Tag Archives: Johnny Guarnieri

THRILLING TERRIBLE CHILDREN, SEDATELY WELL-BEHAVED ADULTS (IN JAZZ, OF COURSE)

Consider this very truncated list: Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Purvis, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Jabbo Smith, Sandy Williams, Cassino Simpson, Dave Tough, Tony Fruscella, Fud Livingston, Dick McDonough, Serge Chaloff, Fats Navarro, Fats Waller, Bunny Berigan.

What do they have in common?  Would you, were you a recording supervisor, hire them for a record date?  Would you hire them for your orchestra or gig?  Could you count on them to do the work asked of them?  (A hint here: as much as I revere, let’s say, Fruscella or Livingston, I wouldn’t want them driving the kids to summer camp.)

That list contains poets of the music, artistic trailblazers, instantly recognizable creators, memorable improvisers.  But it is also a list of people who didn’t show up on time or at all for the gig or has to be awakened in the middle of a song to play, people who were addicted to alcohol, food, drugs, and sex; people who had borderline personality disorder; people who stole, lied, and destroyed property; people who refused to bathe or change their clothes . . . and more.

Even if this seems blasphemous, do me the kindness to read on.

And if you proclaim that Genius must be forgiven anything because it’s Genius, I wonder how you would feel if the Genius vomited on your living room rug or stole money from you.

I suspect that most jazz fans are Apollonian (in Nietzsche’s dichotomy): they drive in the proper lane; they shower regularly; they hold jobs; they change the registration sticker on their car when the law says they must.  But, perhaps as a result, they are fascinated by the Dionysiac, the Bad Boys and Girls of Jazz, the people whose behavior is flashy, self-destructive, eccentric, illegal.

Consider this: if someone could come up with an authenticated needle used by Billie or Bird, or a piece of Bix’s mummified blue sweater, how much would those holy relics — the jazz Shroud of Turin — fetch on eBay?

Violently erratic “bad” behavior makes good copy.  How many biographies of Bix are there, as compared to his more restrained contemporaries? How many theatrical presentations “recreating” Billie are there, as opposed to the lives of other singers who drank Seven-Up?

I was motivated to write this piece because of the just-issued biography of Johnny Guarnieri, SUPERSTRIDE, beautifully written and researched by Derek Coller, depicts a good husband and father, and a craftsman, someone serious about his art even when striding joyously.

I think of others of the same general character: people who kept pocket notebooks and were thus early to gigs, who came prepared to make music, with horns that worked and a knowledge of the charts; musicians who could transpose and knew their keys; who came to the club date in appropriate, even elaborate formal wear; whose clothes were clean; who conducted themselves as professionals and whose behavior might have been placid and thus not worthy of chronicling, but who behaved as adults.

Think of Maxine Sullivan, George Duvivier, Milt Hinton, Joe Wilder, Teddi King, Eddie Barefield, Al Hall, Ed Hall, Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Bennie Morton, and Buster Bailey among others: artists who didn’t use “genius” as an excuse for childishness.  Sadly, I sense a silent snobbery among jazz fans, who look down on these mature men and women because their personal lives are uneventful.  And, aside from Hinton, Wilder, and Ed Hall, how many of the artists in the list above have been properly chronicled?   Men and women who didn’t destroy themselves and others are proper figures to contemplate and admire.  Even if they are tediously busy being professional, monogamous, and sober, their lives  have much to show us.

Obviously it’s not thrilling to write about someone who does his or her job without drama, but we should be celebrating these artists as grownups.  And grownups are hard to find in any field.

Here’s music made by several grownups: musicians, classically trained who could cut the charts and swing like mad, who appear on many record dates because they were both creative and reliable: William C. Bailey of Memphis, Tennessee, coincidentally backed by Osie Johnson, drums, and that very same Johnny Guarnieri among others:

I wonder what would happen to us, as an audience, if we chose not to fetishize childish self-destructive behavior, and instead celebrated adult behavior?

Inspiration for this post is, as it often is, thanks to Sammut of Malta, whose thoughts are always inspiring.

May your happiness increase!

