Tag Archives: Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee

THE PAST, PRESERVED: “TRIBUTE TO JIMMIE NOONE”: JOE MURANYI, MASON “COUNTRY” THOMAS, JAMES DAPOGNY, JOHNNY WILLIAMS, ROD McDONALD, HAL SMITH (Manassas Jazz Festival, Dulles, Virginia, Nov. 30, 1986)

One moral of this story, for me, is that the treasure-box exists, and wonderfully kind people are willing to allow us a peek inside.

A jazz fan / broadcaster / amateur singer and kazoo player, Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, Jr. (1923-1990), — he was an accountant by day — held jazz festivals in Manassas and other Virginia cities, beginning in 1966 and running about twenty years.  They were enthusiastic and sometimes uneven affairs, because of “Fat Cat”‘s habit, or perhaps it was a financial decision, of having the finest stars make up bands with slightly less celestial players.  Some of the musicians who performed and recorded for McRee include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, James Dapogny, Don Ewell, John Eaton, Maxine Sullivan, Bob Wilber, Pug Horton, Kenny Davern, Dick Wellstood, Bob Greene, Johnny Wiggs, Zutty Singleton, Clancy Hayes, George Brunis, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Tommy Gwaltney, Joe Muranyi, Danny Barker, Edmond Souchon, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Gordon, Marty Grosz, Hal Smith, Kerry Price . . . .

McRee also had business sense, so the proceedings were recorded, issued first on records and then on cassette.  I never got to Manassas while the Festival was happening, but I did buy many of Fat Cat’s lps (with their red and yellow label) and years later, when I met Hank O’Neal, he told me stories of recording the proceedings on Squirrel Ashcraft’s tape machine here.

My dear friend Sonny McGown, who was there, filled in some more of the story of the music you are about to see and hear.  The 1986 festival was dedicated to Jimmie Noone and these performances come from a Sunday brunch set.  “It was a very talented group and they meshed well. Mason ‘Country’ Thomas was the best clarinetist in the DC area for years; he was a big fan of Caceres. . . . Fat Cat’s wife, Barbara, often operated the single VHS video camera which in later years had the audio patched in from the sound board. As you well know, the video quality in those days was somewhat lacking but it is better to have it that way than not at all. Several years later Barbara allowed Joe Shepherd to borrow and digitize many of the videos. In his last years Fat Cat only issued audio cassettes. They were easy to produce, carry and distribute. FCJ 238 contains all of the Muranyi – Dapogny set except for “River…”. However, the videos provide a more enhanced story.”

A few years back, I stumbled across a video that Joe had put up on YouTube — I think it was Vic Dickenson singing and playing ONE HOUR late in his life, very precious to me for many reasons — and I wrote to him.  Joe proved to be the most generous of men and he still is, sending me DVDs and CD copies of Fat Cat recordings I coveted.  I am delighted to report that, at 93, he is still playing, still a delightful person who wants nothing more for his kindnesses than that the music be shared with people who love it.

Because of Joe, I can present to you the music of Jimmie Noone, performed on November 30, 1986, by Joe Muranyi, clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocal; Mason “Country” Thomas, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Rod McDonald, guitar; Johnny Williams, string bass [yes, Sidney Catlett’s teammate in the Armstrong Decca orchestra!]; Hal Smith, drums; Johnson McRee, master of ceremonies and vocalist.  The songs are IT’S TIGHT LIKE THAT (vocal, Joe); CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES (vocal, Fat Cat); MISS ANNABELLE LEE (Joe); SO SWEET; RIVER, STAY ‘WAY FROM MY DOOR; APEX BLUES; SWEET LORRAINE (Fat Cat).

Some caveats.  Those used to videocassette tapes know how quickly the visual quality diminishes on duplicates, and it is true here.  But the sound, directly from the mixing board, is bright and accurate.  YouTube, in its perplexing way, has divided this set into three oddly-measured portions, so that the first and second segments end in the middle of a song.  Perhaps I could repair this, but I’d rather be shooting and posting new videos than devoting my life to repairing imperfections.  (Also, these things give the busy YouTube dislikers and correcters something to do: I can’t take away their pleasures.)

One of the glories of this set is the way we can see and hear Jim Dapogny in peak form — not only as soloist, but as quirky wise ensemble pianist, sometimes keeping everything and everyone on track.  Joe has promised me more videos with Jim . . . what joy, I say.

Don’t you hear me talkin’ to you?  It IS tight like that:

Who’s wonderful?  Who’s marvelous?

I’ve just found joy:

I started this post with “a” moral.  The other moral comes out of my finding this DVD, which I had forgotten, in the course of tidying my apartment for the new decade.  What occurs to me now is that one should never be too eager to tidy their apartment / house / what have you, because if everything is properly organized and all the contents are known, then surprises like this can’t happen.  So there.  Bless all the people who played and play; bless those who made it possible to share this music with you.  Living and “dead,” they resonate so sweetly.

May your happiness increase!

RUEFUL AND LOVELY: “TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL”: JOHNNY WIGGS, RAYMOND BURKE, GRAHAM STEWART, DANNY BARKER, BOB GREENE, FREDDIE MOORE (Manassas Jazz Festival. December 2, 1972)

Be forewarned: the visual quality on the performance that follows is sub-standard, although you can get used to it.  This is what much-transferred forty-years-old videotape looks like, but the audio is loud and clear.

This video is a valuable document, because I don’t know of any other performance footage of cornetist Johnny Wiggs and clarinetist Raymond Burke — lyrical heroes of mine — here accompanied by Graham Stewart, trombone, Bob Greene, piano, Danny Barker, guitar, Freddie Moore, drums: Johnny Wiggs’ Bayou Stompers, introduced by Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee, sometime singer / kazooist and eternal jazz lover – festival creator.

The song is elusive — TONY, LET THE MEATBALLS ROLL — and I couldn’t find any lyrics online, but the opening phrase so neatly fits the title that I am sure JAZZ LIVES readers can (silently) invent their own narratives with the proper scansion.

I am amused by Raymond Burke’s endearing personal choreography — his body mirrors what he is playing more than is true with many players.  And his tone is so singular, sweet-tart in the manner of Ed Hall — but you wouldn’t mistake one player for the other.  A great underacknowledged poet of the clarinet.

Wiggs continues to astonish.  He saw Joe Oliver in New Orleans (I seem to remember this was 1919) and Oliver left a lasting impression.  But then Wiggs heard Bix and those wandering odes took over — haunting but always mobile.

I hear in Wiggs, who was 73 at the time of this video, a sweet, sad evocation of what Bix might have sounded like had he lived on this long.  Wiggs’ music plunges forward while looking over its shoulder in a melancholy, ruminative way.  And although Wiggs recorded early (1927) and from 1949 into the fifties, his late work fully expresses a kind of autumnal sensibility, delicate without being timid or maudlin — the sweet voice of an elder who has seen a great deal and knows that life is sadly finite but celebrates that life with his cornet.

One other thing occurs to me, with special relevance to my own video efforts, where musicians justly want the performances that will be disseminated and preserved for posterity to be as free from flaws as possible.  Anyone who watches this video to the end — and why wouldn’t you? — notices a small train wreck (with no one hurt) because the band is not clear whether to go on or stop. I find this, like Burke’s body language, quite endearing.  I’d rather have imperfect Wiggs and Burke than know that this flawed performance had been consigned to the trash.

This video — although I do not know the originator — comes to us through the loving diligence of trumpeter / archivist Joe Shepherd, Sflair on YouTube, someone who cares a great deal for and about this music.  Thank you, Joe!

May your happiness increase.