanna Richardson, who had been at Chautauqua in 2003 and was much missed this year.)

Thus, Thursday night, an hour along, had become 52nd Street or Minton’s again, with no cigarette smoke or watered drinks in sight.  No one got up and danced, a pity, but no one clapped to an imagined beat while the musicians played – an immense relief.  What made the music memorable might have escaped a casual listener who expected jazz performances to be lengthy, virtuosic solos.  The players were concise, saying what they had to say in two or three choruses, and the technical brilliance was usually in making the difficult seem easy, whether on a racing hot performance or a tender ballad (although perfectly placed high notes did ornament solos).  What distinguished the performances was a joyous, irresistible forward motion – listeners’ heads steadily marked the beat, and everyone had their own sound: I could tell who was taking a solo with my eyes closed.  And there was an affectionate empathy on the stand: although musicians in a club chatter during others’ solos, these players listened intently, created uplifting background figures, and smiled at the good parts.  Off-duty players stayed to admire.  And when the last set of the night ended, the players gathered around the bar to talk about music – but not predictably.  Rather, they swapped stories about symphonic conductors: Joe Wilder sharing Pierre Boulez anecdotes, Dan Block giving us Fritz Reiner gossip.  The general bonhomie also turned into friendly banter with their colleagues and the audience: most musicians like to talk, and most are naturally witty.  The unstoppable Marty Grosz, beginning to explicate the singing group the Ink Spots for a late-evening tribute, said, “I’ll make this short, because I already hear the sounds of chins hitting breastbones.”  (He was wrong: the crowd followed every note.)

Some stereotypes are truer than not, however: I overheard this conversation between a musician I’ll call “M” and a solicitous member of the Chautauqua staff:

“M, would you like a drink?”

“Yes, thank you!  Gin.”

“A martini?  With ice?  Olives?  An onion?  Some tonic?”

“No.  [Emphatically.]  Gin.

Gin in its naked state was then provided.

On Thursday evening, I had talked with Phil Flanigan about the paying guests.  I had brought with me gloomy doubts about the aging, shrinking, and exclusively white audience, and the question of what happens to a popular art when its supporters die off, envisioning nothing but empty chairs in ten years.   I had expected to find a kindred pessimism in Flanigan, earnestly facing his buffet dinner, but it didn’t bother him that the audience that had once danced to Benny Goodman had thinned out.  Flanigan told me, emphatically, how he treasured these people.  “They’re dedicated fans.  They come to listen.”  “What about their age?” I asked.  “Lots of age,” he said.  “This is a good thing.  Think of the accumulated wisdom, the combined experience.  These are the folks who supported the music when it was young.  When they were young!  What do you know? They just happened to be loyal and long-lived.”  (Flanigan’s optimism, however, would have been tested to the limit by the affluent, fiftyish couple who shared our table and seemed to ignore the music in favor of the New York Times, barely looking up.)

Flanigan’s commentary was not the only surprise – especially for those who consider jazz musicians as inarticulate, concerned more about reeds than realities.  The next day, I had attached myself to Joe Wilder for lunch.  The conversation, steered by Wilder, weaved around memories of his friends, famous and not – but he really wanted to talk about Iraq and eco-devastation, and his perspective was anything but accepting.

Friday began with rain, and the hotel corridors were ornamented by white plastic buckets; from one room I heard an alto player practicing; behind another door trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso was turning a phrase this way and that in the fashion of a poet accenting one word and then another while reciting the line half-aloud.  I spent some costly time entranced by the displays of compact discs, buying and considering.

Later, the party began officially in the main ballroom with fourteen musicians (six brass, four reeds, four rhythm), stretched from left to right, jostling for position on the stage of the main ballroom, played “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” at its original, yearning tempo, with the trumpeter Randy Reinhart directing traffic, the musicians creating simple chordal backgrounds of organ tones played in whole notes (called “footballs” for the way they look on music paper) and the brilliant anachronism Vince Giordano switching from his bass saxophone (an instrument out of fashion by 1935) to the only aluminum double bass I have ever seen, as the spirit took him, the convocation suggesting Eddie Condon meeting Count Basie in 1939.

The set that followed was a masterpiece of small-band friendship, featuring Allen, Wilder, Block (on alto), the underrated Washington, D.C., pianist Larry Eanet, Howard Alden, Flanigan, and Von Ohlen.  In forty minutes, they offered a strolling “If Dreams Come True,” with Flanigan beginning his solo with a quote from the verse to “Love in Bloom,” a speedy “Time After Time,” usually taken lugubriously, with the melody handed off among all the horns and Alden in eight-bar segments, an even brisker “This Can’t Be Love,” notable for Eanet, who offered his own version of Hank Jones’s pearls at top speed and for Wilder – who now plays in a posture that would horrify brass teachers, his horn nearly parallel to his body, pointing down at the floor.  His radiant tone, heard on so many recordings of the Fifties, is burnished now into a speaking, conversational one – Wilder will take a simple, rhythmic phrase and repeat it a number of times, toying with it as the chords beneath him go flying by, a Louis Armstrong experiment, something fledgling players shouldn’t try at home, and he enjoys witty musical jokes: quoting “Ciribiribin” and, later, “Mona Lisa,” in a solo on “Flyin’ Home.”  Often he brought out a bright green plastic cup and waggled it close to and away from the bell of his horn, creating growly, subterranean sounds Cootie Williams would have liked.  (“From the five and ten,” he said, when I asked him about the cup.)  Wilder’s ballad feature, “I Cover the Waterfront,” was a cathedral of quiet climbing phrases.  And the set closed with a trotting version of “The Jeep is Jumpin’,” a Johnny Hodges riff on “I Got Rhythm” changes, played the way it was in 1941, before musicians believed that audiences needed to hear everything faster and louder.