“SUPERSTRIDE: JOHNNY GUARNIERI” by Derek Coller (Jazzology Press)

I know it’s not true of other art worlds (say, literature and painting) where a proliferation of deities is not only allowed but encouraged, but jazz seems to want a very small number of Stars.  Singers? Billie and Ella.  Trumpet players?  Miles and Louis.  Saxophonists?  Trane and Bird.  And so on.  This reductionist tendency makes me sigh, especially when it comes to pianists, because there are so many more to celebrate than (let us say) Fats, Monk, Tatum.  You don’t want to get me started, from Clarence Profit to Sam Nowlin to Alex Hill to Frank Melrose to Nat Jaffee, and so on up to the present day.

Someone who deserves more attention is the expert and rollicking Johnny Guarnieri, whose recording and performance career covers forty-five years, from 1939 to 1984.  When I think of Johnny, I think of irresistible swing, lightness of touch, beautifully perceptive ensemble playing, amazing technique both in and out of the stride idiom, and (perhaps not an asset) stunning mimicry of any pianist or style you’d want.  I heard him live once, at Newport in New York, and even given the hall’s terrible acoustics and amplification, he was dazzling: it was clear why Eubie Blake called Johnny the greatest pianist he had heard.

And on any Guarnieri recording — with Goodman, Lester, the Keynote aggregations, Ziggy Elman, Artie Shaw, both the big band and the Gramercy Five, Cootie Williams, Ben, Hawk, Rex Steart, Benny Morton, Louis, Lips, Bobby, Don Byas, Slam Stewart, Red Allen, Ruby Braff, Joe Venuti, Buddy Tate, Vic Dickenson, Stephane Grappelly, solos and small bands on his own — he is instantly recognizable and enlivening: he turns on the light switch in a dim room.

Yes, he sounds like Fats in the opening chorus of SHOULD I — but his comping behind the soloists is immaculate, displaying a strong terse simplicity, propelling Joe Thomas and Don Byas along.  If you have him in your band, it’s a given that the performance will swing.

Guarnieri’s life and music are documented beautifully (typically so) in a new book — an  bio-discography, SUPERSTRIDE (Jazzology Press) by the fine writer and careful researcher Derek Coller.  The compact book — around 260 pages — is full of new information, first-hand reminiscence, splendid source materials including photographs.  Best, not only is it a satisfying five-course dinner of fact and information, but it presents Guarnieri as one of those undramatic people who behaved well to others, was a professional, and didn’t demand attention to himself through narcissism or self-destructive tendencies.  He comes off as someone I regret not meeting, generous, gracious, an old-fashioned gentleman and craftsman.  (Read the story of his generosity to then unknown actor Jack Lemmon, who was himself quite a pianist; read the recollections of Johnny’s “boys,” who learned from him.)  He had one vice: he smoked a pipe; one physical problem, seriously poor eyesight, which kept him out of the military during the war.

Because Johnny led a quiet life, his biography is more brief than the record of high dramas and crises other musicians present.  Coller’s chronological overview is detailed although not overly so, and it moves very quickly for just over a hundred pages.  I remember saying to myself, “Wait!  We’re in 1947 already?”  But the speed and the lightness of the narrative — Coller is an old-fashioned plain writer who wants the light to shine on his subject, not on his linguistic capers — make it delightful and a quiet reproach to other writers whose ego is the true subject.  The book slows down a bit, a pleasant change, when we get to the longtime residency Johnny had at the Tail of the Cock in Los Angeles, but it is much more a narrative of a professional taking whatever jobs came his way rather than psychobiography or pathobiography.  I’ve left out the fascinating exploration into his family — both his father and mother and the information his daughter provides — and his interest in playing, with such elan, in 5/4.

Also . . . there are pages of musical analysis of Johnny’s style by someone who knows how the piano can be played, Dick Hyman; reminiscences and reviews by musicians and journalists; a very thorough discography and a listing of Johnny’s compositions . . . and more, including fascinating photographs and newspaper clippings.

The book is to the point, as was its subject, and in its own way, it swings along superbly.  Anyone who’s thrilled to the playful brilliance of a Guarnieri chorus will enjoy it.  And it sends us back to the recordings, a lovely side-effect.  Here’s a later solo performance, so tender:

The Jazzology website is slightly out of date, but I am sure that the book can be purchased directly from them, and it is worth the extra effort to have a copy.

May your happiness increase!

SWEET LESSONS IN MELODIC EMBELLISHMENT (1946)

I woke up yesterday morning with the melody of SHE DIDN’T SAY YES in my head — as performed in 1946 by Joe Thomas and his Orchestra for Keynote Records — and that performance insisted that I share it and write a few words in its honor.  The song comes from the 1931 Jerome Kern – Otto Harbach musical comedy THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE, and it is limited in its ambitions (words and music) but it is also irresistible.  The steplike melody is difficult to get rid of once one hears it, and the coy naughtiness of the lyric — raising the question of being “bad” when badness seems so delightful, but tossing the moral question back at the listener — combine in a kind of musical miniature cupcake.

Here is a video clip from the 1934 film version of the play — Jeanette MacDonald, looking lovely, sings SHE DIDN’T after a large clump of cinematic foolishness, including post-Code dancing, has concluded. (My contemporary perspective makes this scene slightly painful to watch, as Jeanette is bullied by the crowd into declaring a love that she seems to feel only in part.)

The song was recorded a number of times in the early Thirties (by Leo Reisman and Chick Bullock, among others) but may have surfaced again with the 1946 film biography of Kern, who had died suddenly the year before, TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY.  However, since its performance in the film by the Wilde Twins goes by quickly, I think other reasons may have led to its being chosen for this Keynote Records date.  Did Harry Lim hear something in its melody — those repeated notes that Alec Wilder deplored — or did Joe Thomas like to play it?  We’ll never know, but it is a recording both memorable and forgotten.

The band was “Joe Thomas And His Orchestra,” itself a rare occurrence.  Lim had used Joe on many sessions for Keynote (the Forties were a particular period of prominence on records for him, thankfully — where he recorded alongside Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Roy Eldridge, Don Byas, Teddy Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries).  The band was  Joe Thomas, trumpet; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Hilton Jefferson, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Hy White, guitar; Billy Taylor, Sr., string bass; Lee Abrams, drums, and it was done in New York on August 16, 1946.  I don’t know who did the backgrounds and introduction, but the recording is a small marvel of originalities.  I listen first for the soloists and their distinctive sounds and then consider the performance as an example of what one could do with texture and small orchestral touches with only an octet.

I first heard this record coming out of my radio speaker when Ed Beach did a show devoted to Joe Thomas — perhaps in 1969 — and then I got to see Joe both on the stage of Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls (with Benny Carter and Eddie Condon, consider that!) and at much closer range in 1972-74, thanks to the kindness of my dear Mike Burgevin.

I don’t want to subject this recording to chorus-by-chorus explication, but I would ask listeners to hear the individual sounds and tones these players had: Joe, Tyree, Hilton, Jerry — each man singing his own distinctively recognizable song — and the perky unflagging rhythm section, with Leighton beautifully doing Basie-Wilson-Guarnieri, and the lovely support of Billy Taylor, Sr., who had kept the Ellington band swinging.

“We had faces then!” to borrow from SUNSET BOULEVARD.

I keep coming back to the gleaming warm sound of Joe Thomas — in the first chorus, outlining the melody as if nothing in the world were more important; in the closing chorus, flavoring and shading it as only he could.  And the rest of the band.  As a friend said to me recently, “They were pros.  They really knew how to do it.”  And bless Harry Lim: without him, we would know such things happened but they would now be silent and legendary rather than tangible and glowing.

This music says YES, no hesitation.

May your happiness increase!

“MAGIC FINGERS”: JIM TURNER’S TRIBUTE TO JOHNNY GUARNIERI (Solo Art SACD 172)

Here’s a sample of the technically inspiring, elegant music that pianist-composer Johnny Guarnieri created for half a century:

and one of his many other sides — the quietly irrepressible swinger:

and then there’s the audaciously gifted stride pianist:

and his variations on and venerable pop tune:

Guarnieri could marvelously become Fats, Tatum, Teddy Wilson, James P., Basie — all at once or in lovely little interludes — but after a few bars on any recording, you knew it was Johnny, which (to me) is the summit that improvisers strive for, influences melded into a recognizable self.