A series of beautifully shaped impromptu performances followed, including a Bobby Gordon – John Sheridan duet full of Gordon’s breathy chalumeau register, and a Rebecca Kilgore set.  Kilgore has a serious, no-nonsense prettiness and doesn’t drape herself over the microphone to woo an audience, but she is an affecting, sly actress, who uses her face, her posture, and her hands to support or play off of what her beautiful voice is offering.  She is especially convincing when she is acting herself and her twin at once: on “Close Your Eyes,” a song full of serious assurance that the hearer will be safe forever in the arms of the true love, Kilgore managed to suggest that the lyrics were absolutely true while she audibly winked at the audience, as if to say, “Do you believe this sweet, silly stuff I’m singing?”

Friday closed with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, an explosive ten-piece band, replicating late Twenties and early Thirties jazz and dance orchestras.  Giordano, who resembles a movie idol who could have partnered Joan Blondell, is remarkable – an eloquent melodist and improviser on his unwieldy bass saxophone, where he gets a room-filling tone both sinewy and caressing; his aluminum string bass, ferociously propulsive tuba, and boyishly energetic vocals.  The Nighthawks reunion band featured whizzing tempos, bright solos, and on-target ensemble passages on a for-dancers-only repertoire, circa 1931, Savoy Ballroom.  Most listeners have never heard a band like the Nighthawks live – they shout to the heavens without being extraordinarily loud, and their ensemble momentum is thrilling.  Hoarse and dizzy, we climbed the stairs to our rooms at 1:30 AM.

Saturday morning began sedately, with solo piano, some pastoral duos and trios, and then caught fire with a Kilgore-James Dapogny duet.  Dapogny is a rolling, rumbling pianist in the style that used to be called “Chicagoan”: right-hand single note melody lines, flashing Earl Hines octaves, stride-piano ornamentations supported by a full, mobile left hand, and he and Kilgore had never played together before.  Kilgore let herself go on the nineteenth-century parlor favorite “Martha,” subtitled “Ah! So Pure!” which Connee Boswell took for a more raucous ride with the Bob Crosby band sixty-five years ago.  Kilgore’s approach was gliding and swinging, with hand gestures that would not have disgraced a Victorian songstress or a melodramatic 1936 band singer (a raised index finger for emphasis, a gentle clasp of her own throat), but the sly glint in her eye and the sweetly ironic quotation marks in her delivery suggested that Martha’s purity was open to question.  Then came a trio of Dan Barrett and Bob Havens on trombones, backed only Marty Grosz, someone his Chicago comrade Frank Chace has called “a one-man rhythm gang,” in a short set notable for fraternal improvising and Barrett’s interpolating one vocal stanza of a lewd blues, “The Duck’s Yas Yas” into “Basin Street Blues.”  More brass ecstasy followed in a trumpet extravaganza, ending with a six-trumpet plus Barrett version of Bunny Berigan’s famous “I Can’t get Started” solo, by now a piece of Americana, with the ballroom’s walls undulating with the collective passion.  The Nighthawks played an afternoon session, full of exuberance and wit: Giordano, calling a difficult tune for the band, smiled at his players and said, “Good luck, boys,” in the manner of Knute Rockne encouraging Notre Dame, before they leapt in to the forests of notes.  And it wasn’t all simply hot music: where else in America, I wondered, could you hear someone sing “Okay, Baby,” with its deathless, funny lyrics about the romantic couple: “The wedding ring I’ve bought for you / Fifty-two more payments and it’s yours, dear”?  Grosz followed with a set devoted to those musicians who would have turned 100 this year – Coleman Hawkins, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Dorsey, and Fats Waller, where Grosz (who knows these things, having come here from Berlin as a child in 1930) commented, “America is the land of easy come, easy go,” before singing a Waller ballad, “If It Ain’t Love,” as tenderly as if he were stroking the Beloved’s cheek.

Sunday morning began with a solo recital by guitarist Howard Alden, which itself began with a rueful “Blame It On My Youth” – Alden also had elevated all the rhythm sections of the bands he had been in, as well as being a careful, lyrical banjo soloist with the Nighthawks – but the temperature of the room soon rose appreciably.  A nearly violent “It’s All Right With Me” featured three storming choruses of four-bar trades among Harry Allen, Wilder, Barrett, and Dan Block; Duke Heitger closed his set with an extravagant “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” with its seldom-played stomping verse, here played twice before the ensemble strode into the chorus; the band supported by Grosz, constructing chordal filigrees at a very fast tempo; Giordano, slapping his aluminum bass for dear life, and Ed Metz, Jr., recalling Zutty Singleton, Armstrong’s drumming pal of the late Twenties, if Singleton had gone to the gym regularly.

Then it was time to go, to close with another Boughton extravaganza – a ballad medley lifted up greatly by Scott Robinson’s “Moonlight Becomes You” on bass flute, Jon-Erik Kellso’s “Willow Weep For Me,” growled as if he had become one of Ellington’s brass in 1929, and the clarinetist Bob Reitmeier’s soft “Deep Purple.”  These heartfelt moments gave way to the true closing “After You’ve Gone,” which featured impromptu piano duets among the many pianists, and an uproarious enthusiasm – greeted with the cheers it deserved.

I wasn’t surprised that on Sunday afternoon, driving back through Erie, Pennsylvania (where Lloyd’s Fireworks advertised “pepper spray, stun guns, sale on Lord of the Rings tape”) that my thoughts drifted back to Heitger’s Thursday-evening prediction.  Yes, there had been too much white and blue hair to make me feel confident about the future of the audience, Flanigan notwithstanding; there had even seemed to be too much music, pushing me to the brink of satiety, and it had all been evanescent – but Heitger had been right: it had been fun.

And just so my readers don’t forget the present and future while celebrating past glories: this year’s Jazz at Chautauqua will include (in egalitarian alphabetical order) Alden, Allen, Barrett, Block, Jon Burr, Dapogny, the Fauz Frenchmen, Grosz, Havens, Heitger, Glenn Holmes, Ingham, Kellso, Kinsella, Kilgore, Dan Levinson, Bill Ransom, Reinhart, Robinson, Sandke, Andy Schumm, Sheridan, Pete Siers, Rossano Sportiello, Andy Stein, Lynn Stein, Frank Tate, Von Ohlen, and Chuck Wilson.  That should provide sufficient music for a weekend!

POETRY IN SWING: BOB BARNARD / BOBBY GORDON at CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 18, 2010)

This was a wonderful set — full of love in the lyrics and love for the music. 