He started at the top, as they say, in 1939 as a member of the Benny Goodman band and the sextet with Charlie Christian, then as the harpsichord player with Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five as well as with the band, then numberless sessions with Ziggy Elman, Cootie Williams, Slam Stewart, Sammy Weiss, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Cozy Cole, Jerry Jerome (in the early Forties, Guarnieri seemed to be the house pianist for Keynote, Savoy, and other small labels) Yank Lawson, Ben Webster, Benny Morton, Coleman Hawkins, Rex Stewart.  He’s the pianist on the V-Disc sessions that brought together Louis, Lips Page, Bobby Hackett, Billy Butterfield, Jack Teagarden, Lou McGarity,Nick Caiazza, Ernie Caceres, Herb Ellis, Al Hall, Cozy Cole, Specs Powell; more sideman work with Don Byas, Joe Thomas, Buck Clayton, Hank D’Amico, Ike Quebec, Flip Phillips, J. C. Heard, Sidney Catlett . . . . and this recital of famous associations is only up until the end of the Second World War.

Guarnieri wasn’t famous, necessarily, in the way that Teddy Wilson was, but he had the respect of the best players, singers, and record producers in the music business.  And the long list of names — did I leave out Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, June Christy, or Dick Haymes? — means that if you have a favorite jazz or swing record from this period, chances are that Johnny was the pianist on it. In the Fifties and beyond, he went for himself as a soloist or led a piano trio or quartet, for the next thirty years, although he participated in the great revival of interest in the masters of the Swing Era, and could be found alongside Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, Buddy Tate, Slam Stewart, and others.

Perhaps because of his swing and his dazzle (stride faster than the speed of light, improvising in 5/4 and other eccentric meters) Guarnieri has been admired but never approached.  That is, until Jim Turner‘s new CD, in tribute to Johnny, Jim’s mentor and friend, aptly called MAGIC FINGERS.

Jim Turner

Jim hasn’t had the benefit of Guarnieri’s visibility and name recognition, but I knew of him for years as a convincing, graceful stride and swing pianist.  And anyone who begins his recording career in duet with Knocky Parker and has played concerts with Dick Hyman has to be taken seriously.

Here’s some evidence: POET AND PEASANT OVERTURE, performed in June 1986.  The video is murky, but the music is wonderful: we could have taken Jim uptown and he would have impressed the titans.  Better, he impresses now:

and here’s Jim beautiful version of James P. Johnson’s CAPRICE RAG:

What makes his playing remarkable is not its speed, but his gorgeous marriage of accuracy and warmth, his rollicking swing.  As fast as this performance is, it never feels mechanical (beautiful dynamics!) and it never outraces its jubilant rocking motion.

One more, because I can’t resist.  You might need to increase the volume, but it will be worth it:

But to the subject at hand, MAGIC FINGERS.

A tribute to Johnny Guarnieri by another pianist might get bogged down in layers of emulation, where the second artist, let us say, might decide that Johnny’s choruses on I NEVER KNEW or EXERCISE IN SWING were so fulfilling that the only thing one could do, as if they were a Chopin etude, would be to reproduce them beautifully.  But a CD of copies would not, I think, serve Johnny’s spirit and legacy all that well, especially since Johnny was always being his singular self even while some listeners might say, “That’s a Fats phrase! That’s some Basie!” — as if they were walking the beach with a metal detector looking for identifiable treasures.  (Incidentally, the perhaps apocryphal story is that when Johnny would launch into these pitch-perfect impersonations as a sideman with Benny Goodman, the King would tell him vehemently, “STOP THAT!” and Johnny would, although perhaps not as quickly as Benny wanted.)

The brilliance of MAGIC FINGERS lies, of course, in Jim Turner’s deep understanding of Johnny’s musical selves, and in Jim’s choice to create a disc devoted to his mentor’s ingenious, restorative compositions.  Each of the originals (well-annotated by Jim in his notes) has its own life, with great variety in tempo, key, rhythms, and approach.  A number of the pieces were written with a specific individual in mind — thus a tribute that collects many tributes! — and the ear never gets tired.

At no point in my multiple playings of this disc did I feel the urge to shout at the speakers, “STOP THAT!”  Quite the opposite: from the opening notes of GLISS ME AGAIN, I settled down in comfort for a series of endearing adventures — seventeen selections, all but three by Guarnieri.  Beautifully played and beautifully recorded — the real sound of a well-maintained piano in a large room.

I admire how Turner has not only managed to reproduce the wonderful features of his inspiration’s playing — the great glide of his swing, the impish romping, the energetic and varied stride — but has made them entirely personal and rewarding.  I’ve chosen to avoid a track-by-track explication (discover these pleasures for yourselves!) except to say that the closing track, THE DAZZLER, is a duet for Turner and the singularly eloquent clarinetist Ron Hockett.

I can’t offer the usual tech-inducements of seventeen sound samples or the like, but I assure you that this disc, as they used to say, satisfies.

A closing thought.  I recently had a conversation in cyberspace with a respected musician who plays “traditional jazz,” who lamented that this music was “a language” that modern audiences would not hear and, if they did, might not understand.  Maybe his dark assessment is right, but I would use MAGIC FINGERS as a test case: anyone who purchases this disc might feel encouraged to play one of the more leisurely pieces and then a romp for someone who didn’t know this music but was open to other genres.  I’d hope that the listener would say, “That’s really pretty,” of the slower piece and “That pianist really can play!” of the more acrobatic one.  I have faith in the music and in this CD — and, if it isn’t clear by now, in Jim Turner and in Johnny Guarnieri and the gifts that each offers so generously.

May your happiness increase!

OUT OF TOWN, FOR THE BEST REASONS (July 25-29, 2017)

Last week I left my comfortable suburban burrow to travel to what turned out to be a very rewarding city:

No, JAZZ LIVES has not gone country.  Rather, I came down for a record date featuring these fellows.

Marc Caparone, cornet; Steve Pikal, string bass; Danny Coots, drums; Brian Holland, piano;  Evan Arntzen, clarinet and tenor (rear); myself (front); Derek Garten (recording engineer). Photograph by Amy Holland.

and, just because it exists, another photograph:

This session was to create a CD — their debut on disc — of the Holland-Coots Quintet, a group that had already appeared with great success at the Durango Ragtime Festival.  Here — with videos captured by Judy Muldawer — is my post about this glorious band.  I spent two happy days in the studio — a place of music, insights, deep feeling, and laughter, overseen by the masterful engineer / all-round whiz Derek Garten — as the band made magic happen, song after song.

The theme of the CD (which doesn’t yet have a title) was the music of Fats Waller, and the music associated with him.  Experienced listeners know that people have been paying tribute to Fats for more than eighty years now, which means they were doing it at the same time HE was doing it, if that logical turn isn’t too annoying.  (Think of Bob Howard and Putney Dandridge, and later Pat Flowers and Johnny Guarnieri.)

But many musicians and bands (1934 to the present!) have taken the easy way out, walking off with the most obvious superficial mannerisms: stride piano at a fast tempo, a half-dozen Waller phrases thrown in at random, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, YOUR FEETS TOO BIG, the illusion of eyebrows moving up and down in time, ad-libs that are no longer improvised, and so on.  The most studied tributes have a trumpet player who has studied Autrey, a reed player deep into Sedric, and if the budget allows, an acoustic guitarist who has done post-doctoral in Casey.

Add gestures, stir lightly, and you have a recognizable product that people who don’t know the musicians will pick up off the table, and, with luck, purchase. Microwave-Fats.

This CD is fresh, not frozen.  It captures Fats’ deep soul in all its aspects.