It took place at the 2010 Jazz at Chautauqua party, and a quintet full of beautiful singer-poets was in the spotlight.  Trumpeter Bob Barnard, clarinetist / singer Bobby Gordon, pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Jon Burr, drummer John Von Ohlen played Irving Berlin and Harry Warren, paid homage to Louis and King Oliver, Bix and Basie, as well as Edith Piaf and Dick Powell.  You wouldn’t want any more, would you, in the space of half an hour?  

Bob Barnard has a great love for melodies and their associations, so THE SONG IS ENDED resonates with him as a triple play: Louis, the Mills Brothers, and Irving Berlin.  But Bob is also a sly humorist: how many players start the set with this title?  Even though “the melody lingers on,” as it does here:

Then Bob wisely asked Bobby Gordon what he had in mind for a second number, and the poetic Mr. Gordon chose that old favorite SWEET LORRAINE.  I don’t know why I broke it in two, but I suspect I was carried away by the emotions Bobby aimed at all of us.  And — let there be no mistake here: Bobby looks somewhat frail in this performance, sitting in a chair, bringing the microphone close to his lips, but his heart is strong, and that’s what matters:

That fellow Louis recorded I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU late in the Fifties, and it’s a wonderful creation.  I don’t know whether Bob had that one in mind or he simply knew the tune — or perhaps saw the film with Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, and those Busby Berkeley exuberances.  Whatever the reasons might be, it’s an intriguing and less-played song to improvise on:

Then — in his own romantic exultation, singing of passion and loss, Mr. Barnard offered LA VIE EN ROSE, his lines arching into the night and the room, ecstatically and sadly:

But an audience needs something of a different emotional tenor to conclude, so Bob called for the faithful ROYAL GARDEN BLUES and sent it off at a Basie tempo:

I can’t forget to praise that wonderful rhythm section — the two singular melodists Rossano and Jon, and the honest timekeeper John — who made this an ideal small group, swinging, poetic, intuitive, and full of feeling.

JOE WILDER’S MAGIC

 Ask any musician, “Tell me about Joe Wilder,” and watch the warm smile that immediately emerges.  He’s a rare being — generous in person and in his music, warm and caring, whether the horn is up to his lips or he’s chatting over lunch, in a cab, or at an airport.  There’s no division between the public man and the private one: both are genuinely loving, open individuals.     

I met him in person perhaps thirty years ago at an outdoor concert in Glen Cove, New York.  Joe travels in the best company, so he was playing in a little band with Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Phil Bodner, and perhaps Bobby Rosengarden.  And I’ve gotten to know him better by seeing him at Jazz at Chautauqua for the past six years.  Joe never forgets a friend or a kindness, so although he knows thousands of people, he remembered me kindly.  

I had heard Joe on records for a long time — the golden arching phrases of his Columbia records of the Fifties, the warm balletic phrases of his Savoy session, his more recent work for the Evening Star and Arbors labels. 

But this was the first year I really accomplished what I’d hoped to do — catch Joe in performance with groups of his friends.  And here are two examples of Mr. Wilder’s subtle magic — in company with Keith Ingham, piano; Frank Tate, bass; John Von Ohlen, drums — as he approaches two familiar jazz standards, making them brand-new by his delight in playing.  Keith had his back to me, but he was grinning — and you can see the delight on the faces of Frank and John as well.   

Joe’s style is a wonderful mixture of the singing embrace of a melody — great ringing “lead” playing that would point the way for a big band or a symphonic trumpet section — mixed with a dancing harmonic and rhythmic subtlety worthy of the great modernists that would be impossible to notate.  Joe loves to play with what he’s given, and he is a born experimenter. 

He took great delight in something that I’d written in CODA: that I could hear him in solos getting into what other musicians would think of as traps or dead-ends, and then getting himself out without creasing his clothes.  His solos sound like the conversation of someone bursting with ideas whose straight-ahead expositions are always full of thoughtful, witty parentheses. 

And you can hear his whimsical embellishment at work on these songs, as if he was constantly amusing himself by testing his artistic ingenuity: “Can I get this rapid-fire reference to THE CONTINENTAL in this phrase and get out again without messing up in relation to the rapidly moving chords under me?  Wow, I can and I could!  What’s next?”  He’s always thinking while he’s playing, and his solos aren’t formulaic arrangements of familiar modules laid end to end. 

Here he is, dancing around HAVE YOU MET MISS JONES:

And being the perfect gentleman escorting that SATIN DOLL:

By the way: did I mention that Joe Wilder was born February 22, 1922? 

Don’t let the numbers fool you: he has the youngest and biggest heart I know — and he never closes it off to the music or to us.

DON’T MISS JAZZ AT CHAUTAUQUA 2010!

There are still seats available for the September 2010 Jazz at Chautuaqua.

That means plenty of hot music, rhythm ballads, lesser-known but beautiful songs from Tin  Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood . . . all performed by a celebrated cast of musicians and singers.   The party begins on Thursday, September 16, 2010, at the Hotel Athenaeum on Lake Chautauqua, New York. 

The heroes and heroines on the bill are Bob Barnard, Randy Reinhart, Joe Wilder, Andy Schumm, Randy Sandke, Dan Barrett, Bob Havens, Bobby Gordon, Harry Allen, Chuck Wilson, Scott Robinson, Bob Reitmeier, Dan Block, Marty Grosz, Gene Bertoncini, Ehud Asherie, John Sheridan, Keith Ingham, Rossano Sportiello, Mike Greensill, Vince Giordano, Jon Burr, Frank Tate, Andy Stein, Pete Siers, Arnie Kinsella, John Von Ohlen, The Faux Frenchmen, Rebecca Kilgore, and Wesla Whitfield.

As always, the music will begin with a series of informal jam sessions on Thursday night, and continue from Friday afternoon to Sunday around 2 PM.  In the past five years, some of my most exultant musical experiences have taken place there, and I am looking forward to more of the same — plus tables of rare sheet music and CDs, books and photographs (the latter department presided over by the venerable Duncan Schiedt) — good food, an open bar, friendly conversation and a chance to meet old friends who love Hot jazz.