This quintet rejected shallow caricature in favor of music that is light-hearted but full of feeling, swinging without artifice.  For one thing, song choices that showed a deep understanding of Fats and his world.  A few volcanic explosions (MINOR DRAG, I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU), a nod to a classic Waller-Razaf standard (KEEPIN’ OUT OF MISCHIEF NOW), one to James P. Johnson (IF I COULD BE WITH YOU),  some Fats songs that don’t get played (MOPPIN’ AND BOPPIN’, THIS IS SO NICE IT MUST BE ILLEGAL, LONESOME ME, LIVER LIP JONES), several from the early, dewy Rhythm sides (WHOSE HONEY ARE YOU, I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES, I’VE GOT MY FINGERS CROSSED), and a romantic ballad — Fats was a deep romantic — composed by Russ Columbo and two people I’d not heard of, and gorgeously sung by Evan, LET’S PRETEND THAT THERE’S A MOON, which is my new favorite recording.

The music is sincere but never self-consciously so; no one is “acting” a part, but in Roswell Rudd’s words, they are playing their personalities.  I will let you know more about the CD as it comes up to the surface, ready to be bought and loved.

I can’t share the music from the CD with you: that will come in due course.  (I will be writing about the new Holland-Coots duet CD, SWINGIN’ FOR THE FENCES, soon.)  But I have something to enthrall and delight.  I’d asked Brian if he and the band would consider, when the session was over, performing something for my camera, so that I could share it with the JAZZ LIVES audience as a token of generosity (the band’s) and a hint of things to come.  It’s ragtime via the DeParis Brothers’ band, RUSSIAN RAG, and it’s a wow:

Festival producers, take note!

(The sound of the video is captured by the RODE microphone on top of my camera; the CD’s sound is light-years better, but I wanted people to hear this joyous expert outburst now.)

Blessings and gratitude to Danny, Brian, Marc, Evan, Steve, Derek, Kimberly C, Bella C, Hannah C, Amy G, Amy H, Cheryl P, Rona from Waffle House, and Miss Rose from Kroger — not only for the music but for the encompassing warmth.

May your happiness increase!

MR. CARNEY TAKES A HOLIDAY OR THREE

Regally, Harry Carney played baritone saxophone and other reeds in the Duke Ellington Orchestra from his adolescence to his death, a record of loyalty I think unmatched, even by Freddie Green with Basie.  But even he could be wooed into other people’s record sessions now and again. An early and glorious appearance is on this 1936 Teddy Wilson date, where he sounds positively limber on WHY DO I LIE TO MYSELF ABOUT YOU?

On this side, Billie Holiday sat out, or went home, but the instrumental performance of June 30, 1036, is priceless: Jonah Jones, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Teddy Wilson, Lawrence Lucie, John Kirby, Cozy Cole.

On this Edmond Hall session, Carney majestically states the melody of I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME at the blissfully romantic tempo I think is ideal for the song:

The date is from May 5, 1944.  An anecdote I cannot verify is that Hall wanted Tricky Sam Nanton to play trombone but that Nanton’s loyalty to Ellington so strong that he would not.  This record is an astonishing combination of timbres nonetheless, with Alvin “Junior” Raglin aboard as well.  And Sidney Catlett, for whom no praise is too much.

Finally (although I could offer many other examples) one of  Harry Lim’s wonderful ideas for Keynote Records — he also created a trumpet choir of Roy Eldridge, Emmett Berry, and Joe Thomas; a trombone one of Benny Morton, Vic Dickenson, Claude Jones, and Bill Harris — this extravaganza of sounds with Carney, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Tab Smith, Johnny Guarnieri, Al Lucas, Sidney Catlett, recorded on May 24, 1944.  Whether it was the tempo or the imposing members of the sax ensemble, Carney seems ever so slightly to lumber, like a massive bear trying to break into a lope, but his huge sound carries the day.  Tab Smith arranged for the date, and on this side he gives himself ample space: he sounds so much like our Michael Hashim here!

The inspiration for this blogpost — did I need a nudge to celebrate Harry Carney?– was, not surprisingly, an autographed record jacket spotted on eBay:

Wouldn’t it be so rewarding in whatever our line of work might be to be so reliable and sought-after as Harry Carney was to Ellington and everyone else?