I picked this rendition of IF DREAMS COME TRUE from last year’s party in case anyone is still wondering whether the jazz is worth the trip.  Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson, Ehud Asherie, Andy Brown, and Arnie Kinsella show that Jazz at Chautauqua is indeed a place where dreams do come true.

For more information on pricing, weekend lodging, and ticket order procedures, contact the Athenaeum Hotel at 1-800-821-1881 or athenaeum1881@hotmail.com.

IN FRONT OF OUR EYES (Chautauqua 2009)

Here are songs from the very first informal set of music at the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua, where we watched and heard our heroes create. 

People for whom jazz is a foreign language ask, “How do they do that, I mean, without music in front of them?  How do they know what they’re doing?”  The answer, of course, is a mix of skill, experience, and daring, beyond mastery of one’s instrument: knowing the chord changes to YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY is one preliminary step; knowing how to play whatever comes to mind another; knowing what not to play a third; having the courage to follow one’s impulses perhaps the final and greatest step.  No amount of immersion in the jazz tradition, no amount of studying recordings, can make up for an absence of courage and playfulness.

Inspired playfulness was evident all through the first set — with musicians who don’t always have the opportunity to get together and exchange ideas: Andy Schumm, cornet; Andy Stein, forsaking his violin for the baritone sax; Dan Barrett, trombone; Bob Reitmeier, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Vince Giordano, bass; Marty Grosz, guitar; John Von Ohlen, drums.  A close observer will notice a good deal of making-it-up-as-we-go-along here . . . which is not the same thing as uncertainty or tentativeness.  Rather, it is a willingness to invent while the car is in fourth gear, to say, “Let’s try this and not worry too much whether it’s perfect or not.”  That attitude can add up to train wrecks when less inspired players gather; here, it made some great loose playing possible.  You will notice, as a wonderful added benefit, the smiles on the musicians’ faces, their attentive listening to each others’ solos.  Viewers who like their videos uncluttered will have to get used to the backs of people’s heads in front of me — I could identify most of them as friends! — but their rhythmic bobbing and weaving doesn’t distract from the experience: it’s a pleasure to see the audience, attentive and quiet, but having a fine time.   

The first song is an exploration of a Twenties composition, attractive because its twists and turns aren’t overfamiliar: WABASH BLUES.  I admire the rocking motion of that rhythm section, at once intense and cool; Dapogny’s solo (it would have been perfectly in place in a Chicago joint circa 1933), Reitmeier and Barrett, building splendid solos out of logically-connected short phrases; Andy Schumm, rough-housing and tumbling around in his surprising Wild Bill Davison manner, and an especially impassioned Andy Stein — before the ensemble rocks it all out:

A trotting version of THE SHEIK OF ARABY ewcalled a Red Nichols-Jack Teagarden record of 1929, where Teagarden improvised a stirring solo over the band’s humming the straight melody behind him.  SHEIK is sometimes taken much faster; I admire this band’s steady lope:

Dan Barrett, like Duke Heitger, likes to begin performances of YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY with the rather-rare verse, and this performance took off from his outlining the brief melody.  This version tipped its collective cap to Louis and to the Bennie Moten band and its later Kansas City incarnations.  Barrett, suggesting that being driven crazy could be pleasurably romantic, quotes both SAY IT and the verse to LOVE IN BLOOM, with whatever associations imaginable:

I could write more about these performances, but I’m going to watch them again.  You come, too.

CHAUTAUQUA JOYS

The Beloved and I spent the past long weekend (Thursday, September 17 – Sunday, September 20) at the Athenaeum Hotel in Chautauqua, New York, delighting in the twelfth Jazz at Chautauqua. 

This party, burnished to a happy sheen, is the result of Joe Boughton’s sixty-year immersion in the timeless jazz he loves, situated somewhere between King Oliver and Charlie Parker, with reverential nods to Mr. Condon, Mr. Strong, Mr. Waller, Mr. Wilson.  Joe is also the fierce champion of melodies that don’t get played elsewhere, and as the common parlance of jazz occasionally seems to shrink into a few syllables, Joe is trying to keep the beautiful repertoire of the past alive.  That means CHINA BOY, BLUE TURNING GRAY OVER YOU, SKYLARK, I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME, I’M SORRY I MADE YOU CRY, and others.  Play SATIN DOLL at a Boughton extravaganza and you might get glared at, which I understand. 

Jazz at Chautauqua has its own delightful conventions (and I don’t mean the clusters of people who gather around the coffee urn, the bar, the tables of compact discs and sheet music).  Thursday night is devoted to what Joe calls “informal music with all musicians in parlor room,” sometimes the most eloquent jazz of the whole weekend — loose jam session sets by bands Joe has assembled on the spot — no lighting, the musicians on the same level as the audience.  Friday afternoon is spent in the parlor around a grand piano, with a variety of solo recitals, and the opening blow-out that night begins as if we had returned to the Third Street Condon’s of 1947, with two front lines alternating and then joining forces for an unusual number (this year it was GOD BLESS AMERICA), a ballad medley, and an old favorite. 

Each day features an exalted version of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, because most of the Chautauqua players are also Nighthawks alumni — rather like an all-star baseball team behind their blue banners and music stands.  In between, there’s the occasional set by “the faux Frenchmen,” a QHCF group augmented this year by Andy Stein on violin, sets for the wondrous Rebecca Kilgore.  Musicians ranging in age from 29 to 87 come and go, and there’s a good deal of friendly conversation between players and listeners, with some players holding forth at length while sitting on the porch or leaning against the front desk.  (The Athenaeum, if you’ve never been there, is a delicious throwback: an entirely wooden hotel, over a hundred years old, with perhaps the most friendly, solicitous hotel staff on the planet.) 

In years past, I brought my notebook to Chautauqua and wrote down the details of every set.  This year, I abandoned my notebook for other methods of capturing the evanescent and as a result this reminiscence is more impressionistic than quantitative.  I was also busily chatting with friends David and Maxine Schacker, John Herr, John and Mary-Etta Bitter, Jim Adashek, Sally and Mick Fee, Caren Brodskey, and making new friends of Steve LaVere, Lois Lardieri, James Stewart, John and Helen Trudinger, as well as various Boughtons.  Essayist and art photographer Lorna Sass graciously offered her candid portraits for this post. 