May your happiness increase!

“SAMMY THE DRUMMER”: SOME THOUGHTS ON SAMMY WEISS

Sammy Weiss and Frank Sinatra

Drummer Sam (or “Sammy”) Weiss played in New York with many of the most prominent jazz musicians of the ’30s and early ’40s, including Louis Armstrong, Adrian Rollini, Wingy Manone, Miff Mole, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. He also worked with Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, Louis Prima, and Erskine Hawkins, among others. After moving to California in 1945, Weiss led his own successful orchestra and worked freelance. He led bands throughout the ’60s, and also worked in television; his TV work included appearances on The Jack Benny Program in 1961 and 1964. He died in 1977.

Here are Jack, Sammy, Wayne Songer, and others doing a “hilbilly” sketch:

And going back a few decades, a Weiss appearance with Gene Kardos in 1934:

Here I pause the official biography for a moment, to say that one of the most pleasant aspects of JAZZ LIVES (which I began nine years ago this year . . . no presents, please) is that people find me.  Some months back, I got a cheerful message from Jayne Weiss, Sammy’s daughter, who had noticed that I had mentioned her father in a blogpost.  In our conversation, I mentioned that her father was remarkable in making the transition from sideman to bandleader to personality, “Sammy The Drummer.”  And she said, “That was exactly who he was.  He was a personality.”

Sammy was one of the cast of characters on the Jack Benny television show: this episode is based on New Year’s Eve, 1961:

Here are some of Jayne’s thoughts.

Since my dad’s death, people are always finding things and sending them to us, so I got a hold of my cousin Brian, who does web design, and we are going to create a website for my dad, with discographies, clippings, photographs, videos. In 1971, my mother started to write a book about my father, because he had a very interesting story.  She had written to Ralph Edwards of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, but the show was being cancelled.  But I found the letter and the story she had written about him.  I have a letter from Artie Shaw and telegrams from Jack Benny.  He was with Jack Benny for twenty-five years, radio and television.

Sammy Weiss and Mickey Katz

He was from the Lower East Side, a very poor family, because his father, who was a bootlegger, had died when he was very young and he had to help support the family. He was self-taught at thirteen; he took rungs of a chair and made drumsticks, then took parts of the chair and tin plates and made a set of drums.  And he would sit at the front of the building and entertain the neighborhood.  One day a neighbor came by and asked Sammy if he would get a few friends together and play their daughter’s wedding. He was maybe fourteen, a big, tall guy.  Having no drums, he would rent a set, and he got a band together .  They paid the band three dollars, and my father decided that this was for him.  At fifteen, he started his career.  Then he started playing in the Catskills, fall and winter, dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs.  In 1933, he was playing at the Stevensville Lake Hotel, where he met my mother.  (They were married for thirty-seven years and had five children.)  

Now, my mother, who looked like Jean Harlow, was already engaged to Henny Youngman’s brother-in-law.  But when Sammy met my mother, he walked her all around the hotel, introducing her to everyone as his future wife. When she went to break up with the brother-in-law, he locked himself up in a room with a gun and threatened to kill himself.  Unlike Sammy, my mother came from money: her father was in the pants business and one of his customers was Bugsy Siegel.  Her parents were opposed to the marriage because Sammy didn’t seem as if he could support a family. Then she was in the hospital, seriously ill with peritonitis, with her father at her bedside, praying for her to get well.  She looked at him and said, “I’ll only live if I can marry Sammy.”  And she got well.

You know, he was the first drummer for Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw.  He was with Goodman at Billy Rose’s Music Hall in June of 1934. But when they went on the road, he didn’t go, because he wanted to stay home and raise a family.  

That’s why Gene Krupa showed up, and Buddy Rich, because Sammy stayed in New York.  In fact, when I was young, I went with my dad to the musicians’ union on Hollywood and Vine, I was crossing the street and Buddy Rich was crossing the street the other way, coming towards us, and the two of them stopped in the middle of the street, hugging each other, and I was standing there, going “What the heck?”