What sticks in my mind is, of course, the music.  On Thursday night, after a witty set by “the faux Frenchmen,” a delicious band of Andy Schumm, Dan Barrett, Bob Reitmeier, Jim Dapogny, Vince Giordano, Marty Grosz, and John Von Ohlen took the stand, and offered seven tunes that paid homage to Red Nichols (a slow SHEIK OF ARABY), Louis (YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY) and the tradition of the “rhythm ballad,” with Marty Grosz’s earnest vocal on BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD.  They were followed by Duke Heitger, Dan Block, Bob Havens, Ehud Asherie, Frank Tate, and Pete Siers, whose set reached a peak with SEPTEMBER SONG — featuring Duke, plunger-muted, and Dan Block, richly emotional.  Joe Wilder and Harry Allen floated over the wonderful rhythm section of Rossano Sportiello and Jon Burr for four leisurely numbers, ending with a growly JUST SQUEEZE ME and a BLUES in Bb.  Then, suitably inspired by what they had heard, Jon-Erik Kellso, Scott Robinson (wearing a red-and-black shirt that had SPACE CADET or was it SPACE CHAMP printed on the front) hit five home runs, playing ecstatic tag with one another with the help of Ehud, Andy Brown, and Arnie Kinsella — a rhythm section that had probably never gotten together ever but produced gliding, propulsive swing.  The closing SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL was hilarious, hot, and intense. 

After that point, I put my notebook away — so what remains is a happy blur of solos, ensembles, and moments. 

ChauAndyStein09Andy Stein, shown here on violin, was even better on his secret weapon, the baritone sax, anchoring and boosting every group he played in.

Jim Dapogny, properly Professor Dapogny, jazz scholar, once again showed himself the invaluable member of every ensemble, his right hand landing with force and delicacy to produce ringing octaves; his left offering powerful stride and variations. 

 

ChauEhud09Just as impressive was Ehud Asherie, not yet thirty (someone I had recommended to Joe to fill the piano chair) who so impressed us all — whether recalling Donald Lambert or being harmonically and melodically adventurous.  One of the highlights of the first night was a long Asherie-Harry Allen duet set, capped by three numbers where Ehud invited Dan Barrett to join them.  Two horns plus a piano might seem lopsided, but it was a wonderfully balanced trio. 

Andy Schumm, the young Bixian from Wisconsin, continued to delight and amaze — not only with his evocations of the Beiderbecke era (his versions of RHYTHM KING and NO-ONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT) but with his delicate fluency: he would fit in anywhere and shine.  When I passed through the bandroom, I was touched to see Andy and Tom Pletcher, Bixians young and old, deep in conversation.  Too bad that they didn’t get to play a set together.

Guitarist Andy Brown reminded me happily of George Van Eps, his chordal traceries gleaming (he is one of those rare guitarists who knows better than to stun us with rapid-fire passages); he and the lovely Petra van Nuis offered two brief sets.  Petra, who appears girlish, has a surprising emotional range: she got absolute rapt attention at 9 in the morning with her opening song, a version of SERENATA.  (Later in the weekend, I prevailed upon the modern troubadour Edward Lovett to sing two songs, accompanying himself on the guitar: he’s somewhere between Seger Ellis, young Crosby, and Dave Frishberg — you’ll hear about him!) 

ChauDuke 09And there were non-musical moments: Duke Heitger, now the delighted father of two beautiful little girls, showing off their pictures and positively glowing with pride.  Marty Grosz, discoursing at length both on and off the stand — at one point discussing how current CD covers all show grinning performers and his reluctance to adopt that pose.  Marty also sang I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME at the just-right 1931 ballad tempo, recalling his hero Red McKenzie. 

Jon-Erik Kellso, at his ease on the stand (he is an inestimable bandleader as well as player) and happily taking his ease with wife Jackie.  Rebecca Kilgore, getting so pleased with the rhythm and solos her accompanists were creating that she indulged in a good deal of ladylike trucking on the stand (as well as singing better than ever). 

ChauJoe09

On one of Rebecca’s sets, Joe Wilder was so buoyed by the rhythm section of Rossano Sportiello, Jon Burr, and Pete Siers, that he flew through dazzling solos — leading Dan Block, as a spectator, to say, “Unbelievable!” while shaking his head in amazed delight.  Scott Robinson, playing a luminous AT SUNDOWN on trumpet.  That same Dan Block, eloquent on clarinet, bass clarinet, and various saxophones, his body always reflecting the power of the music flowing through him.  An impassioned I CAN’T GET STARTED by Duke Heitger, who saw the heights of passion and attained them.  Arnie Kinsella, the poet of volcanic ebullience, hitting his cowbell in a solo, as he said later, “as loud as he could,” because he wanted to — in a way that we agreed was a celebration of joyous impulse and a Bronx cheer in the face of death. 

The music still rings in my ears.  And I am thrilled to announce that on Sunday, Joe Boughton was busily signing up musicians for next year’s Jazz at Chautauqua.  I’ll have to wait, but it won’t be easy. 

I’ll have more to say about this ecstatic weekend in posts to come.

I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES

That title isn’t just a pretty Thirties song recorded by Fats Waller, Ruby Braff, Bob Wilber, Ralph Sutton, and Marty Grosz.  Although I am incorrigibly secular, my version of a jazz miracle took place a few days ago when I learned that the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua party was going on, full speed ahead, this year.  It will take place, as it has for some time, at the lovely, old-fashioned Athenaeum Hotel, looking out over Lake Chautauqua.  Joe Boughton, who has a deep affection for improvised lyricism and wondrous songs that haven’t been overplayed, is once again at the helm.  He tells me he’s grown a beard, but I expect that the faithful will still recognize him.  And he has once again triumphed over the obstacles that would have stopped an army in their tracks to create this party.

Loyal readers of this blog — if they search for “Chautauqua” — will find that it was the subject of my very first posting.  I am very sentimental about this party, because I’ve heard some of the best impromptu jazz of my life there.  The party starts with informal music (sometimes the best of the whole weekend, but that’s a secret) on Thursday night, September 17 — and it goes apparently without a four-bar rest up to the early afternoon of Sunday, September 20.

I won’t clutter up this blog with the annoying details of prices, but you can find all of that out for yourself by contacting Apryl Seivert, reservations manager and tracer of lost persons at the Athenaeum — at 1-800-821-1881 or at athenaeum1881@hotmail.com.

I know that September seems a long way off, but it’s not too early to close your eyes and imagine the music that you’ve heard at past Chautauquas . . . or the music you know that the players below will invent.  Here’s the magical cast of characters, most of them returning veterans with a few new stars:

Cornet / trumpet: Duke Heitger, Jon-Erik Kellso, Joe Wilder, Andy Schumm, Tom Pletcher

Trombone: Dan Barrett, Bob Havens

Reeds: Dan Block, Harry Allen, Bob Reitmeier, Bobby Gordon, Chuck Wilson, Scott Robinson

Piano: Keith Ingham, Ehud Asherie, James Dapogny, Rossano Sportiello

Guitar: Marty Grosz, Howard Alden, Andy Brown

Bass: Jon Burr, Frank Tate, Vince Giordano

Tuba / Bass Sax: Vince Giordano

Drums: John Von Ohlen, Pete Siers, Arnie Kinsella

Vocal: Rebecca Kilgore, Petra van Nuis, Marty Grosz

Extra Added Attractions: the faux frenchmen with Andy Stein and Joe Lukasik

I know that it is a really bad idea to rush time ahead — you never get those days back! — but I’m looking forward eagerly to this.  More to come!

A JAZZ HOLIDAY — CHAUTAUQUA 2008

Jazz at Chautauqua, the cherished baby of Joe Boughton and the Allegheny Jazz Society, whirled around for yet the eleventh year — filling the hours of September 18 – 21 with hot jazz, rare songs, and sweet, swinging lyricism.  It was my fifth visit there, and the Beloved’s first.  We had a wonderful time, tearing ourselves away from the music at regular intervals to walk the Chautauqua grounds, with their elaborately done houses, the leaves already changing, and the glory of Lake Chautauqua.  We took a number of meals on the wide wooden porch of the Athenaeum Hotel, with high-level sitters-in who were carrying plates of food rather than horns and charts: Marty Grosz, Bob Reitmeier, Nina Favara . . . and we got to hang out with Jackie Kellso and Becky Kilgore, Ray Cerino and Carol Baer, David and Maxine Schacker (creators of BEING A BEAR).

By my count, there were about forty sets of music, starting at breakfast and going on until 1:30 AM.  When I was younger and more vigorous in 2004, I devoted myself with a pilgrim’s determination to hearing every last note, with Coffee as my friend and non-prescription ally.  Eventually, I couldn’t sit and listen to even the world’s best jazz for that long.  Everything, including the cerebral cortex, set up a protest.

So here are some highlights, admittedly a subjective list, but, as the narrator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight says, “To tell all the tale would tax my five wits.”  I was too busy taking notes to take pictures, so readers who want visual stimuli should go to www.mississippirag.com for the October issue, which will be festooned with photographs by John Bitter.

I’ve written about the Thursday festivities (see WITH DISPATCH AND VIGOR) but Friday began to pop with two wonderful sets.  One was led by Jon-Erik Kellso, oddly, his only formal opportunity to do this all weekend, which I find mysterious. because he is an engaging, funny leader.  His set featured lively old songs at the front and back, “Alice Blue Gown” and a Louis-inflected “Some of These Days,” but the middle was even better — Dan Block and Jon-Erik on the 1933 romance “The Day You Came Along,” which managed to summon up both Bing and Hawkins, a neat trick.  Then Bob Havens, exploding all over the horn like a teenager, charged through Harry Warren’s “42nd Street,” a song neglected by jazz players, more’s the pity.  And a delicate, plaintive “Always” featured Block on bass clarinet and Bob Reitmeier on clarinet — not evoking Soprano Summit or the Apex Club Orchestra, but some otherworldly strain, Debussy with a beating Thirties heart.

Becky Kilgore’s set was too short but each song was a neat surprise.  Backed by the endearing Joe Wilder, who moved from bucket mute to his red-and-white metal derby to his fluegelhorn, Dan Barrett being himself, and the ever-thoughtful Rossano Sportiello, Becky offered a happy “Getting Some Fun Out of Life,” whose title seemed more true than ever, “But Not For Me” with a pensive verse, and a sly “Little White Lies,” dedicated to “the politicians.”  In an enlighted administration, our Becky could sing at the Inaugural Ball, but I don’t hold out great hopes for this.

A Saturday-morning Duke Heitger extravaganza was notable for a slow-dance “Whispering” which began with a lovely Ingham introduction, romantic and sweet.  Music to hug by!  Eventually the band decided they had had enough of good behavior and doubled the tempo (Duke turned into Bunny Berigan at points) moving on to a riotous Condon finale with earth-shaking breaks from Arnie Kinsella, unbridled even before lunchtime.

Rather like Becky’s cameo of the previous evening, a Joe Wilder – Rossano Sportiello duet seemed over before we had had time to accustom ourselves to the magical idea of hearing them together with no interference (and with Joe getting to pick the songs he wanted to play, which isn’t always the case).  Tender versions of “Embraceable You” and “Skylark” paved the way for a steadily moving “Idaho,” memorably energetic.  Joe’s glossy tone has become more a speaking utterance in recent years, which is even more personal, and Rossano is my idea of Jazz Ecumenism — getting Fats Waller and Bud Powell to shake hands whenever he plays.