He moved to the West Coast in 1945 because my older brother got very sick, and the doctors told him that my brother couldn’t survive another winter.  Luckily, the Jack Benny Show was moving west. When he and my mother first moved out to California, their house had a room separate from the house where the musicians would jam, also because my brothers were musical.  There were always people coming and going, and they used to say that my mother cooked in army pots because there were so many.  Maurice played trumpet, drums, and piano.  My brother Allan sang and played drums.  And Jack played clarinet, saxophone, drums, and piano. And they all had bands.

I was twelve years younger, so I remember hearing about all of this, but I was little. I played piano, violin, and guitar.  My father always used to say I had perfect pitch, because he would call across the room, “Hit A,” and I would hit it.  One day they got a notice in the mail, “Come to _____ School.  Your daughter is playing first-chair violin in the orchestra.”  They didn’t even know.  I had found a violin in the garage, took it to school, and learned how to play it.

On radio, he worked on WNEW and then went on staff with WNBC. He had his own radio show called JAMMIN’ WITH SAMMY, and worked with Paul Whiteman, Kate Smith, Walter Damrosch, “Manhattan Merry-Go-Round” with Abe Lyman — also with Mark Warnow, Freddie Rich, Ray Bloch, Raymond Scott, Paul Lavalle. He could read, play piano, and all the percussion instruments.  He was on the Carnation Show, Meet Millie, Edgar Bergen, the Colgate Hour, Russ Morgan, Jack Carson, Lucky Strike, Al Jolson, Steve Allen, Burns and Allen, Victor Young, Dinah Shore.  My mother took Dinah Shore to pick out an outfit for her first audition in New York. My father accompanied Tony Martin at the Cocoanut Grove.  In 1953, he did a movie with Frank Sinatra, THE JOKER IS WILD.  He recorded with Johnny Guarneri and Slam Stewart for Savoy Records.

On the Benny Show, he was a character.  He was bald.  They actually wrote a show about me, in May 1951, “When Sammy’s Wife Has a Baby.”  The joke was that everyone went to see the baby in the hospital, and someone says, “How did you know which one was Jayne?”  “She was bald!”  Jack and Mary Benny bought me my layette when I was born.

He had his own band for private parties and conventions, dances. In November 1957 he had a month’s engagement at the Hollywood Palladium, “playing the kind of music the public has always loved.”

He was wonderful.  Definitely Mister Personality.  A wonderful father who loved his kids.  I had the best parents ever.  He was so involved.  We would have lots of people for the holidays, for Thanksgiving.  Wherever we went, if we would walk into a restaurant, “Oh, my God! Sam!”  And he was such a sport. My mother would yell at him because he would always pick up the tab. “Bring me his check.”  People knew him at the market, on the golf course.  He could golf during the day and work at night.

There’s a famous steakhouse, Monty’s in the San Fernando Valley. On my twenty-first birthday, we went there for dinner.  Over the years, I heard “Me Tarzan.  You Jane.” jokes constantly.  That night, sitting at the bar, was Johnny Weissmuller, drunk.  My father didn’t realize just how drunk Johnny was, but he said, “Look, it’s my daughter’s birthday, and her name is Jayne.  It would be such a hoot if you came over and did your shtick.”  There was an outdoor patio, and Johnny opened the doors and did the Tarzan call, then came over to the table and said, “You Jane.  Me Tarzan.”  I wanted to die, to crawl under the table.

Sammy was on every Mickey Katz album.  My mother actually sings on one. Mickey and Grace Katz were very dear friends of our family. In fact, I  have a picture of Joel Grey before his nose job, dancing with my mother at one of the bar mitzvahs!  Mickey did my father’s eulogy.  I knew Mannie Klein (his wife was nicknamed “Dopey”) and he gave me a nickname when I was about three.  They would sit me on the piano, and call me “Quackwee.”

He passed away in 1977 from pancreatic cancer.  He was only 67. My older brother also contracted that cancer and died at 75.

Many thanks to Jayne Weiss and her brother Allan for their memories and memorabilia: they’ve made their father come wholly alive once again.

May your happiness increase!