A Marty Grosz set was devoted to the memory of the vocalist, comb-and-tissue paper virtuoso, and bandleader Red McKenzie, about whose music no one is lukewarm.  Typically, we enjoyed a long winding Marty-narrative, full of priceless jazz arcana and some wicked comedy, but it showed off his convincing crooning on “I’ve Got The World On A String.”  The group that backed him — Block, Andy Stein on violin, and the irreplaceable Vince Giordano, seemed the perfect modern embodiment of Joe Venuti’s Blue Four.  About enjoyment, incidentally: Joe Boughton introduced Marty and ended with the ritualistic crypto-command, “Enjoy.”  Marty, who can be as dangerous as a drawer full of scissors, replied, while he was settling in, “I don’t make music to be enjoyed,” as if the concept offended his fastidious self.  But we did, anyway.  So there!

The Wisconsin Bixians (Andy Schumm and Dave Bock) once again got to play with their heroes — Reitmeier, Stein, James Dapogny, Vince, Marty, and Arnie Kinsella — the all-star rhythm team of the weekend or perhaps of this century? — and proved themselves up to the challenge.  Except for a pretty “At Sundown,” they chose Bix-rompers from 1927-8, “Jazz Me Blues,” “Clarinet Marmalade,” and “Somebody Stole My Gal,” making me think of Bix and Miff Mole in some ideal alternate universe, backed by Tesch, Sullivan, Condon, Artie Bernstein, and Krupa.

Keeping the momentum and the mood, Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks showed themselves off as the Jazz Larks.  We”ve all heard the band parse early Pollack, Challis, Isham Jones, Ellington — but this was a leaping ensemble of veteran alumni, fully warmed up.  The Beloved turned to me and murmured, “Vince is in his glory,” and we all were.  Kellso, Block, and Havens sang out — no surprise!

That evening, a lovely set featured Duke Heitger, Havens, Bobby Gordon, the priceless rhythm section mentioned above, and Kellso.  After a casual “Tea for Two,” everyone cut loose (especially Gordon) on “Mahogany Hall Stomp.”  Jon-Erik and Duke are old Midwestern pals, and Kellso was Duke’s model and mentor when neither of them had a driver’s license.  It wasn’t a cutting contest but a friendly reunion, but the two of them gave me chills on “If We Never Meet Again.”  The rafters rang — not with volume, but with passion and a shouting tenderness, which is no oxymoron when you have players who have devoted their lives to it.

Later that night, a set led by Randy Reinhart again showed off two trumpets, as he and Jon exploded into “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” reminding me of Louis’s Decca big band version and a short passage from a film about Dick Gibson’s jazz parties where Ruby Braff and Clark Terry duetted on the sidewalk while fireworks went off around them.  Another touching Reitmeier-Block duet (clarinet and bass-clarinet) on “I Got It Bad” made me wish that every set had had two ballad performances.  (At parties, musicians get excited about playing with their friends, so tempos and volume sometimes rise.)

Sunday morning — at a pre-consciousness hour for most musicians — began with a solo set by Dapogny.  I haven’t said much about him in this post, but I was tremendously impressed with him as an ensemble pianist as well as a soloist.  I had gotten happily used to the idea of his stomping propulsion at previous Chautauquas, his forceful accuracy (think Sullivan, Hines, Fats) but time and again he surprised us all by going into unexpected harmonic corners, playing phrases that were the very opposite of formulas.  And how he swung the bands he was in!

Marty Grosz’s Sunday set honored mid-Thirties Red Allen.  In fairness, the musicians were sight-reading the charts, so there was an uncertain passage here and there . . . but who among us would do better?  I was nearly stunned by the band’s vehement “Jamaica Shout,” which I would assume refers to the Queens neighborhood rather than the Caribbean, but this may be mere speculation.

Finally, a marvelous quartet took the stand — Bob Wilber, his tone still glossy, his rhythmic intensity still intact at eighty, Jon-Erik, blinking slightly in the unaccustomed daylight, Marty and Vince — the best people to summon up the ferocious glories of the 1940 Bechet-Spanier Big Four recordings for the Hot Record Society.  (When I visited guitarist Craig Ventresco, he had the original 12″ 78s, which seemed holy relics — and they still sounded fine on his three-speed phonograph!)  A peerless quartet, deep in contrapuntal hot ensembles and soaring solos.

With regret, the Beloved and I left before it was all over to begin the day-long drive back to New York City, both exhausted and thrilled by the music.

The rewarding thing about Jazz at Chautauqua is that I began to write this post with the idea of including only a few highlights — but there were so many asterisks and exclamation points in my notebook that the idea of a “few” quickly became impossible.  For every set I mentioned, for every solo, there were two or three more of equal quality — a true jazz holiday!  The music rings in my ears as I sit at the keyboard.

JOHN HERR’S CHAUTAUQUA PORTRAITS

One of the great rewards of entering the Blogosphere is that I have gotten to meet some exceedingly talented people.  These encounters have been both online and in person.  A particular example is the gifted photographer John Herr, his work both precise and intuitive.  John hails from Syracuse, New York.  We met for the first time face to face at Chautauqua, and I’m delighted to present a few of his portraits here.  Notice how John not only captures the musicians in action, but also offers us a sense of the room, the stage, the audience.  Listen closely with your eyes.

John Sheridan, Bobby Gordon, Dan Block, Jon Burr, Randy Reinhart, Dan Barrett, John Von Ohlen.

Dan Barrett in full splendor.

James Dapogny, Marty Grosz, Vince Giordano, Bobby Gordon, Duke Heitger, Jon-Erik Kellso, Bob Havens.

WITH DISPATCH AND VIGOR (Thursday Night at Chautauqua)

Seven months ago, when I edged into blogging and sat down to write my first post, I was immensely pleased that I could tell people that Jazz at Chautauqua would be held, once again, in September.  It came to pass!  And last Thursday night, we heard four sets of informal, joyous jazz.  The setting was as close to ideal as anyone could want: a well-lit room full of cheerfully listening people, with the musicians set up, informally, on the same level.  No stage, no suits; buffet food and a well-stocked bar.  Outside this room in the Athenaeum Hotel was a wooden porch with comfortable chairs, from where you could see an expansive lake.  And the staff at the hotel was happily always at the ready.  (Here they resemble a barbershop quartet, although they never burst into song.)

Things began in a sly, understated way when the “faux frenchmen” took up positions at one end of the room.  They are an earnest, supple quartet of players from Cincinnati who model themselves after the Quintette of the Hot Club of France.  Yes, the quartet follows Django and Stephane in their love of beautiful melodies and hot rhythm, but they aren’t committed to reproducing cherished records note-for-note, a good thing.  After an ambling “Bye Bye Blackbird,” they eased into a sidling, slow-drag “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and romping versions of “I Saw Stars” and “Limehouse Blues.”  Jazz party promoters here and abroad should take note: they’re a fine group.

The second set made me think I had died and gone to Heaven — no, strike that — to Jimmy Ryan’s, circa 1942, for one of Milt Gabler’s Sunday afternoon jam sessions photographed by Charles Peterson.  Led by Marty Grosz, guitar, vocals, and raillery, the band included Randy Reinhart, Duke Heitger, and Bob Havens on the brass, Dan Block and Bobby Gordon on reeds, Jim Dapogny on piano, and Arnie Kinsella on drums.  Generously filling a vacancy in the rhythm section, Andy Stein, most well-known for his Venuti-inspired violin capers, strapped his baritone saxophone on and took up a chair next to the piano, providing Rollini bass lines and climbing solos.  Marty was in good spirits, happy to be surrounded by friends, and took us back to 1936 with a jolly “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” which mixed a little Bing Crosby in Marty’s hot crooning with some Condon touches.  Usually sets are assembled so that the second song is slower than the opening rouser, but Marty kicked off a fast “Them There Eyes,” again singing the sweet, silly lyrics — inspiring Duke to great early-Louis flights of passion.  The Beloved, who had never seen Duke play before, leaned over and said, “His playing is clear as a bell!”

A trotting “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” followed, and the set concluded with a song Marty explained as the band’s tribute to Connie Francis, who, he said, had recorded a “maudlin, mawkish” version of it in her heyday.  I was momentarily mystified — Connie Francis isn’t usually hailed at jazz parties — but then the band swung into a ferocious version of “Who’s Sorry Now?” that owed its heart and soul to the Blue Note Jazzmen, nothing at all to Connie.  The soloists were so fine that it would take a whole page to celebrate them, but I still marvel at how Arnie’s thundering accents drove the band, how Dapogny’s right hand evoked the glories of Stacy and Hines, his left some of the magic of James P.  And the band worked hard — on the way out after the last song, a listener got up to shake Randy Reinhart’s hand, and I heard Randy say, “Now I can relax.”

A somewhat more pastoral set followed, with the front line of the inestimable Joe Wilder (now eighty-six!) on fluegelhorn and Bob Reitmeier on clarinet, whose easy lines complemented each other beautifully, making the most familiar pieces of jazz repertory, “Lady Be Good,” “Fine and Dandy,” and a ballad medley come alive.  Wilder continues to amaze: it’s not the simple matter of his age — playing a brass instrument is difficult for anyone — but the surprises he unfurls as he plays, his dancing, leaping phrases never going in predictable ways.  And he got the highest praise: when Joe was playing, Bob Reitmeier grinned at particularly felicitous inventions.

In one of those odd turns that jazz parties and jam sessions often bring, the elder statesman of the party (and of the brass world) was followed in the closing set by two immensely talented youths — Bix-inspired fellows from Wisconsin: Andy Schumm (cornet and piano) and David Bock (trombone), 22 and 20 respectively.

They were joined by players we know well: Rossano Sportiello on piano, Pete Siers on drums, and Dan Barrett on trombone.  Jon Burr, who had packed his bass, was prevailed upon to stay (another good thing!) and the session began.  It’s one kind of pleasure when a listener hears someone fine and familiar, another entirely when someone you’ve never heard steps onstage and proceeds to shine.  Schumm reveres Bix and can easily reproduce the nuances of that style, but he isn’t playing copies of the records.  Rather, he has somehow gotten inside the Bixian thought patterns, so that what comes out, alternatively hesitant and plunging, sounds like what Bix might have played had he been allowed to live into 1939.  On the one song the band played that was outside the Beiderbecke canon, “In A Mellotone,” Schumm drew upon a nicely tailored Mainstream approach, somewhere between Hackett and Harry Edison, always a reassuring combination.  His trombone playing friend, wearing a Gennett Records t-shirt, was more energetically rough-hewn, but he was no tailgater: his solos made Dan Barrett smile and applaud.  And Barrett was in fine form: not only playing smoothly and exuberantly, but taking an unexpected vocal, plaintive and casual, on “Louise.”

As the set was nearing its end, two moments happened that seemed to echo the great Hollywood fictions about jazz players in clubs — recall the scene in THE FIVE PENNIES where Danny Kaye, playing Red Nichols, comes back from drunken embarrassment to play extravagantly glowing phrases from the back of the speakeasy — phrases so compelling that he nearly steals the spotlight from one Louis Armstrong?  While the Wisconsin Bixians were playing, a once-exhausted Jon-Erik Kellso sat down next to me, put his horn together, and joined them, from the audience, moving on to the stage, on a very fast “Somebody Stole My Gal,” then leading the troops on an affectionate “Sugar,” and closing the set with “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”  At the same time, Dan Block was standing behind the piano, assembling his clarinet, joining the band in mid-chorus.  Wonderful additions to an already gifted band!  I had yet another occasion to note Kellso’s gentle, intuitive leadership.  He never says “Do this,” but he shapes a performance by suggesting riffs, backgrounds, and solos.  He is a great soloist with an architectural sense of the jazz band as small, flexible orchestra.  It’s the kind of thing Count Basie and Ruby Braff did so splendidly, and a band with Kellso in it has a certain loose-limbed intelligent order that it wouldn’t have otherwise.  When one player is soloing, the musicians don’t lean against the wall or tell jokes.  They become a living organism, and the music soars.

I’ll write about the highlights of the next three days (and there were plenty) in future posts.

P.S.  The inexplicable title?  That’s one of Marty Grosz’s stage jokes.  “We’ll do the next tune with dispatch and vigor,” he says seriously.  Gesturing to the left and right, to two musicians standing nearby, he then says, “That’s Dispatch, and that’s Vigor.”  English music-hall or Twenties vaudeville, I don’t know, but it makes me laugh every time.